Leveraging Lecture Passwords to Humanize your Online Course

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Adult online learners are often non-traditional learners. They excel at multi-tasking, and finding small windows of divided attention learning times as they balance life demands. Attention spans are waning, and the days of fascination with talking head videos have passed. A recent research review suggests that online education videos should be no more than 12 minutes, as that is when the average student disengages (UC San Diego, 2022). 

Many colleges and universities, however, have policies that synchronous virtual classrooms meet for longer durations. The institutions may also appeal to the students’ need for timing flexibility by awarding credit from watching the recording. Such recordings often vary from thirty minutes to several hours. Students may be able to gain full attendance credit by submitting a password from the session through the learning management system designated assignment link.

If the average education video attention span is only 12 minutes, what actually facilitates more engagement than just scrolling through the transcript to find the hidden password? This quick scan-for-credit behavior quickly circumvents one of the key reasons for having the video: course humanization.

If students are circumventing engagement designed for course humanization, instructors might draw the assumption that online students don’t want connection. Evidence, however, suggests otherwise. While online learners are often time challenged, they still have a desire to understand the information and apply it to personal or career transformation (Henderson & Smith-Nash, 2007). Course content, alone, however, is seldom enough to maintain enough interest for course completion. Now, students want content personalized to their unique interests (King & Alperstein, 2015), and the emotional stakes must be high enough to maintain attention (Henderson & Smith-Nash, 2007). Students need to feel humanized, even if they are never seen or verbally heard.

Shifting from a lecture password to a lecture question presents an opportunity to bridge the gap of lost humanization due to video scanning behaviors. When it comes to humanization that drives student engagement, question content matters. Instead of selecting a password question to check basic understanding, shift to questions that gain insight into student challenges, learning obstacles, and interests. 

Initial questions can focus on evidence-based common online student challenges such as active self-directed learning strategies, course-specific study skills, understanding an instructor’s specific expectations, course-specific technology literacy, and emotional skill management when new challenges surface (King & Alperstein, 2015). These common challenges offer online instructors an amazing opportunity to facilitate emotional connection and student engagement. Once online instructors have some insight into their cohort, instructors can begin by offering solutions to the most common problems before students have a chance to ask. The solution-before-the-ask approach helps online students feel innately understood and enhances their self-efficacy. A sense of mutual understanding and growing self-efficacy sets the framework for further active student engagement.

Going beyond the common connection, online student engagement increases when students feel personal relevance (Henderson & Smith-Nash, 2007). Personalizing content for unique student needs and interests requires student input. Online instructors must deliberately build key questions into a course at just the right time to discover the needs and interests, then answer to them. The recorded lecture password question provides the ideal opportunity to translate the concept to action.

Link to Example artifact(s)

This section shares 2 real life strategy examples that humanized the online classroom, resulting in increased student engagement. The strategies include:

  1. Using lecture password questions to build student-instructor connection
  2. Using lecture password questions to build an online community

During the first synchronous session (and recording), I offered students insight on my password policy. I shared that I will not be giving passwords, instead I will ask questions that can help me learn their needs and help them build learning and professional skills on a more individual levels. One lecture password question was included at a random point in each session recording. Students entered their answer to the question asynchronously through a LMS assignment link for the week.

I have been successfully been humanizing online courses by including these 2 strategies each quarter for 5 years in both small (<30 student), and medium (30-50 student) cohorts.

Example #1: Using lecture passwords to gain valuable student insight

Why: Asking strategic questions to learn about the student provides key information from which to initiate instructor-to-student connection.

Example: My week 1-3 password prompts are:

1. What name would you like to be called by?

2. Which topic in this course are you looking forward to most? Why?

3. What is your current career? What career or career promotion are you currently seeking?

I take note of any names that are different than the name on record. When writing assignment and discussion feedback, I begin with the student’s preferred name to personalize the content.

When students share which topic they are looking forward to most, I take note of which students are interested in which topics. If they give specific examples, I incorporate their specific interests into each lecture. When students share their career interests, I fine tune my case study examples to match the cohort’s career interests.

How I know the technique engages students: Since our school does not use video services that include video data analytics, I focus more on qualitative feedback to inform actual human connection. A few weeks later, I ask “which elements of this class are most helpful for you?” Student feedback like this is common:  

Fig 1. Student feedback on how the classroom environment helps active learning engagement and career preparation.  

Example #2 Using lecture passwords to build an online community

Why: A sense of community influences participation. Communities evolve from shared values and experiences. Asking students to answer specific questions as lecture attendance verification offers valuable assets from which to build an online community.

Example: During Heart Health Month, I created a sense of community by creating an asynchronous virtual potluck in a basic science class. As verification of their lecture attendance, I asked them to enter a favorite heart healthy recipe, nutrition picture, or nutrition tip. Then I compiled all of the answers and shared the result as a course announcement.

How I know the technique engaged students: After posting the announcement, my next password question was “what recipe would you like to try from our virtual potluck?” Students responded with more than a one-word answer, as many shared their stories on how the virtual potluck inspired them to carry heart health into their homes and communities.

Fig 2. Snapshot of the students’ virtual potluck contributions

Next steps

In considering the use of password questions, see if you can find one value-added example that you could try in your own online classroom. Feel free to create your own iteration, and remember that it may take more than one try or iteration before noticing a student response.

Link to scholarly reference(s)

Elliot King, & Neil Alperstein. (2015). Best Practices in Online Program Development : Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Routledge.

Henderson, G., & Smith-Nash, S. (2007). Excellence in College Teaching and Learning : Classroom and Online Instruction. Charles C Thomas.

UC San Diego. (2022). Video length: How Long Should a Course Video Be? Blink. Retrieved from: https://blink.ucsd.edu/faculty/instruction/tech-guide/instructional-videos/best-practices/video-length.html


Butulis, M. (2023). Leveraging Lecture Passwords to Humanize your Online Course. In deNoyelles, A., Bauer, S., & Wyatt, S. (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning.