Engage & Inspire: They’re more than words on a cheesy poster

I’m an assistant professor who teaches online courses. Talking to students is a fun part of my job; really getting to know them is the best part of my job. Yesterday a student, let’s call him ‘Bob’, told me “Of all my instructors, I’ve connected with you the most…you’ve inspired me.” That statement put me on a cloud that lasted the whole day.

Sometimes I think that I’m not doing enough in this world. There are people out there working hard to help people and make things better. There are scientists working to cure cancers; there are humanitarians working to help refugees. What am I doing? I teach, I volunteer, but is it enough? I’ve thought about running for office so I can make a difference on a larger scale, but I don’t know that I’m suited to the ugliness and partisanship that accompanies a political life. So am I making difference? I worry that I’m not.

Then a student like Bob tells me that I’ve inspired them. Bob has told me that, thanks in part to my support and guidance, he has mapped out a career path that includes working in the private sector then transitioning to the political life to effect change on a large scale. He, too, wants to create positive change in the world and that brings me so much joy.

Another student, let’s call her ‘Angie’ is graduating this semester. She’s a single mom who, when she began school, was focused simply on getting a degree to further her career at the call center where she worked. Things changed for her as she connected with her instructors, as she became more engaged with her courses, her peers and faculty. Angie’s potential is truly limitless — she is crazy smart, determined and about the hardest worker you’ll ever meet. But she didn’t see that until her instructors pointed it out and provided her with course experiences that challenged her to push herself outside of her comfort zone. After graduation she plans to attend graduate school and get her PhD, and I fully expect to see her become either a Senator or a high-level, behind-the-scenes policy maker. Her intelligence and grit humble and inspire me, and I couldn’t be more proud of her. I’m so thankful I was able to play a small part in her academic career.

That’s engagement … and what a difference it makes.

As an assistant professor, I do a bit of academic research and my focus is on methods to improve student engagement in online classes. While I don’t think traditional, face-to-face classes are going away, online classes are the wave of the future. They give people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to further their education, due to work commitments, geography or both, a chance to get a degree. But dropout rates for online students are higher than for traditional students and research indicates it’s due to the impersonal nature of online. In online courses you don’t see your instructor or you classmates. Everyone is just a small photo and a post on a message board.  The purpose of my research is to identify methods to improve student engagement in online classes and create a sense of connection. Of course, the ultimate goal is to reduce dropout rates, but there is another part, too: really connecting with students and inspiring them to reach their full potential.

As cheesy and after-school special-y as it sounds, if I can do that, then I’ll know I’ve made a difference.