Enhancing Engagement in Online Courses

“The online classroom is a potentially powerful teaching and learning arena in which new practices and new relationships can make significant contributions to learning. In order to harness the power this creates in education, instructors must be trained not only to use technology but also to shift the ways in which they organize and deliver material. Making this shift can increase the potential for learners to take charge of their own learning process and facilitate the development of a sense of community among them. ” – Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K., Lessons from the Virtual Classroom

The use of active learning pedagogies in online education should include cooperative online learning, problem solving, case studies, questions/answers, allowance for formulating questions of their own, discussion, explanation, and/or debate. Good interactivity should allow students the opportunity to constantly analyze, puzzle over significance, search for explanations, and speculations.

The virtual classroom does not permit visual cues to online learner’s level of engagement, therefore, consideration of student learning styles, differing online learning designs and effective deliberate planning approaches should be considered when formulating engagement strategies, which foster active learning in an online course.


Asynchronous vs. Synchronous

Synchronous courses are those courses that have students meeting with each other and the instructor in real time in the same space. That space may be a physical classroom or a video conference tool – but the key is that learning experience for each participant is synchronized with the other participants. Most on-campus college courses are synchronous – students attend lectures at the same time and place, discuss course topics during class time, and complete assignments in class. Asynchronous courses are those that do not require students to meet in the same space at the same time. Most online courses are asynchronous – students consume the materials at different times, post to discussion boards at the different times, and complete assignments at different times.

However, both approaches have their flaws. Synchronous online courses often fail to convey the passion or emotional intensity that bring synchronous on-campus courses to life. To better student engagement in synchronous online courses, instructors should combine their lectures with an assortment of activities such as problem-solving exercises, videos, polls or surveys, Q&A, guest lectures, and debates. Asynchronous online courses often provide students with a mechanical, robotic learning experience, requiring them to complete tasks without much engagement from their classmates and instructor. To better student engagement in an asynchronous online course, instructors should explore other active learning models such as a team-based approach or collaborative approach.


Facilitating Online Learning

Have you struggled to create a vibrant online classroom where all students feel connected? Check out this recent outstanding article – written by Beth McMurtrie of The Chronicle of Higher Education – on how some professors are creating an engaging and vibrant online classroom. Below is an excerpt from the article, The New Rules of Engagement:

“Teaching in virtual classrooms requires new rules of engagement. Unless professors find alternative ways to create that sense of place, foster connections, monitor attention, and generate useful feedback, virtual learning can be reduced to a series of transactions: Do this, respond to that. That’s why, teaching experts say, students may do the bare minimum in a class: They don’t feel they’re part of something larger. Rather, they see their coursework as a collection of tasks to complete.”

Here are few tips that can help instructors facilitate an engaging online learning environment:

  • Promote Metacognitive Awareness: Since online students have more autonomy and responsibility, providing clear expectations and a clear path through the course material can help students monitor their pace throughout the semester.
  • Maintain a Social Presence: Frequently participate and communicate in online discussions and announcements.
  • Promote Collaboration: Through shared goals, explorations, and sense-making, students can achieve deeper learning. Instructors can promote collaboration by employing small group assignments, case studies, simulations, and group discussions.
  • Promote Active Learning: Strategies include, but are not limited to, brief question-and-answer sessions, discussion integrated into the lecture (if synchronous), impromptu writing assignments, hands-on activities and experiential learning events (if applicable).
  • Incorporate Multiple Media: Consider using various online content sources and media formats to motivate student learning and engagement.


Media and Technological Integration

The integration of media and technology into your course material and teaching approach can introduce and guide the main concepts, generate interest in a subject or field, reinforce complex ideas, and frame overarching themes. There are a multitude of online resources available to help instructors create and enhance course material, thereby improving student engagement. Below are a list of common resources instructors can leverage to develop dynamic, engaging learning activities:




Classroom Response Systems


 Collaborative Tools

 Copyright-Free Media

 Desktop Publishing

 Image Editing

 Instructional Videos

 Mind Mapping

 Photo Sharing


 Slide Sharing

 Social Networking




 Video Editing and Recording

 Video Hosting



Crosslin, Matt et al. (2018). Creating Online Learning Experiences. Mavs Open Press. Creative Commons License. Retrieved from https://uta.pressbooks.pub/onlinelearning/

Lesson Development with Media. (n.d.). MIT Digital Learning Toolkit. Retrieved from http://dltoolkit.mit.edu/online-course-design-guide/design/lesson-development-with-media/

Mintz, Steven. (February 13, 2020). Online Course Design. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/higher-ed-gamma/online-course-design

Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K. (2013). Lessons from the Virtual Classroom (2nd Ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, B., & Brame, C. (n.d.). Blended and Online Learning. Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blended-and-online-learning/