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Online Learner Engagement: Beyond the Basics

Friday, February 5, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Dr. Lynne Orr, William Paterson University
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CDLT Research to Practice Blog

Learner engagement is a trending topic amongst colleges and government agencies.  The NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement) responses are often viewed as predictors for student success (Fiorini, T., Liu, T., Shepard, L., & Ouimet, J.; 2014; Becker, M. R., McCaleb, K., & Baker, C., 2015), and have also become a focal point for institutional researchers.  Learner engagement, through the use of the NSSE survey is measured through students’ active involvement in academic and co-curricular involvement.  Barkley (2010) stated, “student engagement is the product of motivation and active learning” (p. 24).

You might be asking, how does online student engagement differ from traditional college student engagement?  Becker, McCaleb, and Baker (2015), mentioned students engage with the instructor, with each other and with the course content, although the primary concentration becomes focused on students and content within the online learning environment.  When discussing online learner engagement, there are three areas relating whom or what the student engages.  There are various ways to organize the types of online learner engagement.  Learner engagement viewed as: engaged with the class content; engaged with other learners; and engaged with the instructor (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011).


Basics Supporting Engagement

As an online instructor, there are university faculty expectations supporting learner engagement and faculty presence.  The following are suggested practices:  during the first week of classes, respond to all learners within 24 hours.  Checking university email on a daily basis throughout the course period also supports faculty presence.  After the first week of classes, responding in the discussion board at least four times on a weekly basis throughout the course term.  Lastly, giving students timely formative and summative evaluations within a seven-day response time.

Innovative and Energetic Activities and Practices

As we move beyond the basics, I encourage creativity and activity.  Understanding the course purpose along with interesting informative, and purposeful content will help the online learner become engaged with the course and course content.  During one of my courses, students posted their discussion board including two online resources aiding teaching ESL.  I collected all of their responses along with their evaluations of each into one document and shared with the class the cumulative summary of each student’s responses.

Next, form a community, supportive climate, while sharing commonalities, and forming connections will aid the engagement of learners with other class members.  During the second week of a course, a scavenger hunt is emailed to each student.  The student guesses which student matches the corresponding information, (for example, list the student who lives in California and has two children.)  When the student answers all correctly, I send them a certificate.  Students shared, “this is the most creative activity”; “this was great, can I steal your idea?”


Creating an instructor presence along with creating a supportive, caring and understanding environment will help the learners become engaged with the instructor.  During the third week of class, I ask the students to participate in an informal assessment.  Share a picture, which represents how you are feeling about this course.

A student wrote the following and posted the attached picture expressing how she views the course

The interaction in this class between instructor and students is more of what I have always felt online education should be. We have the technology and should use it to our advantages. I find this class very peaceful so far because frankly it is practicing what it preaches, to use an old saying.


This activity has opened the dialogue for the student to express how they are doing in the class.  Using the picture helps to relax the student, reflect on how they are feeling and engage with the instructor.  It works!


  1. Barkley, E. F., (2009). Teachers talk: Perspectives on student engagement. Retrieved from
  2. Barkley, E. F., (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  3. Becker, M. R., McCaleb, K., & Baker, C. (2015).  Handbook of Research on Innovative Technology Integration in Higher Education.  Chapter 4:  Paradigm Shift toward Student Engagement in Technology Mediated Courses. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.
  4. Conrad, R. M. & Donaldson, J. A. (2011).  Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  5. Fiorini, T., Liu, T., Shepard, L., & Ouimet, J.; (2014). Using NSSE to Understand Student Success:  A Multi-Year Analysis. Proceedings of the 10th Annual National Symposium. The University of Oklahoma, C-IDEA
  6. Kearsley, G. (2000).  Online education: Learning and teaching in cyberspace. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

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