Engaging learners in online courses

Adapted from a talk presented to The Ohio State University College of Education and Human Ecology Educational Studies Teaching Assistant group, 14 September 2015.

When considering engaging online learners, the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model provides a framework around which we can talk about student engagement. The CoI model centers on three types of presence: cognitive presence, which is the amount of cognitive engagement the online learner has with the course; teaching presence, which is the influence and perceived interaction of the instructor with the learners and the course; and social presence, which is amount of student engagement in the course. This student engagement is among students primarily, but also around the course (in a non-cognitive load capacity) and the instructor (although not during instructional interactions). These three types of presence form a community (Community of Inquiry) and build the social bonds that contribute to the overall learning. When learning is a social function, building a sense of community and social presence is the goal, and the online environment can pose some challenges to that.

When discussions happen in real life, the interaction among participants forms social bonds, and in a classroom, create the sense of belonging to that classroom community. Discussions that happen in real time, or synchronous, tend to be good for generating ideas, and the rapid development of concepts. Because they are usually verbal, these discussions have a tendency to be ephemeral, without a detailed written record to consult. When a discussion happens over different periods of time, as in an asynchronous discussion board, several things happen: 1) there is a written, detailed record of the conversation and the progression of learning; 2) there is more time afforded to participants to consider the topic and others’ responses, and to create their own contribution to the discussion; 3) this can lead to deeper exploration of topics, and can lead to deeper learning. Discussions are one way to foster student engagement in the online classroom.

When I have an online class, I contact students at several points even before the class begins; shortly after registration I email students to describe the format of the online course and offer some helpful guides to prepare for being online learners. Around two weeks before the class starts, I email students again with a similar message, reminding them the class starts soon, and informing them of Induction Week. One week before the official start of class, Induction Week, or Week 0 (Zero) begins. All of the messages I share with learners use inclusive language; our course, us, we, etc. This helps to create a sense of belonging even before the course begins.

The induction week is a time for learners to become familiar with the learning management system the course uses, to have access to the syllabus and other course policies and documents, and do some initial team-building exercises. These activities not only introduce the learners to the LMS tools, but also introduce them to each other. The idea behind the induction week is that all of the necessary tasks to prepare the learners in the virtual classroom space can take place before the official start of the class. When the course officially starts, we can get right into content, because all of the ‘housekeeping’ has already occurred.

The last piece to consider is how to perceive student engagement when you cannot see visual cues. In face-to-face classes, you can see when students are engaged or disengaged with class; they may be yawning or dozing off, paying more attention to their technology than you, or actively involved with the class discourse. In online classes, you can see this a little bit when running a synchronous session – the engaged students are asking questions, commenting among themselves, and the text chat is usually scrolling by faster than you can read it. In asynchronous classes, you have to resort to your own perception of their cognitive engagement through their writing. Once you have established their own personal writing style, you can sense levels of engagement in their writing submissions, whether for reflective journals, blogs, discussion prompts, etc. You can also refer to the logs and activity statistics for your course LMS – this data can provide valuable insight as to the level of engagement of your learners. If they are logging in nearly every day, returning to pages and spending appropriate amounts of time on resources, then that’s a pretty good indicator the student is engaged. Students that log in infrequently and only stay in long enough to download a single document, or don’t visit resource pages, are probably not very engaged. This is also an argument for course design; when content pages are simply PPT files, Word docs, or PDFs, students can just go in once and download them, making those activity statistics not as reliable. When content is built as LMS pages directly, then the viewing and activity stats are more useful. This hints more to building student engagement into your course from the initial design stages, and that’s beyond the scope of this talk.

Building strong student engagement in online courses isn’t impossible, but it does require a lot of work!


Community of Inquiry Model:

D.Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, Walter Archer, Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education, The Internet and Higher Education, Volume 2, Issues 2–3, Spring 1999, Pages 87-105, ISSN 1096-7516, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1096-7516(00)00016-6. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1096751600000166)

Stein, D. S. & Wanstreet, C. E. (2014). Guide for the new online instructor. eText. Ohio State University.

Wanstreet, C. E., & Stein, D. S. (2011). Presence over time in synchronous communities of inquiry. American Journal of Distance Education, 25(3), 162-177.


Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning: Effective strategies for moderators. Atwood Publishing, 2710 Atwood Ave., Madison, WI 53704.

Swan, K. (2001). Virtual interaction: Design factors affecting student satisfaction and perceived learning in asynchronous online courses. Distance education, 22(2), 306-331.

Swan, K. (2002). Building learning communities in online courses: The importance of interaction. Education, Communication & Information, 2(1), 23-49.