1. Engaging Online Students
    1. Tips
  2. Facilitating Effective Online Discussions
  3. The Role of Presence in Online Courses

Engaging Online Students

According to Lehman & Conceição (2014), there are many factors that influence online student retention. These factors can help us determine what strategies are needed to retain students, reduce dropout rates, and help students persist and succeed in online courses or programs. The factors can be classified into two buckets: internal and external.

External factors include non-school related issues that conflict with academic life, such as financial needs or childcare arrangements. Internal factors revolve around the individual student’s needs and include (a) consistency and clarity of online programs, policies, and procedures; (b) self-esteem; (c) feeling of identity within the school; (d) social integration; and (e) ready access to support services.

Among the reasons for student disengagement are feelings of isolation, frustration and disconnection; technology disruption; student failure to make contact with faculty; inadequate contact with students by faculty; lack of student and technology support; lack of instructor participation during class discussion; lack of clarity in instructional direction or expectation; and lack of social interaction (Lehman & Conceição, 2014).

Adopting teaching strategies that differ from those you would use in a traditional classroom is a key to online student engagement. As online learning limits the opportunities for face-to-face interaction, you must develop methods that foster communication and collaboration amongst students sitting at home in front of their personal screens or devices.


Set expectations: Clearly set work requirements, learning objectives and communication expectations before class begins. Learners need to know both what is expected of them, and what they can expect from you and their learning support team, including teaching assistants and technical support. Online learning may be a new experience for the learner, and it is important that this information is clear and easily available to address questions like: How long should it take to get a response from a question? Who do I contact if I can’t upload my assignment?

Evidence: A component that affected the engagement of online learners was access to clear learning resources and the ease of administrative processes (Daniel, 2000).

Personalization: Bring yourself into the online environment by posting a picture, voice recordings or an introductory video. Create short videos to initiate each new activity. This provides a personalized introduction to the work and students will feel more engaged.

Evidence: Encourage personal interactions (Hutchins 2003).

Get feedback: Ask for students’ input on class topics and assignments through a quick anonymous survey at the end of each learning module. Course design is an iterative process; the feedback can positively inform the re-design of the module for the next semester. Students learn by example, and they will be more willing to connect with you and their peers when you make the effort to get to know them. Learn more about collecting feedback here.

Evidence: Ask for students’ input on class topics and assignments (Dennis et al. 2007).

Facilitating Effective Online Discussions

Acknowledge first responses right away. Your first goal is to create an online learning community. As with most social interactions, first impressions are very important.

Foster a warm environment. You may need to help students feel relaxed. Use students’ names. Be outgoing, positive and visible. Encourage an informal, conversational style, stimulate a bit of social chit-chat to help build relationships.

Respond to comments that have not received a response. Help move the discussion along with questions for other students to consider and ensure that all contributions are validated. Nobody likes to be left hanging.

Model how to be a productive participant. Group members look to you to set the tone, style, frequency and depth of discussion. Be the first to post and say something provocative, or ask a probing question to get the ball rolling.

Model how to give feedback. Critiques of postings should say something positive first and end with suggestions for further thought.

Be present. A strong leader is checking in and making postings at least 2-3 times each week. But try not to dominate; let the group have a voice, too.

Encourage students to respond to each other. Watch for emerging patterns in discussions and stimulate debate, offer ideas, connect different students’ ideas, and point out contrasts.

Ask probing questions:

  • How are you defining the term….?
  • What reasons/evidence is there for that point?
  • Why do you agree/disagree with that point?
  • Could you clarify your comment?
  • What alternatives are there to your idea?
  • If you were to take the other side of the argument, what evidence might you raise?
  • If you were [name an influential figure discussed in class] what might you say?

Encourage reluctant participants. Find out what the problem is (e.g. technical issues, lack of interest or lack of confidence). Praise any efforts made and show them they are not anonymous. If lack of confidence is the issue, engage in a private email exchange about the topic until they make a comment that you can encourage them to post in the discussion. This takes time and effort – feel free to involve a TA in this process.

Focus dominant participants’ energy. Recognize the outstanding contributions and enthusiasm of vocal participants. Ask them to reflect longer before posting. Assign them as mentors to less active students.

Reward quality over quantity. Tell good contributors when they’ve done a good job. Encourage contributions that further the discussion and stimulate thinking, rather than number of postings.

Summarize discussion. Weave comments together regularly, refer to specific comments, interpret main points of view, and provide a general summary to give a solid feeling of one discussion ending before the next begins.

The Role of Presence in Online Courses

Constructing presence in the online learning environment is very important to establishing a successful online community of learners. To design an online course with a sense of “being there” and “being together,” presence should be viewed from the following perspectives: social, psychological, and emotional:

  • Social perspective – Social presence pertains to how instructors and learners see each other as “real people” in the online environment. Social presence is important to online learners as it combats feelings of isolation and gives learners a feeling of community.
  • Psychological perspective – Presence is a psychological state in which the technology seems to disappear and learners feel a sense of “being together” as opposed to separated by time and location.
  • Emotional perspective – Emotional presence is the ability to show feelings in the online environment. This type of presence is achieved when learners and instructors are able to emotionally connect throughout the learning experience.

Establishing presence is important for the following three areas: the online environment, online interactions and the online learning community.

The Online Environment

Presence is naturally created in the face-to-face classroom, but instructors must make an effort to design online courses with the concept of presence in mind. Learners need to perceive something tangible, which may include the type of technology used for the course, the instructional strategies chosen by the instructor, and the role of the instructor.

Online Interactions

Online interactions and emotional connections are increasing with technological advances such as social networking tools. In order to foster presence in the online learning environment, instructors need to be aware of emerging technologies, as well as the evolving role of instructors as guides and the movement of learners to the center of the learning experience.

The Online Learning Community

The Community of Inquiry Model (Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, 2003) recognizes three elements that are essential for a successful online learning experience: cognitive, social and teaching presence.

  • Cognitive presence relates to thinking and involves the ability of learners to construct meaning through reflection and communication in the online environment.
  • Social presence involves personal and emotional connection to the group and the ability of learners to project themselves as “real people.”
  • Instructor presence represents the course facilitator, who directs cognitive and social processes, and provides regular and constructive feedback to online learners.

This section provides information condensed from chapter one, “The Role of Presence in the Online Environment”, in the book, Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching: How to “Be There” for Distance Learners, by Rosemary M. Lehman and Simone C. O. Conceicao (2010).

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