Student engagement and participation in online learning (Part 1)

Maintaining and cultivating student engagement in an online course is important to make it less challenging for students to participate.  Online learning courses have taken various forms and types – distance learning courses, massively open online courses (MOOC), open schedule online courses, fixed schedule courses, open networked learning courses, flipped courses, blended learning courses, hybrid learning courses.

High-quality student engagement and participation does not happen on its own in online learning courses. This responsibility largely lies with facilitators and students in online courses.  So, the big question for us is: How can we increase student engagement and participation in online learning courses?

I personally like using 5 key areas outlined in  the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to engage the online learner (Kuh, 2003).  the 5 key areas include: (1) academic challenge, (2) active and collaborative learning, (3) student-faculty interaction, (4) supportive campus environment, and (5) enriching educational experiences.

Listed below are some strategies that I think  instructors can adopt to increase student engagement in online courses:

Personalisation of the learning process.
Support structures that help in developing and enhancing self-directed learning skills will get learners engaged and immersed in the learning environment. Such personalisation can be achieved by encouraging articulation of their learning goals and plans; by helping them understand their learning orientations, strengths, and areas for improvement and by guiding learners as they progress through activity tracking structures.

Scaffolding for online learners.
Scaffolding refers to temporary learning structures that help learners adapt to a new learning situation. Structured online activities can be a scaffold to support and develop learners at each stage of their learning as they build up expertise in learning online (Salmon, 2013). Scaffolds can include: (a) visualisation structures to frame and conceptualize information, (b) connecting social, cultural and learning environments, (c)  providing learning resources and materials, (d) facilitating learning process through personalisation pathways, (e) providing timely feedback, and (f) stimulating meaningful discourse.

Community and collaboration.
Online learners need to feel part of a community and should be able to form a personal connection rather than being isolated. This can be easily achieved by using collaborative projects. Though it might be difficult for online learners to participate in such projects due to time differences and work commitments, it is not impossible. In a recent online course that I have been participating, we have been using various tools to hold project group meetings (Google+ communities, Hangouts, zoom, adobe connect, skype) and to work together on documents using freely available Web collaboration tools (Google Docs, OneNote, Padlets, Wikis). Blogs, wikis, twitter discussions can be good reflective tools and can easily encourage community-building.

Learning spaces.
A formal learning environment that brings together all the necessary elements of the course in one space will be useful. Informal conversation space for learners to engage with topics other than content; and a space that is specifically for administrative issues and questions and comments is also essential.

Meaningful participation.
This is a indeed a form of scaffold, but an important one. Directed, threaded discussions based on relevant questions and prompts encourage participation more than open discussion forums where anything goes.  This is necessary to enable peer-to-peer learning as well as student-instructor interaction.

Learners as facilitators.
Empower learners to take control, and allow them to facilitate a topic for a particular week. These could be done in the form of forum topics or as collaborative projects.  The forum or project will enable learners to (a) focus on course content, (b) encourage and share new ideas,  (c) stimulate further discussion through question prompts, article prompts, and (d) reflect and summarise the discussion or project.

Learners need to have a clear understanding of relevance of the course and be able to associate their learning to real-world situations. As an instructor, it may be useful to conduct pre-course surveys to find about learner’s expectations, interests, whereabouts, job roles and responsibilities, and use those information to strategically form project teams for collaborative work. To sustain motivation and interest, learning activities need to provide opportunities for exploration and creative expressions (e.g., use of new online tools and resources).

In summary, instructors need to create authentic learning tasks that encourage participation and collaboration, model participation, and foster a conducive learning environment. These strategies discussed above will open up opportunities for learners to interact with the content, share what they learn with others, explore according to their interests, and stay engaged.

Kuh, G. D. (2003) What We’re Learning About Student Engagement From NSSE: Benchmarks for Effective Educational Practices, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 35:2, 24-32, DOI: 10.1080/00091380309604090

Salmon, G. (2013). E-tivities: The key to active online learning (2nd ed.). London and New York: Routledge

This is the first in a two-part series, where this first post looks at what strategies that an instructor can use to increase student engagement in online courses. The second post will look at what can students  do to be a successful online learner. 


7 thoughts on “Student engagement and participation in online learning (Part 1)

  1. Indeed, a good learning environment evolves when there is a sense of community among the members, the work the members collaborate in are meaningful to them, and there is help and guidance readily available from the instructor, facilitator or teacher.


  2. A terrific post that encapsulates much of our discussion, and which addresses many future areas of exploration as well – as tools advance, we are more supported in developing the sense of community that enhances engagement, however as we have experienced with f2f classrooms, we can never take this for granted! A great summary, thanks for sharing!


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