You're Teaching. Are They Engaging?

Concurrent Session 2
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Brief Abstract

You skillfully constructed a captivating online learning environment, but they’re not engaging as you intended. Despite varied content and methods, student engagement is unremarkable. Why don’t they seem to be making personal and lasting connections to the content you developed? Perhaps because they weren’t engaged in the most essential role.

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Dr. Nancy Chapko is an Instructional Design Strategist at Gateway Technical College, an adjunct instructor in Career and Technical Education at the University of Wisconsin – Stout, and a National Training Institute (NTI) professional educator for the Electrical Training Alliance. She has expertise in connecting technology and pedagogy, cultivating instructional strategies, and developing content to align with educational and occupational standards.

Extended Abstract

Track: Teaching and Learning Practice

Session Type:  Conversation

The presentation will model UDL strategies by providing multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression. Every effort will be made to ensure presentation materials and resources are accessible in an easy to retrieve format from a multitude of electronic devices and platforms.


Why aren’t students engaging as you intended in content you skillfully constructed for a captivating online learning experience?

Discussion Questions

  1. What is your institution’s definition, goal, objective for student engagement in online learning?
  2. How is online learner engagement measured in your institution?
  3. Are online learners in your institution disciples, customers, or partners?
  4. What’s your approach to successfully building the bridge between online learners and the online learning environment?


Student engagement. It’s jargon used among education professionals, but what is it, and how do teachers facilitate it successfully? Engagement is the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught (Great Schools Partnership, 2016). Student engagement occurs dynamically whenever a student and his or her unique characteristics and experiences intersect with the institution and its practices (Kahu & Nelson, 2018). It is the ongoing object of discussion, debate, critique, and research. Those who research student engagement seek the tangible representation of how and where interactions between a student and institution occur.

High levels of engagement are desirable. In fact, student engagement is frequently used as a primary indicator of teaching and learning quality (Bigatel & Edel-Malizia, 2017). This seems reasonable given the evidence that students who consistently engage with course content and their peers persist at higher levels than those who do not. Quite simply, students who engage in learning tend to be more successful (Bigatel & Edel-Malizia, 2017).

In the online learning environment, without face-to-face contact, there is heightened risk of isolation. Engagement of online learners is essential because learning online requires students to initiate the process of learning. They must use technology effectively, navigate the course site successfully, and determine how to access content readily. They decide when to engage in course work and how to interact with course peers. Motivating online students through engagement with content and engagement with their peers is vital to sustaining their interest. Models of student engagement vary around the world as well as among institutions within a given country. Student engagement is typically characterized by an institution’s approach to the manner in which student behavior is managed and instructional practices are implemented (Tanaka, 2019).

Establishing a strong sense of community is frequently cited as a requirement for student engagement in online learning (Bigatel & Edel-Malizia, 2017). Creating the bridge between learner and the learning environment is essential. It facilitates self-determination and thereby student persistence. Several factors have been discovered, through research, that support student success and persistence in the online learning environment. Among these are faculty involvement and feedback, procedural/instructional clarity, and a sense of belonging to the online learning community (Morris & Finnegan, 2008).

Why then might a teacher’s efforts to create an engaging online learning environment not result in higher levels of learner engagement? There is no single best model of student engagement. Institutions of higher learning define the concept as they wish it to apply to their learners. And, just as there is no single best model to implement, there is no single approach that will captivate every student.

How do institutions perceive their students? Are they disciples, or customers, or partners? Tanaka (2019). A post-secondary institution develops its online student engagement objectives based on the institution’s goals and its perceptions of online students. Even if institutions shared online student engagement objectives, there would likely be differences in their methods of engaging students based on their perceived relationship between student and teacher.

There is a promising practice. Given the unique qualities of every learner, student engagement is highly individualistic. Of the factors discussed by Morris and Finnegan (2008) that support student success and persistence in the online learning environment, procedural/instructional clarity and a sense of belonging to the online learning community can be guided through a commitment to online course design that is a collaborative effort between the teacher and students.

There is evidence that when students are invited to participate in course design, a deeper engagement with content and a higher level of interest with the content results (Jafar, 2016).

  • Collaborative course design fosters personal accountability through ownership of some part of course design. This could lead to a stronger personal desire to participate and succeed in the course.
  • Collaborative course design explicitly cultivates the empowerment of students. The teacher, by giving up some control, enables students to exercise autonomy and agency.
  • Collaborative course design promotes inclusion and encourages equity among students. All students are invited to contribute and given an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the online learning environment.

While the demonstrated advantages of collaborative online course design are clear, there are practical challenges to consider. How does the teacher manage the collaboration of a very large group of online learners? How does the teacher encourage students’ creativity when students may be uncomfortable with the idea? How does the teacher ensure essential content is presented? How will the concerns of students who are overwhelmed by the task and related technology be addressed?

These are worthy concerns, but they are likely surmountable. Inviting learner collaboration in the design of courses in which they will engage helps build a bridge to success between the online learner and the online learning environment.


Bigatel, P. M., & Edel-Malizia, S. (2017, December). Using the "Indicators of Engaged Learning Online" framework to evaluate online course quality. Retrieved from Association for Educational Communications & Technology website:

Great Schools Partnership. (2016, February 18). Student engagement. Retrieved from

Jafar, A. (2016). Student engagement, accountability, and empowerment: A case study of collaborative course design. Teaching Sociology, 44(3), 221-232.

Kahu, E. R. (2013). Framing student engagement in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 38(5), 758-773. https://doi:10.1080/03075079.2011.598505

Kahu, E. R., & Nelson, K. (2018). Student engagement in the educational interface: Understanding the mechanisms of student success. Higher Education Research & Development, 37(1), 58-71.

Morris, L. V., & Finnegan, C. L. (2008). Best practices in predicting and encouraging student persistence and achievement online. Journal of College Student Retention, 10(1), 55-64.

Tanaka, M. (2019). Student engagement and quality assurance in higher education: International collaborations for the enhancement of learning. New York, NY: Routledge.