Teaching Is Not Telling: Student Engagement in Online Learning Environments

Concurrent Session 1
Streamed Session HBCU

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Describe your favorite Zoom session. Describe the best asynchronous discussion you've ever had. If these prompts seem almost nonsensical, it may be because online interactions are reflexively compared to what they are not rather than what they are. This session will recommend strategies for effective learner interaction in online environments.

Extended Abstract

The Interaction Problem in Online Learning

What is a good Zoom? Think about the best Zoom you have ever been a part of either as a host or participant. What qualities made this Zoom so effective? Describe the best asynchronous discussion you’ve ever had.

If these prompts seem almost nonsensical, it may be because Zooms (live sessions held synchronously online) and discussion boards are reflexively compared to what they are not. In our case, face-to-face classes. Evaluating online learning by comparing it to traditional classroom instruction misses the point. It centers conversation on what online learning is not rather than what online learning could be.

Before COVID-19, online learning was developed and has been refined and expanded as the result of a small, innovative educator population coupled with a flexible, technically savvy learner population. We are most likely members of either of these self-selecting populations. Online learning was predominantly voluntary. This is now longer the case. Masses of instructors and learners have moved online with no evaluative criteria to call upon when reflecting on their experiences. Absent models and experiences of effective online learning environments, many educators have struggled to replicate face-to-face environments (hence, the proliferation of Zooms). Similarly, students do not have deep experiences of online education and are bereft, yearning for the interaction and immediacy of traditional schooling.

The uncertainties around online learning have contributed to the anxiety that many of us may feel about the effectiveness of our courses. Are my students learning? Many instructors have responded by telling, operating under the assumption that the most reliable way to get information across to students is simply to tell them, a metholdolgy considered direct instruction. While direct instruction, that is a lecture-based approach, can be an effective methodology, it should not be the only one. A reliance on direct instruction in both synchronous environments (lectures) and asynchronous environments (instructor-created videos) limits the possibilities for highly interactive learning. A tension exists between the commitment to getting across the required information and the recognition of the students’ need for interactivity and connection (especially during the pandemic). An immediate response to the critique of direct instruction is that lectures can be highly interactive. “My lectures are really interesting and informative,” many instructors insist.”I put a lot of time and effort into them.” Unfortunately, the effort one puts into creating a lecture does not correlate with interactivity in the online learning environment. 

This presentation, by two instructors who have facilitated faculty development sessions twice-weekly throughout the AY20-21 academic year, emphasizes ways to incorporate interactivity into online instruction, meeting student social and emotional needs and aligning with course objectives. A definition of interactivity may be helpful in determining how effective lecture-based approaches are in encouraging regular and meaningful interaction in online learning environments. 

Four types of “classroom” Interaction have been identified. These are:

  • Instructor to Learner

  • Learner to Learner

  • Learner to Content

  • Learner to Self

Lecture-based approaches privilege instructor to learner interaction, especially in online environments. In synchronous environments, technological complexity can inhibit students from speaking extemporaneously. Often, some number of students in our live sessions may not have their cameras or microphones on. Tiling of learner windows appearing on multiple pages can also inhibit interaction as we may not be able to perceive all learners. As a result, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues are minimal or even absent. Students are also unlikely to speak to each other. In face to face settings, students often encourage each other to ask questions or share points with the larger class. Emergent, unplanned interactions in online environments are less frequent than in face to face settings. How many times has someone started to speak and everyone replies by saying “you’re muted.” Instructors can feel pressure to fill the gap left by the absence of unstructured conversation. From the instructor perspective, it's difficult to determine how the Zoom is going. Is this a good Zoom? Are students engaged? 

In asynchronous discussions, the give and take of live interactions is even further reduced. This is a result of the time delay, the lack of paralanguage and nonverbal cues and the highly-structured discussion environment. For example, in many asynchronous discussions, interactions are presented as assignments. Learners are directed to respond in a specific number of words to specified questions. Often these directives are accompanied by interaction requirements. “Respond to three classmates by Wednesday,” as an example. Instructors feel obligated to evaluate, respond to and grade student responses. This process transforms discussions into homework assignments, with a focus on response length, relevance and accuracy rather than on building consensus and exchanging ideas. 

The limits technologically-mediated environments place on instructors are felt by students as well. Students report feelings of alienation from their instructors, their peers and their learning in online environments. (https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/03/11/ensuring-online-teaching-engages-students-and-maintains-community-opinion) and a lack of teacher imemdiacy. Teacher immediacy is conceptualized as those nonverbal behaviors that reduce physical and/or psychological distance between teachers and students.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/23808985.1979.11923782. Previous research has indicated that nonverbal teacher behaviors such as smiling, vocal expressiveness, movement about the classroom, and relaxed body position are salient low‐inference variables of a process which results in a product of increased cognitive and affective learning. https://nca.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03634528809378702#.YIBT-e5KjIU

We may be speaking more in synchronous environments, but the predominance of instructor to learner interaction does not result in a remedy for the alienation we and our students may be feeling. 

Asynchronous learning environments face similar challenges of immediacy. All interaction in asynchronous environments is mediated. It all becomes a kind of content, and can create a sense of disconnection and alienation. In fact, the perception among both instructors and learners is that asynchronous environments are even more alienating than synchronous environments as all interactions are distant in both space and time. Often, instructors seek to recreate the direct instruction model in asynchronous learning environments through the use of recorded video lectures. These lectures are often the center of the learning experience. Interaction occurs mainly through text-based discussion forums. So learning becomes reduced to Information-sharing. Telling. 

Challenges of Synchronous Environments

  • Unclear expectations

  • Technology challenges (bandwidth, audio and video quality)

  • Spontaneity

  • Nonverbal communication is difficult to facilitate

  • Aphysical (lack of physicality)

Challenges of Asynchronous Environments:

  • Preference for Learner to Instructor with instructor created lecture videos. These videos

  • Transform interaction into content (learner to Instructor becomes learner to content)

  • Consume personal and institutional resources

  • Decrease in relevance

  • Rely on direct instruction

Interactivity in this Session

The session will begin with a short reflection with responses to the following prompt posted in the chat:

Describe the best Zoom you have ever been a part of either as a learner or instructor.

The facilitators will then ask three attendees to part of a fishbowl, a discussion among themselves that other participants are then rotated into and out of. We will poll the audience to determine if any attendees have ever used the fishbowl technique in their live sessions. 

We will then reflect upon the fishbowl technique as a way into discussion the problems of alienation and disconnection online environments through a lecture that covers many of the points in the previous section of this proposal. We will review other interaction techniques including fishbowl, exit tickets and effective quetioning techniques.


We will review the following instructional techniques for synchronous environments:

  • Fishbowl

  • Jigsaw

  • Question techniques (before, during and after Zoom)

  • A focus on collabroation not competiton in class discussion

And the following techniques for asynchronous environments:

  • Differentiating prompts by type (what is the difference between a test question, a homework question and a discussion question?)

  • Using video feedback for learner submissions

  • Audio and video discussion tools