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4 ways to stimulate online learner engagement

Online learning is a highly engaging format. Most students are immediately stimulated by an asynchronous format that places them at the centre of their learning journey. The range of multimedia resources, variety of interactive platforms, and the thrill of being able to manage their time and other resources boosts curiosity and motivation. For most students the online learning experience is a freeing leap into a new way of learning.

However, as an online instructor you are no doubt aware of those students that are struggling to make the transition. Fortunately, the data sets and analysis algorithms available with most good LMSs systems will help you to immediately identify which of your students are not fully engaged and who are lagging behind in terms of their personal learning objectives.

Four ways to stimulate online learner engagement

There are a number of interventions, tips and tricks to try in these instances. I will explore four of them in this post, and look at a further four in next week’s post.

Instructor presence

Many students thrive when they are at the centre of their self-directed learning journey, yet many others may find it isolating to be suddenly dislodged from the relative comfort of “just sitting in class”. Having a guide, in the form of a teacher, provides a sense of security and confidence that many students report feeling deprived of when learning online. They may therefore lack the confidence to engage with the platform comfortably if they, in effect, feel alone.

The conundrum is: how do we recreate a physical presence in our online class, without losing the benefits of student autonomy and self-direction? There are a number of simple things to add to your course that will give students the option to have a more guided learning experience.

  • Introductory video: Say “Hi”, give your lesson or class a face by filming a short introductory video. Try including things like an overview of the course and some personal trivia about your interest in, and experience of, the topic.
  • Actual profile images: Encourage your students to load real images of themselves, as opposed to pets and avatars. This will force a sense of personal interaction on them when engaging with the course, and empower the communal aspects of the program.
  • Newsy links and emails: Set a Google alert, or set up some RSS feeds on your topic, that automate the delivery of news in the subject area, directly to your inbox. Then you can send topical, relevant asides to students as they proceed with the course, reminding them of your presence and interest. You can even personalize these tidbits based on a student's previous activity or interest.
  • Podcast: Try setting up a weekly podcast that summarizes the week’s lesson and highlights and addresses typical problem areas. Again, this creates a personable interaction that has the additional benefit of being a recap that students can listen to on their phones, and away from the computer. Try this resource to kick-start your podcasting journey.

Team Projects

While you may receive a resounding groan when setting team projects in a face-to-face class, you could find your online students are more enthusiastic. When engaged in self-driven learning for a while they are likely to welcome the chance to interact with other students. Some things to keep in mind when setting team assignments:

  • Allocate roles from the outset. Keeping in mind our post about emotional intelligence last week, use this as an opportunity to build EQ. Instructor assigned non-academic roles can help everyone in the group feel a part of the process. Consider challenging a student that has so far struggled with online learning a high-responsibility role, to kick start their process. Also consider rotating the roles, if the assignment has a long duration.
  • Ensure the group understands how the assignment will be assessed. They must clearly understand what parts are individual assessments and which grades will apply uniformly across the group.
  • Keep an eye on technology use. Make sure that everyone involved knows how the community-based technology platforms available within the LMS, such as forums, direct mail, video chat, and screen casting, work before beginning the assignment.

Peer review

Typically a feature of higher education, this is also a powerful mechanism for online engagement at K-12 stage. It encourages students to learn cooperatively, with respect for their peers, and enhances the notion that their learning is a communal activity. Seeing how other students are thinking about the same topic can be enormously beneficial to students and gives them licence to think more creatively.

Naturally, peer review at K-12 stage can also have its pitfalls, and must be carefully managed to ensure best results. Some tips and tricks include:

  • Give your students a set guideline for their feedback. Such categories could include presentation, grammar, and creativity.
  • Encourage students to start their reviews with the positive, before moving into negative aspects.
  • Peer grading should not form part of the overall grade, and students should know this from the outset. However students that take time to thoroughly and respectfully review their peers’ work could be considered for additional points or grades.

Publishing students’ work

Students that feel disengaged from the online learning process may be encouraged to engage further if you share their work with others in the course, or even publish it more widely online. This will hopefully connect a disengaged student with the wider learning community, and offer them a sense of pride, if not joy.

Again, this may be sensitive, given the personalities of certain students. The process of elevating one piece of work above another requires transparency from the outset. There are a number of popular online tools to use when sharing student work with your online class, as well as parents.


It can be challenging when students are disengaged from an online course we have spent many hours and days creating. It is helpful to see a disengaged student as an opportunity for improvement, and a chance to refine your course until it has a wide appeal across personality and learning types. By utilizing some of the tools we have discussed today I hope your online course will become more effective, useful and valuable. Check back next week for another four ways to engage the disengaged online student.