fbpx Can you Increase Student Engagement? | University of Maryland Project Management

Crises forces, and also creates opportunity for, change! The COVID-19 pandemic compelled campus classes online, but many faculty simply moved their lectures to online platforms.  They did not understand that teaching online is a totally different educational paradigm! The result is that, sadly, many classes are judged as unengaging and the content difficult to learn by students.

While online education is an established and growing trend, the pandemic has changed education forever, resulting in what could become a permanent shift away from classroom instruction in favor of virtual learning platforms. However, this is only the case if classes are designed using a blended model as discussed in the September[1] article “Blended Learning Classroom Guidance.” This focuses on increasing student engagement through active learning.

“Research has demonstrated that engaging students in the learning process increases their attention and focus, motivates them to practice higher-level critical thinking skills, and promotes meaningful learning experiences. Instructors who adopt a student-centered approach to instruction increase opportunities for student engagement, which then helps everyone more successfully achieve the course’s learning objectives”. [2]

For those questioning whether the continued adoption of virtual learning platforms can deliver the same educational value to students as in-person learning, I’m sharing my thoughts about an online teaching and learning platform called Yellowdig. The University of Maryland Center for Project Management launched a beta test of Yellowdig in the fall 2020 semester, to establish whether this platform could be used to promote the creation of engaged learning communities in our online courses.

What is Yellowdig? 

Yellowdig is a virtual collaborative teaching and learning application that allows students to share relevant sources on class topics. It can be as dynamic and as engaging as the other social media platforms students use in their personal lives.

Students are incentivized by receiving points for their participation, based on the quality of their posted content. Peer interaction, both in and out of class time, is encouraged through Yellowdig’s community-building tools. The platform allows professors to track students’ engagement and participation plus share content.

Ensuring “social distance” doesn’t become “social isolation”

Research tells us that the more a student in an online classroom environment participates and engages with the course content, the professor and their fellow students, the less likely it is that they’ll drop the course. In fact, they’ll probably finish the course with a strong sense that their invested time, effort and tuition money were as worthwhile as their in-person classes.

We’ve seen that increased student engagement also means improved retention of the content covered in the course. The “gamified” point system used in Yellowdig encourages students to initiate content and comment on each other’s posts, resulting in an increased level of student engagement with the topics through worthwhile peer-to-peer interactions.

Encouraging student participation in a traditional classroom setting can be difficult enough. During a pandemic, with safety restrictions making face-to-face interaction nearly impossible, we searched for ways to evolve from class participation to class engagement in our online courses.

The drive to experiment with this was simply that we believe our online courses already have an above average degree of engagement between students and faculty. Under the circumstances due to the extended quarantine, we were looking to see if we could get better, and we thought this discussion tool might be the way to do it.

So, the goal of the beta test was to find out if we were right. Does Yellowdig actually help to achieve a higher level of learning engagement than other online platforms that are commonly used for theory and practice integration?

Survey responses

 Our Yellowdig beta testing experiment included six faculty volunteer participants; three each teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, as well as their 241 combined students, whom we surveyed for their responses to their experience with Yellowdig.

Professors were asked specifics about how they used Yellowdig in their course, and to describe the lessons they learned after using the tool during the semester. Overall, they reported having a very positive experience using Yellowdig as a teaching tool, defining “success” with the platform as follows:

Some negative comments from professors focused on the fact that on occasion, students’ posts were irrelevant to the topic, and since it was a grade-driven activity based on the frequency of participation, it was sometimes difficult to ensure the quality of the posts. This can be managed, however, by setting clear expectations and also taking away points automatically assigned by Yellowdig for student posts that are irrelevant or filler simply to gain points.

Still, five out of the six professors who volunteered to beta test this tool said that they would continue using it.

What do the students think about Yellowdig?

The 241 surveyed students also gave their feedback on their experiences learning with the tool, as well as offering other insights.

Students surveyed offered feedback about what they liked and disliked about Yellowdig, and how using the platform supported (or didn’t support) their learning. Generally, their responses were positive, as follows:

Students with less favorable feedback cited that the point quota for posts was too high, and that some posts were irrelevant, misleading, or did not provide valuable information.  Some felt that it often became too difficult to keep track and stay engaged with the content as frequently as expected, and that using the platform didn’t feel as “organic” as it had been portrayed at the beginning of the semester.

Final thoughts on Yellowdig

 Three of the six professors surveyed said that they had integrated Yellowdig into how they taught their classes, and they believed it had a direct, positive impact on student success. They all agreed that if Yellowdig’s capabilities aren’t integrated into the course paradigm, then it’s just another platform and the benefits are few.

 Our Yellowdig beta testing experiment has demonstrated that overall, the platform was a useful and enriching teaching and learning tool if the professor embraces it as part of the learning paradigm. In a virtual learning environment where promoting interaction and engagement is a real challenge, this platform can provide the “missing link” that restores the sharing and collaborative elements that were present in the in-person classroom as long as you heed the lessons learned shown above to ensure the success of the implementation.

View the full report.  

This article appeared in PM World Journal, Vol. X, Issue II, February 20201.

John Cable, Director, Project Management Center for Excellence, University of Maryland

How to cite this article: Cable, J. H. (2021). Converting to Online Teaching: A Series of short guidance articles for educators and institutions – Do You MOOC?, PM World Journal, Vol. X, Issue II, February.


[1] Cable, J. H. (2020). Converting to Online Teaching: A series of short guidance articles for educators and institutions – Blended Learning Classroom Guidance, PM World Journal, Vol. IX, Issue IX, September.

[2] University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning, see https://teaching.washington.edu/topics/engaging-students-in-learning/#:~:text=Research%20has%20demonstrated%20that%20engaging,and%20promotes%20meaningful%20learning%20experiences

Posted by Kathy Frankle on February 10, 2021