Engaging the Online Learner

Students in Library studying on laptops

Student engagement is at the heart of all learning, regardless of format or medium. Engagement in online or blended environments represent new challenges, since face-to-face contact is limited or non-existent. In online or blended settings, interactions and discussions take on a critical role by supporting thoughtful, critical exploration of ideas and topics that are the focus of instruction. They also help to develop and support a sense of community or belonging that often occurs in face-to-face settings in between instructional activities or tasks.  

When teaching in a blended or flipped setting, engaging students can occur in scheduled face-to-face class sessions and online. Traditional instructional activities can be extended or expanded over longer periods of time using online tools, including threaded discussions or synchronous chats. In a totally online setting, where no face-to-face activity occurs, many instructors use asynchronous online discussions (AOD) in combination with synchronous sessions – using chat or Google hangouts – to support similar activities in a traditional classroom setting. Some research suggests that offering students opportunities to participate in synchronous chat sessions may help them develop a sense of community or presence in a fully online course.

Dixon (2014) identified three critical aspects of asynchronous online discussions – experience, creating an online community; engagement, becoming an active learner; and evaluation, clarity of use and assessment. “The burden of responsibility for communicating online discussion guidelines lies with the instructor” (p. 6). Questions to consider when planning discussion-based activities: how/where do the ideas and information to be discussed fit in the course? What skills, knowledge, and perspectives do you want students to explore and discuss? How will you make sure students meet the stated objectives? How will you evaluate or assess students’ learning through participation in discussions? (Carnegie Mellon)

The burden of responsibility for communicating online discussion guidelines lies with the instructor

Another critical element of AOD are the different roles of the instructor(s) and students. Often, instructors will take on moderator or facilitator duties to direct the discussion towards instructional goals or key concepts (Al-Shalchi, 2009; Curry & Cook, 2014). Depending on the age/grade, instructors may allow students to take on facilitator roles in an effort to help them develop and demonstrate communication, collaboration and higher order thinking skills.

Strategies for facilitating effective online discussions include giving students clear expectations for participation and facilitation, deadlines, and grading procedures; assessing the quality as well as the quantity of students’ online posts; providing a schedule for students of upcoming discussion board deadlines; providing structure and guiding questions for students’ posts; making yourself visible in the discussion – students will be more likely to engage in the discussion if they see you as being a part of it; and modeling the kinds of discussion postings you want students to engage in.

Benefits of using online discussion boards cited in the research include building community by promoting discussion on course topics, allowing time for in-depth reflection, facilitating learning, developing critical thinking and writing skills, and allowing outside experts to participate. Michael Gorman suggests that teachers focus on promoting deep discussion of subject area content, while promoting development and display of higher order thinking skills in online discussions. Teachers should model discussion, establish specific standards for postings online and provide guidelines for students.

Other advice regarding using online discussions include setting specific objectives for student participation, motivating students to participate and posting stimulating questions or prompts (Fear & Erikson-Brown, 2014). Online teachers should be careful not to hinder their students’ participation in online discussions by constantly stepping in and taking over, but scaffold student participation in the early stages and take a less overt stance later on. See the Resources below to learn more about student engagement through online discussions and synchronous chat tools.

For those interested in using synchronous chat, there are a variety of free products and websites available for this purpose. For example, TinyChat (https://tinychat.com/#category=all) provides video chat rooms for free and supports Apple and Google apps, while Google hangouts also support video and text chats. Other free products are available for chat: Skype and FaceTime provide free video chat options and an Ed Tech Wiki provides a list of available asynchronous and synchronous tools (http://etec.ctlt.ubc.ca/510wiki/Main_Page) that can be used for instruction.   


Blended learning in K-12. eBook. An overview of the concept of “blended learning” and how it relates to the integration of technologies in the K-12 environment. See Chapter 3, section 4 Types of Blended Learning/Synchronous & Asynchronous Discussions https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Blended_Learning_in_K-12

Design and teach a course: Discussions. Carnegie Mellon University.  http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/instructionalstrategies/discussions.html

Quality Matters – Assessing Effectiveness of Student Participation in Online Discussions https://www.qualitymatters.org/assessing-effectiveness-student-participation-online-discussions

INACOL – National Standards for Quality Online Teaching (October 2011). Standard C: “The online teacher knows and understands the techniques and applications of online instructional strategies, based on current research and practice (e.g., discussion,

student-directed learning, collaborative learning, lecture, project-based learning, forum, small group work)” and “The online teacher knows and understands techniques to create an environment that will engage, welcome, and reach each individual learner.”

Mastering online discussion board facilitation: Resource guide. (2009). TeacherStream, LLC.  Available online at: http://www.edutopia.org/pdfs/stw/edutopia-onlinelearning-mastering-online-discussion-board-facilitation.pdf  

Michael Gorman, Tips for Successful Online Discussions. https://www.k12blueprint.com/blog/michael-gorman/tips-successful-online-discussions


Al-Shalchi, O.N. (2009). The effectiveness and development of online discussions. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(1), 104-108. Available online at: http://jolt.merlot.org/vol5no1/al-shalchi_0309.pdf

Curry, J. H., & Cook, J. (2014). Facilitating online discussions at a manic pace: a new strategy for an old problem. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 15(3), 1+.

DeNisco, M. (2013). Preparing for online teaching: web-based assessment and communication skills in K12. District Administration, May, 38+.

Dixon, C.S. (2014). The three E’s of online discussion. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 15(1), 1-8.

Fear, W. J., & Erikson-Brown, A. (2014). Good quality discussion is necessary but not sufficient in asynchronous tuition: A brief narrative review of the literature. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 18(2), 1+.


Dr. Andrew Topper: Associate Professor for the Grand Valley State University College of Education and MACUL SIG online/blended learning (OBL) steering committee member.