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From Lurking to Learning: 5 Keys to Student Engagement Online

As someone who relies (maybe too much) on charisma, improvisation and high-levels of student engagement...this probably will be painful.

I and my colleagues are developing a new online graduate certificate in Business Sustainability Strategy (launching Spring 2019). Having never taught online before, I am working closely with Smeal's excellent eLDIG office, our instructional design team.

My teaching philosophy is that knowledge is made not received. I am told this is in the constructivist camp of learning theory (see graphic). Whatever we call it, I expect a real challenge ahead for myself. I rely heavily on student feedback and nonverbal cues and rapport. I prefer and believe in personal interaction.

I am interested in business models that create a better world. So part of what we look for are outcomes that improve the quality of life of marginalized people through improved access to, for example, education and healthcare. So I am compelled by the potential to increase access to education and close achievement gaps provided by online education. Unfortunately, this may not be what is least not yet. Research suggests online education does not necessarily close achievement gaps and could make them worse:

"If technologies can draw in otherwise disenfranchised students through the personalization of material to a student’s interest or through gaming technology, they can benefit poor students and reduce achievement gaps. Alternatively, however, if the technologies increase reliance on students’ internal motivation or require the oversight of adults, they may exacerbate achievement gaps." (Jacob et al, 2016)

The paper has some good tips which I won't go into hear. Bottom line is that we can do online education in a way that serves the "bottom of the pyramid." And the base of the pyramid is a quickly growing market.

In 2017, the global market for online education reached an $255 billion and continues to expand rapidly (World Economic Forum).

"Last year $172 milion was made off of just online coding bootcamps... that’s just one segment of the online education market that made $172 million. It’s a boom time for teachers right now." (

So I am jumping in. I have ordered a couple books and found some good tips to share with the TBL community.

What Works - Tips from Instructors (WVU)

We have collected the following tips from discussions and interactions with instructors who teach online:

  • peer review of work provides authentic audience and valuable feedback

  • assigned discussion questions focuses the discussion and requires student participation

  • frequent quizzes and short answer essays keeps students engaged and reduces procrastination

  • success is in the details (provide lots of directions and be very explicit)

  • student partners (allow students to guide direction of some course elements)

  • control pace (close units after allotted time, make quizzes available/unavailable, require completion of one unit before going on to the next, etc.)

Five Tips to Engage Students

Richard Rose is associate professor, director of instructional design and technology at West Texas A&M University.

Forget Constant Validation

"These students are socialized to think of computer technology as a reliable appliance, like a refrigerator. Online teachers must work hard to humanize their approach and not be turned into a robotic extension of such an appliance by their students."

Know Thy Students

Find ways to get to know your students and for them to get to know you and one another. Balance this with the reality of online education being a busy, time-starved person looking to efficiently learn, grow and don't waste their time with digitized campy games or "get to know you" exercises.

Lose Control

"For better or worse, fully online instruction can never provide the level of control they crave. To a great extent, online education operates on the honor system. You never know who is really doing the work on the other end of the wire."

Collaboration Resistance

"The dominant educational approach of the last several decades has been constructivism, which puts a high value on collaboration. Many teachers new to online see its vast potential as a vehicle for group work, but my graduate students loathe it. They want to do their own assignments in their own way and don't appreciate collective responsibility for anyone else's limitations."

Forget Improv

"Quality classroom teachers succeed by absorbing oral and visual feedback from each class session as it unfolds, and making moment-to-moment adjustments in teachers don't have the luxury of making real-time modifications to their instructional strategies. Their teaching must be accurate, complete, and spot-on right out of the chute."


In Closing...Four Additional Tips

1. Require Participation -- Don't Let It Be Optional. Set aside a portion of the grade allocation for participation in the on-line discussions. Tell the students that they must post x-number of items each week or for each topic.


A common denominator for all students is the passive conditioning they have been exposed to by years of television and traditional classroom teaching. Both television and the lecture method of teaching put students in a passive, "entertain me" mode.

- W. R. (Bill) Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D.Professor, Texas A&M University


2. Form Learning Teams. "The advantages of so-called cooperative or collaborative learning are abundantly documented. The advantages for promoting on-line interaction is that learning teams should bond and thus make each student in the group WANT to do his or her share."

3. Make the Activity Interesting and Well-Structured. "If it is a discussion topic, make it one that students have a reason to get engaged in. Appeal to their life experiences, vested interests, ambitions. It might even be a good idea to let the students create some of the topics."

4. Don't Settle For Just Opinions. Everybody has opinions. "Many classroom discussion groups on-line are dominated by opinion messages, rather than rigorous analysis and creative thought. Teachers should insist that opinions alone are not sufficient. They must be supported with data and rational discourse and even re-examined in the light of what others in the on-line group are thinking."

W. R. (Bill) Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D., Professor, Texas A&M University

In Closing

I am excited to get into this online teaching world. People are busy and are prioritizing time with their families. Online education can help them build their skills and knowledge while still being present for their loved ones. That is a pretty cool thing. Plus data suggests that globally there will be more people of college age in the next 20 years than have attended college in all of human history (The End of College by Ken Carey).

Education is a well-documented source of liberation and well-being deserved by the millions who will soon be seeking it out.

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