What fosters engagement online?

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from February 2019 where I discuss the role that instructors play in fostering student engagement in online classes. Enjoy!

If you’ve taught online, you may have heard of Moore’s interaction framework. First published in the American Journal of Distance Education in 1989, Michael Moore conceptualized that effective distance education is supported through the management and thoughtful cultivation of different interaction pathways. These pathways include:

  • Learner-to-learner interaction
  • Learner-to-instructor interaction
  • Learner-to-content interaction

Interestingly, despite being authored well before learning management systems and robust synchronous tools like Zoom, Skype and Collaborate Ultra, Moore’s framework is still used as conceptual and pedagogical framework to support research and online teaching.

Take an article written by Martin & Bolliger in a recent issue of the Online Learning Journal. The researchers surveyed 155 students in online courses to see which types of engagement strategies they felt were most effective at supporting the different types of interactions. After analyzing the data, the researchers report the top ten engagement strategies based on student perceptions. While you can read the full article here, I wanted to share the top five for each category.

Learner-to-learner interaction:
1. Students introduce themselves using an icebreaker discussion.
2. Students work collaboratively using online communication tools to complete case studies, projects, reports, etc.
3. Students interact with peers through student presentations (asynchronously or synchronously).
4. Students have choices in the selection of readings (articles, books) that drive discussion group formation.
5. Students peer-review classmates’ work.

Learner-to-instructor interaction:
1. The instructor sends/posts regular announcements or email reminders.
2. The instructor posts grading rubrics for all assignments.
3. The instructor creates a forum for students to contact the instructor with questions about the course.
4. The instructor posts a “due date checklist” at the end of each instructional unit.
5. The instructor refers to students by name in discussion forums.

Learner-to-content interaction:
1. Students work on realistic scenarios to apply content (e.g., case studies, reports, research papers, presentations, client projects).
2. Discussions are structured with guiding questions and/or prompts to deepen their understanding of the content.
3. Students interact with content in more than one format (e.g., text, video, audio,
interactive games, or simulations).
4. Students use optional online resources to explore topics in more depth.
5. Students research an approved topic and present their findings in a delivery method of their choice (e.g., discussions forum, chat, web conference, multimedia presentation).

Interestingly, when the researchers looked at which types of interactions the students felt were the most important, the respondents rated “learner-to-instructor interactions” as being more important than “learner-to-content” and “learner-to-learner.” In the conclusion, the authors write:

“It is important to note that engagement strategies that support interactions with instructors were valued more than strategies that aimed at interactions with learning material and other learners. Instructor presence is very important to online learners. They want to know that someone “on the other end” is paying attention. Online learners want instructors who support, listen to, and communicate with them. As some of the participants mentioned, they appreciate frequent updates from their instructors and want to have an instructor who is not only responsive but supportive. Not surprisingly, students who participated in this study expected instructors to assist them in their learning and create meaningful leaning experiences, as evidenced by their assigning relatively high ratings for items pertaining to grading rubrics, checklists, forums, and student orientations” (Martin & Bolliger, 2018, p. 219).

This quote really resonates with me. Not only because it is evidence-based but because it is highlights the significant roles we play as facilitators of students’ learning online. When I’m leading professional development for online teachers on campus, I explain that teaching online is like planning a party. Good party planners know that there’s two important facets to a successful party: preparing before the party and hosting during the party. Good hosts do tons of preparation before the party so when their guests arrive, they can focus on interacting with them. That’s how online learning works, too. Good online teaching relies on good design and good facilitation. I worry that sometimes we focus too heavily on the design elements of online learning and downplay the importance that teachers play in student success. In their surveys of online students, Martin & Bolliger clearly demonstrate how important we really are. If you’re wondering what fosters student engagement online, the answer is clear.

We do.


Martin, F., & Bolliger, D. U. (2018). Engagement Matters: Student Perceptions on the Importance of Engagement Strategies in the Online Learning Environment. Online Learning Journal, 22(1).

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