American Univesity of Beirut

How do you engage students online?

​​May 30, 2021​​

In 2021, AUB’s Teaching Excellence Awards saw a new category: Innovation in Teaching with Technology. We asked awardees, Dr. Alissar Yehya (Civil and Environmental Engineering, MSFEA) and Dr. Blake Atwood​ (Media Studies, FAS), what worked as they transitioned to full online education.


1. ​What was the fundamental change you made in your approach to online teaching as opposed to in-person?

AY: The main challenge was to maintain the students’ interaction and engagement. So, I employed a student-centered knowledge construction. This requires three steps: 1) asking questions, which is the best way to be fully engaged in learning, 2) vetting sources to acquire information and sharing it, and 3) being able to express thoughts and ideas. This approach encouraged students to become my partners and assist in giving and sharing knowledge. It provided them with more confidence and a sense of belonging to the course.

BA: My online teaching philosophy was not to recreate the classroom online but rather to draw on a range of digital technologies to accomplish our courses’ objectives and learning outcomes. While my previous on-campus courses were driven by seminar-style discussions, my online classes have been built around discrete modules that require a range of synchronous and asynchronous activities—from watching introductory videos, to participating in community-building activities, to live Zoom discussions. 

2. What strategy did you develop for building a sense of community in the virtual classroom?

AY: Using the collaborative concept board application Milanote and encouraging interaction through it, similar to social media, helped create a sense of community. Students used chat boxes, comments, tags, and emojis to interact with each other and with the content. The first board I created was named “Let’s get to know each other”, where students introduced themselves and added their photos and interests. Then students created their own boards, and all were invited on virtual scientific journeys to learn, comment, engage, and ask questions. Students got the chance to showcase their work and get feedback, which motivated them to give their best and fostered valuable discussions on every topic. 

BA: I had a category of assignments called “Community Building.” Students used a digital whiteboard called Miro to engage with each other. Every unit, they had to complete one task that had nothing to do with the course content. Instead, they were aimed at fostering social relations in the class. Although the Community Building activities did not carry significant weight in the grading scheme, I was impressed with students’ commitment to them and to the class community. The underlying p​rinciple was that the academic goals of a course are not separate from the social connections that we make when we learn. 

3. Did you or your students find any advantages to online learning? 

AY: Overall, I understood that learning is a social experience and is better appreciated when done collectively i.e., being able to react, comment on the spot, and having the time to interact, which makes the learning process much easier and more fun. When we go back to campus, a lot of these tools and methods will still be used. Being partners in the knowledge construction, which was a way to increase students’ interests and motivation, turned out to be a key to boosting their academic and intellectual performance. 

BA: As an instructor, I valued the opportunity to pause and reflect on my own teaching practices, making sure that every piece in the course played an important role. The rhythm of the classroom doesn’t require the same intricate choreography as a well-designed online course, so online teaching was a chance to revamp many of my goals and assignments. Students also shared that they valued online classes because of the potential to be more accessible and inclusive, and because students can engage with material in a wider range of ways.

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