While educators and learners in classroom-based courses have already discovered the benefits of using engagement as a part of education, the power of online is yet to be fully realized. – Rita-Marie Conrad, J. Ana Donaldson, 2011, Engaging the Online Learner

This could happen to your online program: Students Suing School Over Online Courses

It’s now 2016 and educators still have not discovered the power of infusing a balance of asynchronous and synchronous technologies, as well as engagement into their online classroom. Most students feel left out of the engaged learning classroom, as well as tend to withdraw from or become bored with overall mechanical feel of the online learning process. You often hear some students saying, “All we do is download homework and upload homework.” And often times, they are right. In the mix is an opportunity to engage with your instructor via email, post something on the misused discussion board, but no real room for engagement, via student-to-student or instructor-to-student is designed into the online course.

I know the above is a harsh critique of some online learning environments, but having just completed taking a degree completely online, I can now sympathize and empathize with my students when I hear their perspective. I was fortunate to only have two Professors who designed their course content for minimal engagement and very little student-learner activities. These “primarily traditional and occasional online educators,” didn’t see it as their goal to design course content that infused technology and engagement and resonated with today’s technology savvy student.

Online learning does not need to be mechanical in nature.

Engagement needs to take place in the online learning environment. No! Let me passionately add, it should be the goal of everyone occasional or dedicated online educator to have a student-centered approach to teaching that includes a balance of synchronous and asynchronous technologies that allow for engagement and mimics the face-to-face exchange that humanizes the learning experience for online learners.

Online learning does not need to be mechanical in nature. Students want more than an opportunity to initiate an email to the almost absent instructor. And higher learning needs to do a better job teaching the traditional to occasional online educator more about engaging with students, above and beyond the student initiated email. Online learning doesn’t mean sans engagement.

Instructors like myself who are passionate about student-centered learning and online engagement, understand it is not the responsibility of the student to establish the personality and the amount of engagement that goes on in the online learning environment. Just like in the traditional setting, it is the responsibility of the online educator to establish the personality and the amount of engagement that is infused into the student-centered online learning environment. The student in turn, based on their perspective, will react to the conditions of the online learning environment and engage with other students (group collaborations and discussion post) and also with their instructor (wrapping, weaving, live streamed lectures or virtual office hours).

Online instructors should make it their goal and responsibility to create opportunities for online engagement to create conditions that foster and promote student-centered learning, while also encouraging students to actively (and not mechanically) get involved in their learning process.

How do online instructors move beyond the student initiated email?

How do we get online learners to become involved in their learning (student-centered learning)? We start by infusing technologies into course content that challenge students to learn and that students find useful, while creating interactive online environments that mimic today’s informal online learning experience. When students see that a course is online, they actually expect it to be online. Instructors should not be afraid to engage with online learners. If they learn how to engage the online learner, then hiding behind the safety of the student-initiated email wouldn’t be necessary.

Instructors should incorporate engagement techniques such as brief, live streamed online lectures using Google Hangouts, Zoom, Adobe Connect to name a few. Live streamed lectures, Virtual Office Hours, or Get To Know You Session, offer the student an opportunity for face-to-face involvement with other students and the instructor. Get involved in the student discussions and demonstrate that you are listening by weaving and wrapping discussion to signal the beginning of the critical thinking process and the end of the course or assigned discussion. This engagement technique demonstrates to students that you value their perspective. All of the above engagement techniques humanize the online learning process, while also allowing the instructor to monitor the learning environment.

As online educators we can …

  • Prompt Student Engagement, via group assignments, well thought out discussion board questions, live streamed lectures and virtual office hours.
  • Encourage the Effort Made by Your Students: Use engagement techniques to not only provide, but also solicit feedback from students such as wrapping and weaving of online discussion boards, virtual office hours, self-assessment rubrics. It helps students to stay encouraged and excited about learning and engaging in an online environment.
  • Encourage Reflection through Student Self-Assessment: Self-assessment rubrics and discussion boards allow for reflective thinking of assignment content. Self-assessment aligns with the theory of student-centered learning and helps students take ownership of their involvement.
  • Lead by Example Students: As an online instructor you need to establish a highly visible and interactive virtual presence. This means going above and beyond student initiated emails. Become actively engaged in online discussions. When you are actively engaged, students develop a perception that you care about the class – this heightens attention level and deepens the conversations in online discussion boards and live streamed lectures. Plus, students still like to play follow the leader, so lead the engagement.
  • Leverage Your Subject Matter Expertise: Student-centered doesn’t mean you become passive and mechanical. Students still need some level of instruction, while also benefiting from your subject matter expertise. Share with them real world experiences and content, via discussion wrap-ups. Conduct live-streamed lectures that provide insight, clarity and perspective on assignment or course content.
  • Consider the Perspective of Your Students: During reflection ask yourself, are the instructions provided clear and concise? Is the feedback a true reflection of their progress and does it help to guide their thinking about the topic they have written about or discussed? Do the online discussion board questions encourage the student-centered learning process? As an instructor do I personalize my guidance, via wrapping and weaving, with the use of virtual office hours, live streamed lectures, or do I provide canned general comments?

Online educators should go beyond the traditional theories of teaching. For today’s online educator, there are well respected theories and frameworks in place to ensure that online educators use the latest technologies to promote learning, organize content that meets learning objectives, and encourages feedback and accountability via rubrics and engagement practices that encourage learning. As online educators we do just as much, if not equal to our traditional counterparts. And today’s online students deserve and expect just as much from their online instructor as they do from their traditional instructor.

Today’s online learner expects their online educator to be active and not passive in their roles. They want online engagement, feedback through the use of rubrics, well thought out discussion questions that challenge them to learn and share with their online peers. They want what they get on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other informal learning online communities, they want the face-to-face, human element. They want engagement. As educators we may be comparing apples to oranges, but today’s tech savvy learner, doesn’t see the difference.

Joseph Cavanaugh’s research has found that teaching a course online consumes more instructor time than teaching the identical course face-to-face (2005). The types and number of interactions with participants, the preparation required, and the extent of feedback given all contribute to the additional time needed to effectively teach online. – Cavanaugh, Joseph K. (2004). “The Time Teaching Online vs. In-Class: Comparing Apples to Oranges,” Journal of Association of University Regional Campuses of Ohio. Spring, 57-69. (R).


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Travis Isaacs.

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