Increasing Online Student Engagement Through Peer to Peer Interaction

Concurrent Session 5
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

As enrollments in online courses grow, students are asking for more opportunities to engage with their peers. We will discuss an overview of strategies that support and program staff can employ to encourage online student engagement by fostering peer to peer interaction across all areas of program administration.


Shelby Harvey is a Lead Faculty and Student Support Administrator at Boston University’s Office of Distance Education. As a Faculty and Student Support Administrator, Shelby works with faculty and students enrolled in the online Master of Social Work, Master of Music Education, Master of Art Education, and Doctor of Musical Arts in Music Education degree programs in addition to the Fundraising Management Graduate Certificate program. She has 12 years of experience working in higher education program administration. Prior to Boston University, Shelby held positions at American University, Keuka College, and EUSA – Academic Internship Programs.

Extended Abstract

Research has shown that peer interaction influences many aspects of higher education including student attitude, performance, and retention (Bettinger, Liu, Loeb, 2016). As enrollments in distance education continue to increase (Babson Survey Research Group, 2018), providing opportunities for peer interaction in the online environment will become more important. A 2017 survey of past, present, and prospective online students found that 25% of students felt online courses would be improved by more contact and engagement with peers (Aslanian and Clinefelter, 2017). While the on-campus environment can provide natural opportunities for peer interaction, educators must intentionally consider how these opportunities can be built into an online environment.

We believe that peer engagement should be encouraged and structured throughout each student’s interaction with the institution, from administration and advising to course participation. Within our institution, we strive to create as many opportunities for students to develop a sense of community with their peers as possible. As staff, we are in a unique position to collaborate with instructors, program administrators, and with students themselves. Currently, our engagement efforts are focused on the following:

  • Creating Programmatic Opportunities: Structured coursework may provide peer engagement opportunities, but providing resources and engagement outside of individual courses can greatly contribute to a sense of community within a student cohort. We will discuss how, starting with orientation, programs can establish structured opportunities for student discussion, including student-led Q&A panels, open advising sessions, and streamed synchronous program events. We will encourage participants to capitalize on their LMS and online course tools to ensure that students have access to an updated, centralized location where they can both obtain program information and interact with peers and staff.
  • Encouraging Instructors: Unlike faculty and instructors, support staff tend to work across multiple courses each term, providing exposure to different types of assignments and projects. We will discuss how staff can combine this experience with data from course evaluations and student feedback to present evidence-based recommendations to faculty in order to expand and improve on their existing online courses.
  • Raising Student Awareness: In addition to providing opportunities for peer interaction, it is important to consider how staff can encourage students to actually engage with the existing opportunities. We will provide examples of how staff can model this behavior by using the LMS tools to engage directly with students. This method has the added benefit of encouraging students to further familiarize themselves with the software and platforms they will utilize throughout their program. Each of the methods outlined above can only be effective if students are made aware of them. We will present strategies for streamlining student communication while providing examples of alternative delivery methods such as video tutorials. By auditing program messaging, staff can provide clear and concise communication, which is paramount to student success. Additionally, guaranteeing that all communications and resources meet accessibility standards will ensure that all students are able to process and engage with the information and support with which they are provided.

By the end of the session, each attendee will have a toolkit of actionable items they can bring back to their department. Participants will be prepared to discuss ideas to implement with students, faculty, and program administrators. The presented strategies including providing students with access to synchronous learning tools, hosting student-led synchronous events, and encouraging students to personalize their LMS accounts are all methods that do not require significant staff or financial resources, but will empower students to engage in meaningful interactions with each other and with their program. Time will be provided at the end of the 45-minute session for questions and group conversation.