Engaging Engagement in Online Courses

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In discussions about remote learning and future online teaching that many educators may face in the fall, concerns about engagement dominate. They often include the unchallenged claim that online instruction cannot replicate the engagement found in face-to-face teaching. But is that true?

Many erroneously equate the emergency online teaching that most institutions relied on this spring with the kind of online teaching many institutions may be considering for the fall. As a result, they often claim that online teaching generally fails to engage the student as face-to-face classes and result in actual learning. Students have expressed attitudes that the remote education they received during the pandemic has failed them. Commentators on education, like Jonathan Zimmerman, equate most modes of online education to the early days of educational TV, declaring that “Real conversation happens when people are in the same room, not when they’re on the same channel” and “Social distancing is necessary to preserve good health, but it’s not good for education.” Both students and educators point to engagement as a crucial part of the teaching and learning experience and assume it is lacking in online education.

However, we shouldn’t assume that engagement occurs just because student and instructors are in the same room or that one cannot achieve such engagement in an online course. Stephanie Moore and Phil Hill point to the substantial scholarship on the effectiveness of online learning compared to classroom-based learning: “What these studies show, time and again, is no significant difference. In fact, this has been labeled the ‘no significant difference phenomenon’ with a website and book by Thomas Russell (2001) dedicated to documenting the studies and the trend.”

What can make a difference in effective teaching in both settings? Actively engaging students in the course material, with the instructor and with each other. IU – Teaching Online notes that:

The concept of active learning encompasses a wide variety of learning activities in which students engage with the course content. The focus of active learning is to foster that engagement. When students sit and passively watch or listen to lectures – whether in person or on video – they are not actively engaging with the content.

We also know that students learn more effectively when they are involved in their own learning. A cursory look at activity on the Internet and social media reveals that we can have a high level of engagement in an online environment. Individuals spend hours engaging with each other, learning how to do a variety of things. Moreover, I know from personal experience that it is possible to involve students in collaborative research on the Internet. We should view the current situation as an opportunity to develop our best teaching to achieve a similar level of engagement for fall courses that may be online.


Jonathan Zimmerman. “Video Kills the Teaching Star.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 24 Apr 2020. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Video-Kills-the-Teaching-Star/248631?cid=wcontentgrid_41_5 (Accessed 5 May 2020).

“Learning Activities and Active Learning Online.” IU – Teaching Online, UC-Davis, n.d., https://canvas.ucdavis.edu/courses/34528/pages/learning-activities-and-active-learning-online?module_item_id=4973 (5 May 2020).

Stephanie Moore and Phil Hill. “Planning for Resilience, Not Resistance.” Phil On EdTech. 28 Apr 2020.  https://philonedtech.com/planning-for-resilience-not-resistance/  (Accessed 5 May 2020).

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Engaging Engagement in Online Courses by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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