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).

Improving my online classes with checklists

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from March 2018 where I discuss the pedagogical benefits of adding checklists to your online class. Enjoy!

At some point in my online and face-to-face classes, I’ll ask my students to reflect on the journey so far and to provide feedback on ways that I can improve things. Since I’m almost entirely teaching online this academic year, I’m getting some real solid feedback from my students on ways that my online classes can be improved. Across all of the feedback, one suggestion stands out as the most requested improvement lately. Checklists.

From a learning science perspective, my students’ request for checklists absolutely makes sense. Checklists help students to be more metacognitive and to self-regulate their learning. Well-defined checklists can make expectations clear for students and help them monitor their progress in completing the expectations. When completing complex assignments, checklists can help students better understand the individual tasks embedded within the complexity.

Besides the direct connections to learning, checklists are also one of the ways to incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in your classes. One of the principles of UDL is “providing multiple means of action and expression.” This broad principle can be more easily understood when the supporting guidelines are considered. Checklists fall under the guideline for executive functioning and would help students “develop and act on plans to make the most out of learning” (CAST, 2018). Digger deeper into UDL, checklists help students set appropriate goals, strategically plan their work, manage course information and resources, and monitor their own progress. While checklists may seem like a simple strategy, it’s clear that they can have a huge impact on student learning.

The application of checklists to online learning environments is also pretty clear. Since so much of the instruction, interaction and assessment in an online class are mediated through technology, it’s easy for a student to miss things. A student could misread a due date or misunderstand an expectation. A checklist helps to reduce these missteps and provides supports for students to navigate the online space and do their best work.

I also think a lot about cognitive load when I create my online classes. Cognitive load is the amount of mental effort required to process information and learn something. While we talk about cognitive load as being a single entity, researchers actually identify three different types of cognitive load: germane, intrinsic, and extraneous. Germane cognitive load refers to the metal processes required to acquiring, automating and associating concepts in long-term memory. By contrast, intrinsic load describes the difficulty based on the concept being learned. Learning to add or subtract is much easier than learning differential equations. The processes have different intrinsic loads associated with them. Since we don’t typically control the cognitive difficulty of the content or the mental processes required to learn them, instructors don’t really have much control over germane or intrinsic cognitive load.

Extraneous load is a different story, though. Extraneous load describes the difficulty to learn something based on how it is presented. I’m sure we’ve all sat through lessons where our ability to concentrate was challenged. Maybe the teacher spoke with a monotone voice. Or maybe the presentation slides were so visually disorganized that they were hard to follow. Or maybe the lesson itself was poorly organized and disjointed. These examples showcase the power of extraneous load.

In a way, checklists can be considered as a way to reduce extraneous cognitive load. Checklists can clear up any disorganization and help to focus students’ attention on the critical activities they need to complete. After detailing the instructional impacts of checklists, it looks like I’m going to have to find the time to build them into my online classes.

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org

Building Rapport Online

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from August 2018 that discussed how to build rapport with online students. Enjoy!

Last week, I attended the Distance Teaching and Learning (DT&L) conference in Madison, WI. I have to admit that even though I’ve been working in online education as a teacher and a researcher for over a decade, this was the first time I’ve attended the DT&L conference. It was great. I personally enjoy going to conferences that offer a balance of research and practice. While I want to pick up instructional strategies that I can include in my online classes, I also want to learn about the growing research base for online education. With the variety of sessions and presenters at the DT&L conference, my expectations were met and exceeded.

One of the best sessions I attended was led by Christine DeCarolis from Rutgers University-Camden. In the presentation, DeCarolis discussed the research behind building student rapport and outlined specific ways that she addressed these aspects in her online classes. While I’ve focused on ways to build teacher presence in my online classes, I’ve never really thought about specific strategies that could help build rapport. DeCarolis’s presentation motivated me to do a little more digging into the concept of rapport and to consider ways to foster rapport with my online students.

In a Faculty Focus article a few years ago, Maryellen Weimer outlined five factors that build student rapport. These include:

  1. Respect. Teachers and students must show respect for each other, for the learning process, and for the institution where it is occurring.
  2. Approachability. Students have to feel comfortable coming to faculty and faculty must be willing to speak with students, after class, during office hours, via email, on campus.
  3. Open communication. Faculty must be honest. There needs to be consistency between what faculty say and what they do.
  4. Caring. Faculty must care about students; they must see and respond to them as individuals. They also need to care about learning and show that they want students to learn the material.
  5. Positive attitude. Faculty should have a sense of humor and be open to points of view other than their own. (Weimer, 2010)

So, how do we address these factors in our online classes? Here are some ideas.

  1. Record faculty introductions. Video can be a powerful way for instructors communicate with students. Beyond communicating instructional content, videos can help instructors convey a positive attitude and share their personalities.
  2. Be available. In some online classes, students can feel isolated and confused. Instructors who offer regular online office hours communicate to students that they’re approachable. In some of my online classes, I schedule individual one-on-one meetings with students so that each student has the opportunity to meet with me.
  3. Provide regular feedback. In my online classes, I work to provide timely feedback on submitted material. As I provide due dates for students so they complete work on a regular schedule, I also have to respectfully model an attention to timeliness. When students go weeks and weeks without receiving feedback, they don’t feel that instructors are respecting their work or their commitment to learning.
  4. Address students by name. When you’re providing feedback to students, use their name. This sounds like a simple strategy but it helps to build a respectful and caring environment with students.

Online Professors, Show Yourself?

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from January 2016 that discussed the research on appearing in videos. Enjoy!

Last week, while helping to coordinate an online teaching workshop for faculty on campus, a colleague asked about the importance of having an instructor appear visually in a synchronous classroom space.  We had just demonstrated our institution’s online classroom tool and one of the faculty members wondered whether it was important for students to actually see the instructors who was leading the synchronous online lesson.  My first thoughts went to Mayer’s multimedia principles.  As I’ve shared before on this blog, Mayer’s multimedia principles outline ways to successfully design and incorporate multimedia in educational settings to foster student learning.  Mayer’s image principle says that incorporating an image of a speaker in a multimedia presentation has no significant influence on students’ learning of the content being presented.  Using Mayer as guide, I explained to my colleague, one could conclude that incorporating an instructor’s face in a synchronous classroom probably wouldn’t have much impact on learning.

My colleague, however, was persistent.  While student learning may not be impacted by instructor visibility, maybe there were other areas to consider?  Maybe the instructor’s image could foster more social presence in the class?  Or maybe the instructor’s image could motivate students?  Needless to say, my colleague’s questions motivated me to do a little digging and see what I could find.

I came across some research that examined the use of video tutorials with students.  Published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, the study examined the impact of having an instructor’s face be visible in recorded lessons.  While not a direct match with my colleague’s questions, the results were pretty compelling.  In the first phase of the study, the researchers found that the vast majority of students preferred to see the instructor during the recorded lessons.  While 35% of the participants found the instructor’s image distracting, most would choose to have the teacher be visible in the lesson.

With this in mind, in the next phase of the study, the researchers examined whether having the instructor constantly visible or visible only during strategic times would have any impact on student learning.  In this phase, participants were placed in two groups (constantly visible and strategically visible) and a host of different factors were examined.  Researchers examined learning outcome, attrition, cognitive load, social presence and assessment taking.  For most of the areas, the researchers found no significant differences between the two groups.  For both groups, the participants completed similar numbers of assessments, watched the same amount of the videos and demonstrated similar levels of learning.  When looking at the social presence and cognitive load, however, the groups differed greatly.

Students who watched the instructors appearing strategically during the lessons reported higher levels of social presence than the students who saw the instructors who appeared constantly.  When the instructors appeared only at certain times during the lesson, the students reported feeling more connected to the class and developed a sense that the instructor was there to support their learning.  When the instructor was constantly visible, the students eventually began to ignore the teacher’s image completely.  Since they were ignoring the image of the instructor, the students didn’t report similar levels of belonging to the class and reported lower levels of social presence in the class.

Ignoring the instructor has some positive value, however. The students in the strategic group reported much higher levels of distractions than the students in the constant group.  While this self-reported “cognitive load” didn’t translate into lower assessment scores for students, the research suggests that this could create challenges for students who prefer to learn visually.

So, what does it all mean?  When instructors are visible in online spaces, they can help to foster more social presence with students.  While it won’t impact student learning or their participation in the class, being visible can help students feel more connected to classes.  Instructors should remember that this is a case of diminishing returns.  More instructor visibility in video lessons (or synchronous classrooms) doesn’t necessarily lead to more social presence.  Much like many things in life, a little can go a long way.


Kizilcec, R. F., Bailenson, J. N., & Gomez, C. J. (2015). The instructor’s face in video instruction: Evidence from two large-scale field studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 724–739.

Going Synchronous

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from November 2017 that outlines some of the basics about synchronous learning. Enjoy!

On our campus recently, there has been a lot of discussion about synchronous interactions online. Some of our general education classes require that students engage in oral interactions where they are placed in active speaking and listening roles with an audience of their peers.  In face-to-face classes, this is usually accomplished through presentations, debates or oral exams. But what do these oral interactions look like in an online class, especially when curricular policies require that interactions be reciprocal? The conversation has led to promoting more synchronous modes of interactions in our online classes. Since some online teachers have more experience with asynchronous interactions then synchronous ones, I thought I’d offer some advice for people venturing into the synchronous world.

  1. Recognize the strengths. Asynchronous and synchronous online interactions are different but it’s important to remember than neither is better than the other. Hrastinski (2008) writes that synchronous online interactions afford more personal participation through “increased arousal, motivation and convergence on meaning” while asynchronous interactions support more cognitive participation through “increased reflection and ability to process information” (p. 54). Used together, they can provide a more comprehensive online experience for students where cognitive and personal aspects are supported.
  2. Don’t get hung up on tools. There are a lot of synchronous tools to use. Adobe Connect. Blackboard Collaborate. Zoom. Google Hangouts. Skype. Each of the tools has their limitations but are becoming increasingly easier to use. Rather than focus on the tool, think about how you plan to engage the students and what features can support your teaching style. For instance, I’m a big fan of using breakout rooms in my synchronous lessons mainly because it’s a teaching strategy I would use in my face-to-face classes, too. As I support teachers who move online, I work with them to consider how they can design their online classes to reflect their teaching style. Most synchronous tools have enough features to support a wide variety of teaching styles.
  3. Examine your learning objectives. Before you jump into a synchronous environment, think about what you want students to learn from the interaction. Whether you want students to debate an issue or give a formal presentation on a topic, you’ll need to figure out the pedagogical and technological supports to scaffold students to your goals. For example, I’ve recorded short online tutorials for students when I’ve wanted them to lead their own synchronous discussion with their peers.
  4. Provide clear expectations. Since many students may have different experiences in online environments, it’s important that you outline your expectations for students. You should detail what types of interaction you’re expecting and what aspects will be graded and how. You should also spell out the norms of interaction and your classroom “netiquette.”
  5. Consider the artifacts of learning! I have a colleague who says, “learning leaves a trail.” Regardless of whether it’s the written notes from a lecture or the poster paper stuck to classroom walls, the process of learning usually leaves behind some product. In online spaces, the “trail” includes asynchronous discussion forums or the recordings from a synchronous lesson. These artifacts are great for assessing the interactions and can also provide exemplars for future classes.
  6. Put the students in charge. I think some instructors’ resistance with synchronous learning involves scheduling sessions with online students. While there are certainly greater time constraints involved with synchronous interactions than asynchronous ones, they’re not insurmountable. In some activities, I’ve asked students to schedule their own sessions with classmates. Setting up a discussion board where people can share times they’re available or using a site like SignUpGenius or Doodle can help make the process run more smoothly. You can even let them choose the synchronous tools with which they’re most comfortable and just require that they submit some recording of their interaction.

Hrastinski, S. (2008). Asynchronous and synchronous e-learning. Educause quarterly, 31(4), 51-55

It’s a Wonderful Life

This has been a crazy week! Considering the state of closures due to the coronavirus, it’s likely to get crazier before things return to any semblance of normalcy. As I’ve navigated the week, I’ve been thinking a lot about George Bailey and how he saved the town of Bedford Falls in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. If you’re not familiar with this classic holiday movie, here’s the gist.

George Bailey reluctantly runs the town’s Building and Loan association. As he’s preparing to leave for his honeymoon, the Great Depression hits and the Building and Loan’s financial stability is challenged. Rather than leave town, George Bailey stays behind and supports the community members by distributing his honeymoon money to them.

It’s one of my favorite scenes of the movie. It shows how calm, principled leadership can guide a ship in times of trouble. As I’ve reflected on this week, however, I’ve started to see how the other characters from the movie acted in that moment and how those actions are also on display in the crisis we’re facing today. Let me explain.

If George Bailey is an example of calm, principled leadership, Mr. Potter exemplifies the calm predator looking to personally benefit from the chaos. As the banking crisis occurs, Mr. Potter sees it as his chance to take over the Building and Loan and much of the businesses in Bedford Falls. George Bailey captures Mr. Potter’s predatory nature in an impassioned speech to the townspeople.

“Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicky and he’s not. That’s why. He’s pickin’ up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve, we’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”

Look around. Sadly, I see more than a few Mr. Potters lurking around, hoping to personally or professionally benefit from this crisis. Maybe they rationalize it and think they’re helping out in some way. But they’re really only helping themselves.

But Mr. Potter isn’t the only example I want to highlight. Take Tom. Tom sees the crisis and can only consider his own needs and motivations. When George Bailey asks him how much money he would need to get by, Tom asks to withdraw his entire account, $248. When George presses Tom to ask him how much he would need to “just tide him over,” Tom doesn’t budge. He is unwilling to negotiate his beliefs, compromise his expectations, or consider how others may be experiencing the crisis. Seeing Tom’s obstinance, George hands Tom $248.

I’m sure you see a few Toms floating around you right now. This crisis is pushing all of us and challenging our expectations and beliefs. Like Tom, some people are digging in their heels and are unwilling to make any compromise. They want their $248.

While some are digging in their heels, others are rolling up their sleeves. They realize that this crisis may mean making some compromises on behalf of our students but they’re looking at the whole community and the bigger picture. Which brings me to Mrs. Davis. Mrs. Davis is a minor character in the film but she captures a reaction that I also see around me. When George Bailey asks Mrs. Davis how much she needs, she quietly asks, “Could I have $17.50?”

We don’t know a lot about Mrs. Davis from the film, but this scene captures her willingness to make sacrifices for the betterment of the community. Looking around, I see quite a few people who are acting like Mrs. Davis, too.

I know these are challenging times for all of us. But as we see the George Baileys, Mr. Potters, Mrs. Davis and Toms around us, I’m reminded of a great song by the band Foster the People. The chorus goes like this:

“Will all these things I wait for revelation
These things make me want to duck for cover
With all these things I wait for revolution
These things ask the biggest question to me
And it’s are you what you want to be
So are you what you want to be?”

George Bailey? Mr. Potter? Tom? Or Mrs. Davis?

In this time of crisis, are you what you want to be?

Resources for Disruptions

This week has been really stressful for the staff, faculty and administration at many institutions of higher education. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many colleges and universities are choosing to suspend face-to-face classes and abruptly switch to remote delivery. While this has been a chaotic week (to say the least), one of the really pleasant outcomes has been the wealth of information and resources that are being shared online. With my role on campus, I’ve been sharing a lot of these resources through email but I figured some of you avid 8 Blog readers might want access to that stuff, too. So, here’s a rare second post for the week.

Making the Online Transition Abruptly
Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start
This is a really accessible starting point published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. While it doesn’t get into the technical details of going online like Teaching Effectively During Times of Disruption, it does provide step-by-step instructions for moving online.

An Emergency Guide (of sorts) to Getting This Week’s Class Online in About an Hour (or so)
This is kind of lengthy post from the Edugeek Journal, but it covers a lot of territory. From finding and creating content to fostering engagement to planning for accessibility, this is a great primer for folks who may be stressed about where to begin.

You Have To Put Your Class Online: Simple Things to Think About
This is collaborative Google Document created by a whole host of different online instructors. The advice is straight-forward and supportive, which is what a lot of our colleagues need right now.

So You Want to Temporarily Teach Online
Published on the Inside Higher Education website, this resource offers some basic starting points to consider. I really appreciate that it focuses on instructor’s and students’ needs as guiding principles. In this chaotic time, I think it’s more important than ever to Lead with Empathy.

Are You Ready to be an Online or Remote Learning Facilitator?
This is a short list of considerations that faculty who are transitioning to online or remote delivery need to consider. The page is a creation of Dr. Bob DuBois, Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Keep Teaching During Prolonged Campus or Building Closures
Developed at Indiana University, this site is a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic. The site breaks supports into three categories: Getting started, Strategies and Resources. All three will get your creative juices flowing.

Remote Teaching Resources for Business Continuity
This is the motherlode of resources. Curated by Daniel Stanford, the director of faculty development and technology innovation at the DePaul University Center for Teaching and Learning, the Google Document houses links to resources from all of the colleges and universities who have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Please do a bad job of putting your courses online
This is from a blog by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, a sociology professor at Arkansas State University. While I don’t agree with all of her sentiments, I think her attention to student well-being is critical during this time of need.

Moving your Science Lab Online
As I was sharing resources to faculty, some science colleagues asked whether I had any advice for moving their labs online. If you’re in that position, definitely check out the following links:

POD Network List of Remote Labs
MERLOT Virtual Labs
Exploring Virtual Science Labs
Making Science Labs Available to Online Students
13 Must Have Virtual Lab Apps
Journal of Visualized Experiments Archive

Remember that you’re probably not going to find something that provides the exact same experience that a face-to-face lab experience does. That’s not the goal. Instead, try to find something that meets your learning objectives and provides as rich of a learning experience as possible considering the constraints of an unexpected need to remote teaching.

Premium Stuff for Free
A bunch of companies are responding to the disruption by offering their premium services for free.

In response to COVID-19 closures, Kahoot! is offering free access to all features to support distance learning in schools affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Education institutions can get free access to Kahoot! Premium to empower distance and online learning and engage students anywhere, anytime.

For those institutions transitioning to remote learning, TechSmith is providing their help by offering free access and expanded usage of tools that help enable educational continuity. Definitely check out their SnagIt and Video Review tools.

High-quality Sites and Apps That Are Supporting School Closures With Free Resources
Again, I’m just so impressed by the people who are working to support their colleagues and the educational community during this disruption. Padlet user Krisinzf created the Padlet to keep track of all of the free resources that companies are offering to navigate school closures. Lots of great stuff there.

I’ll try to update this page as I come across new stuff.