Techniques to engage the online learner

Contributed by:
Jonathan James
This paper is a review of the recent literature regarding electronic pedagogy – the term for
preparing materials for the online learner. A list of twenty reported components for success is
identified and then augmented with what the authors have learned during seven years of teaching
online WebCT and Blackboard classes. Examples of course pages that illustrate the application
of selected concepts are included as well as suggestions for how to implement these concepts.
Implications for future online instruction, based on the evolving electronic pedagogy are also
1. Research in Higher Education Journal
Techniques to engage the online learner
Virginia Junk
University of Idaho
Nancy Deringer
University of Idaho
William Junk
University of Idaho
A survey conducted by the Sloan Consortium in Fall 2007 revealed 3.9 million students
were enrolled in online classes which is a 12 percent increase over the number reported in 2006
(Allen & Seaman, 2008). The current economic downtown has also created a positive impact on
the numbers of online learners. To effectively serve these students, educational materials must be
developed, structured, and distributed using pedagogy that best supports online learning.
This paper is a review of the recent literature regarding electronic pedagogy – the term for
preparing materials for the online learner. A list of twenty reported components for success is
identified and then augmented with what the authors have learned during seven years of teaching
online WebCT and Blackboard classes. Examples of course pages that illustrate the application
of selected concepts are included as well as suggestions for how to implement these concepts.
Implications for future online instruction, based on the evolving electronic pedagogy are also
Keywords: online learning, electronic pedagogy, distance education
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The National Center for Education reported over 56% of higher education institutions in
the United States offered distance education in the 2000-2001 academic school year with 90% of
the institutions using asynchronous internet instruction (Natriello, 2005). In 2003, 1.9 million
students were enrolled in online classes with institutions projecting 2004 enrollment to exceed
2.6 million students (Saba, 2005). A survey conducted by the Sloan Consortium in 2007 revealed
3.9 million students were enrolled in online classes which is a 12% increase over the number
reported in 2006 (Allen & Seaman, 2008).
There are a numerous learners whose only feasible way to obtain information or higher
education courses is from online sources. The emergence of online learning enables us to reach
audiences that previously were hard to serve. Cooperative Extension and higher educational
institutions see e-learning as a way to expand their offerings to those who would otherwise not
have access (Naidu, 2003). It is also thought that with the economic downtown, higher fuel costs
and unemployment may cause more students to opt for online courses. Online learning allows
students more workshops or classes to choose from and results in a greater flexibility in personal
scheduling. In order to best serve these audiences educational materials must be prepared that are
developed, structured, and distributed using pedagogy that targets effective online learning.
As in the traditional classroom, it is important for instructors to be knowledgeable and
responsive to the needs of learners, developing an understanding and appreciation for their
students. When creating online materials, it is particularly important for instructors to understand
the pedagogical differences that exist between face-to-face and online learning situations.
Learning should move away from a teacher-centered to a student-centered approach using
inquiry and project-based learning activities (Lowes, 2005). Online learning should involve three
types of interaction: 1) learner to learner 2) learner to content and 3) learner to instructor
(Misanchuk & Anderson, 2001).
The goal of an online program should be to provide an environment which actively
engages students in the learning process and promotes independent learning where students take
ownership of their work. The role of instructors shifts, placing more emphasis on facilitation
where the instructor provides the structure for the course with scheduled assignments and due
dates, and guidelines on how to complete assignments (Lowes, 2005).
Some of the same things that make for successful face-to-face instructors also apply to
successful online instructors. These things include good communication and organizational
skills as well as the ability to use questioning strategies which promote critical thinking skills in
students (Davis & Roblyer, 2005). However with online teaching, instructors need to be able to
interpret students’ needs through nonverbal cues since verbal cues are unavailable. One means of
accomplishing this task is to watch for changes in the level of student participation. Initially
some students may experience difficulty getting started with a course. These difficulties can
discourage them significantly. Instructors who anticipate these difficulties will be able to better
assist their students and enhance the online learning experience (Palloff & Pratt, 2003).
Successful instructors find ways to get students involved by using facilities such as chat
rooms or threaded discussions on a discussion board. Instructors can pose questions that require
students to use higher order thinking skills (Junk and Culbertson, 2004) and then post responses
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to students’ postings that challenge students to further explain their viewpoint. Posing questions
that are open-ended in nature can encourage higher level thinking such as evaluation, analysis
and integration.
One of the most important determinants of the quality of student experiences and learning
outcomes in an online program is the quality of interactions between the students and instructor.
When instructor involvement is low, outcomes are not as positive as in a face-to-face course.
However, when the instructor’s interaction level is high, this can enhance the student’s learning
experience. Learning outcomes are more likely to be reached with a high level of interaction
(Zhao, Lei, Lai & Tan, 2005). One indicator of quality of student experiences is the course
evaluation scores from student evaluations. Some find that online course evaluation scores are
higher than face-to-face courses (Junk and Culbertson, 2004).
The online instructor assumes four roles in the teaching / learning process. The first role
is pedagogical. In addition to being a content provider, the instructor also becomes the content
facilitator (Bonk & Dennen, 2003). The instructor asks questions, encourages students, and
designs instructional activities. The second role is a social role. The instructor needs to provide a
friendly, nurturing and safe environment, which enhances communication through discussions
and feedback. The third role is a managerial role, where the instructor coordinates assignments,
specifies due dates and expectations, and responds with timely feedback. The instructor should
inform learners of their role and responsibility before the course begins, making sure that
students are familiar and comfortable with using the required technology (Patsula, 2001). While
it is important for the instructor to challenge the learner, create curiosity, and to help learners
achieve personal learning goals, it is essential to avoid information or assignment overloading for
the sake of the student and the instructor (Patsula, 2001). The fourth role is technological,
providing tutorials or information regarding the use of technology contained on the web site
(Bonk & Dennen, 2003).
Palloff & Pratt (2003) found that in order to keep learners engaged, a typical online class
will require an average of 18-19 hours per week of instructor activity. How much time it takes
varies with the number of credits or sessions, how many students are participating, and how
much commitment to the course the instructor is willing or able to make. Much of this time will
be spent making personal contacts with students, either via threaded discussion or by email. By
printing student’s postings from the discussion board, the instructor can then read them away
from the “instant response” mode of the threaded discussion. This gives the instructor time to
reflect on the student’s thoughts and ideas. When responding to a discussion post, it is effective
to formulate it in a text document, spell-check it, and then cut and paste it onto the discussion
board. While this process can be time consuming for the instructor, it is vital in modeling
professional writing for the students. Keeping the threaded discussion flowing engages the
learner to look forward to checking postings to see who has responded. It builds connections
when students get a timely response – they know someone is “out there” and while it is not as
quick a response as face-to-face the teacher can “wow” the student “customers” with instructor
reaction time (Junk and Culbertson, 2004). Providing this type of quick response means that an
instructor and their students can work 24/7 – the Web is always accessible.
For students to be successful online learners, they need to be self-motivated, well-
organized, and capable of being independent learners who are reflective and critical thinkers
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(Lowes, 2005; Patsula, 2001). Students who are open-minded and willing to share information
regarding their lives, work, and educational experience are more able to connect with other
students as well as apply new knowledge to their past experiences. When they encounter a
problem or lack clarity with an assignment, they must be willing to communicate with the
instructor. Students need to commit time to course studies on a weekly basis and not assume the
online version will be easier than a face-to-face course – a common misconception. Since
collaboration is an integral part to quality online courses, students must be able and willing to
work with other students. Finally, students need to be internet and computer literate, and willing
to become familiar with the tools used on the course web site (Palloff & Pratt, 2003).
The online learner needs continual reassurance that they are on-track with postings and
assignments. They want clear instructions and course expectations. Students need to feel
comfortable discussing with the instructor, any problems they may be having. It is important to
avoid information overload, by assigning a reasonable workload. Online learners especially
appreciate prompt, personalized, specific, feedback from instructors (Lowes, 2005).
Most institutions allow students to enroll in online courses without questioning how well
an online class fits a student’s learning style and circumstances (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). In 1999 a
study was conducted with 166 online learners in 21 courses. Regardless of their learner
preference style, the students’ grades were similar to those taking the course face-to-face. Most
students were independent learners, preferred working alone, and were confident about their
abilities to achieve their academic goals (Johnson, 2003).
Isolation can be reduced by building a sense of community among the online learners
(Fisher, Thompson & Silverberg 2005). The instructor’s role in developing collaborative work,
asking open-ended questions for students to answer on the discussion board, and requiring
student participation in discussions can help build a sense of community (Hill, 1997).
Among the most common difficulties expressed by online learners is feeling isolated
from the other students and instructor (Hill, 1997). The lack of social outlets in a virtual
classroom can lead to isolation of students (Fisher, Thompson & Silverberg 2005). According to
sociocultural theory, social interaction is vital for cognitive development. Higher order thinking
skills develop from relationships. It is important for the instructor to develop strategies to build
these relationships, reducing isolation (Gunawardena, 2004).
Today, access to adequate high speed network communications is more of an issue than
basic network and computer access. The issue of network speed, particularly in rural areas,
means that materials that load slowly on a dial-up connection should be limited. Students may
get frustrated waiting for things to load and give up. On the other hand, tailoring material for
slow connections may make the material seem boring and unimaginative. Course developers
must balance the need to service learners on slow connections against the opportunity to enrich
the course material with items requiring considerable bandwidth. The old saying of “A picture is
worth a thousand words” is very applicable to online learning. At the far extreme, some students
may not possess the skills or knowledge to use the technology, which may discourage them and
lead to their dropping out of the online program or course (Naidu, 2003).
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Pedagogy for online education is unique and requires using techniques not generally
employed in the traditional classroom environment. The instructional design must be tailored so
as to build a community of learners through collaboration, discussion, and reflection. These are
the same aspects of design used in successful face-to-face instruction, but are accomplished in
different ways. Online course pedagogy is often termed electronic pedagogy (Natriello, 2005).
When presenting content online, it is best practice to follow the age old advice “don’t
assume anything.” Since instructors are not able to see the student’s confused look as they would
in a face-to-face classroom, it is extremely important to make sure directions and expectations
are very clear and explicit. Assignments and their due dates posted on the web should be double
checked in order to avoid any errors or discrepancies that may confound the students. Course
goals and objectives should be clear and concise (Hosie, Schibeci, & Backhaus, 2005).
The online instructor should post updates to any web pages and remind students via an
email to check the course web site for the updates. Since some students equate technological skill
with intelligence, it is vital that the instructor is familiar with the content and technology of the
web site. Experts suggest giving students an introduction to the course website, exploring both
the navigational aspects and content, during the first week of the course (Sudzina & Sudzina,
The course should be organized in such a manner as to promote a sense of continuity
(Hill, 1997). The web design should include attractive instructional features, since studies show
aesthetics are as important as content and maximize student learning (Abbey, 2000; Cornell &
Martin, 1997). Using a uniform style of font, as well as appropriate and consistent spacing,
resolution and layout throughout the course will enhance the online pedagogical approach. Web
pages should be easy to read and not require the student to scroll down the page to read the
content. The icons should be easy to identify and intuitive. Use high quality images but make
sure the graphics can be downloaded within a reasonable amount of time (no more than 30
seconds) to avoid slowing down the learning process and frustrating students. It is recommended
to hyperlink readings located on other web sites (Hosie, Schibeci, & Backhaus, 2005). Be sure to
check that the links are still active. Make the pages look like they were designed for an online
course and not just text reused from an existing conventional course.
In addition to course content and the organizational aspects of an online course,
instructors should carefully consider how they will encourage interaction among students as well
as interaction between the students and instructor (Patsula, 1999; Procter, 2002). Interaction can
be categorized either as asynchronous or synchronous. Asynchronous interaction takes place
when students post discussions at various times as opposed to synchronous when all students
interact online at the same time within a “chat room” environment. In other words, the goal is to
develop a community of online learners who interact with the instructor, the course content and
other students (Palloff & Pratt, 2003).
Instructors can promote interaction through discussion by modeling the type of
participation that is expected, and by setting clear guidelines related to when students should post
and how long postings should be (Bonk & Dennen, 2003). Junk and Culbertson (2004) suggest
contacting students by e-mail if they are not participating in discussions to determine if they are
experiencing a problem with the course. When posting reactions to students’ assignments,
consider that other students will be able to read the comments. Keep anything that could be
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critical, embarrassing, or private out of the posting and instead send those comments directly to
the student via an e-mail.
Students need feedback, both informative and acknowledgment. Informative feedback
includes responding to performance on assignments and discussions as well as letting students
know how they are progressing in the class. It is important for students to be reminded about
deadlines and with what criteria evaluation will be formed. Acknowledgement feedback includes
responding to students when they submit assignments or send an e-mail of inquiry. When
students send the instructor an e-mail, it is considered best practice to respond within 24 to 48
hours (Palloff & Pratt, 2003; Johnson, 2003).
It is vital to encourage communication among students to build a sense of connection and
camaraderie. One method used to help connect students is to create a site with students’ pictures
and brief biography. Students are able to “put a face” to the name of their peers, which helps to
build relationships (Sudzina & Sudzina, 2003). There are privacy issues when posting pictures or
biographies of students, so this should be optional.
The online learning environment flourishes when instruction moves from a teacher-
centered approach to a learner-centered approach. With this shift, students cooperate and
collaborate with other students on assignments. However, it is important not to pack assignments
too closely together. The students and the instructor need to have “breathing room” between
assignments (Sudzina & Sudzina, 2003).
The best assignments are innovative, contain clearly designed performance outcomes,
and use interactive instructional strategies. It helps students if there are examples of “good”
assignments for them to view. It is imperative for students to have prompt feedback regarding
their assignment performance (Hosie, Schibeci, & Backhaus, 2005). The instructor should also
have a space where students can access their grades on assignments at any point during the
online course (Lowes, 2005).
In creating online course materials that motivate students, use sensory stimuli such as
aesthetically pleasing web design, well organized materials, and graphics that garner attention
and stimulate curiosity. Photos and graphs make information easier for the student to understand.
In narratives, use active voice and action verbs in moderate length sentences (Fernández, 1999).
Participants need to feel a sense of accomplishment. This may be in the form of
descriptive praise or encouragement from the instructor, doing well on a project, or achieving a
good grade. Above all the instructor’s participation, interaction, and enthusiasm are vital in
motivating students (Cornell & Martin, 1997).
In summary, the key components that lead to success in the online learning environment
as identified in the literature are:
1. Engage the student.
2. Invite the student to contact the instructor when needing assistance.
3. Provide online course materials that are well organized and visually pleasing.
4. Post the class schedule or timeline containing clear due dates for assignments and
discussion postings.
5. Provide clear learning outcomes or objectives.
6. Create presentation slides and activities that reinforce learning outcomes.
7. Develop assignments that reinforce learning outcomes requiring students use
higher level thinking to analyze and apply what they are learning, including
requiring posting reactions to others’ assignment postings.
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8. Interact with students in a conversational narrative making reference to assigned
learning materials.
9. Choose graphics, such as photos, video clips, or presentation slides that take a
reasonable amount of time to download.
10. Include hyperlinks to websites students must access and a brief description of site
content, verifying that links are active prior to student access.
11. Provide frequent and descriptive feedback to students.
The following are additional items that were found to lead to success for the online
learner (Junk and Culbertson, 2004).
12. Rather than just meet student expectations, exceed them. Wow the student with
great “customer” service. Reply quickly, checking and responding to postings and
e-mail at least once a day.
13. Provide a link for support with the online course software – this support is critical
for the comfort level and confidence of those who have never taken an online
course or program before.
14. Make the web pages easy to navigate, with each course or program by an
instructor of similar layout so students will build comfort and confidence with the
15. Prepare an online video welcome so the student can click on it and hear and see a
short streaming video welcome by the professor.
16. Have students post a message about themselves so they can get to know each
other and their professional background.
17. Provide a discussion board where students only have access. This way they can
ask each other questions or make comments without worrying that the instructor
will see their posting.
18. Clear assignment directions are particularly important for the online leaner since
they do not have the opportunity to ask questions in person. Provide sample
“good” assignments so students will know what to expect.
19. Find links to interactive questionnaires or audio or video clips that illustrated
course concepts to “mix it up” a bit and relieve potential boredom with on-screen
text, also appealing to a variety of learning styles.
20. Encourage students to complete an anonymous online evaluation of the course,
and use that feedback to improve the course. Some of the questions should be
open-ended. In addition, let students know that instructors appreciate hearing
suggestions or telling how things are found confusing while the course is being
taught, in addition to being told at the end of the course.
As was just presented, a literature review was performed to identify key concepts that
lead to success for online learners. Then these components, along with what one of the authors
have learned through seven years of developing and teaching online classes were then
incorporated into class modules. Some of the components were already in the modules, because
intuitively, they were likely to increase student involvement and success. Some were added to
achieve consistent best practice. Examples were selected that illustrate effective application of
the concepts in online course materials.
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The following figures illustrate application of these concepts using course web pages
developed for courses taught by two of the authors and delivered to students using WebCT or
Engage the Student
In Figure 1 students click on  “Introduction to the Course” to listen to the instructor’s
streaming video welcome, click on  “Meet Your Classmates” and see photos of class members,
and click on  “Discussions” to post a bit about themselves.
Figure 1. Engage the student.
In addition the following assignment encourages connections:
“To start our class with five extra credit points, place a posting on the “Main” discussion
board telling us a bit about yourself including: (1) Your consumer and work experience,
(2) What particular aspects of consumer issues most interest you, (3) Your motivation for
taking this class. Is it required, did your advisor suggest it an elective, or if not these how
did you hear about it? and (4) Anything else you would like us to know about you or
about what you want to learn in our class.”
Well Organized, Visually Pleasing Web Page
Figure 2 shows icons developed for a Research Foundations Course. These icons support
the theme of the course – in this case research foundations focuses on students as discoverers of
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knowledge, hence the “Indiana Jones” type theme. Icons are kept to a minimum with Course
Menu links on the left for ease in navigation.
Figure 2. A well organized, visually pleasing web page.
Clear Timeline Including Assignments and Due Dates
Figure 3 shows an example of a page from a housing course accelerated over six weeks in
the summer. Because it is accelerated, it is particularly important that the module activities and
assignments dates are clearly presented. Students can see how long any DVD segment is and
how many websites they need to visit, planning their time accordingly.
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Figure 3. A clear timeline with assignments and due dates.
Have Students React to Each Other’s Postings
Figure 4 shows the threaded discussion board available in WebCT for a housing class.
The board allows students to post their assignments and to read and react to the assignments of
others, fostering teamwork. Each assignment has its own discussion board. The instructor can
readily see any postings which they have not yet read and responded to. It is a good idea to build
into each assignment a requirement that students post reactions to other’s postings.
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Figure 4. Require students to post reactions to other student’s assignments.
Provide Clear Outcomes and Interactive URL Links
Figure 5 shows sample  outcomes and  required websites. All the websites are hot
links so the student can click on the link and go directly to the site. This increases the possibility
they will visit the site by making it easy to accomplish. It’s important to check the validity of
links before students access them. This can take a considerable amount of time. Those links that
are streaming videos or interactive are costly for site sponsors to maintain, and so may be
eliminated. This happened in the above housing class when the AARP website discontinued
video tours of homes built using universal design. A General Electric site was then found that
has good photographs of universal design features in a kitchen. Another option is to utilize a free
web-hosting site so the instructor can incorporate video clips and hot link them to the site.
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Figure 5. Provide clear outcomes and interactive URL links.
Welcome the Students
In Figure 6 the bolded items in the text are hot links provided to ease student navigation.
The first link is an online audio welcome with the instructor’s photo. If the student’s internet
connection is slow they can click the words “Read the Professor’s Welcome…”  to read a
textual welcome. The bulleted items link them directly to key course information and these same
items are also icons on the homepage of the course.
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Figure 6. An online audio video welcome.
It is import to recognize that there is a different communication model that drives what
takes place in an online course as compared to a face-to-face course. As the demand for online
learning increases, it is imperative for instructors to develop quality classes using the
pedagogical methods that best support the virtual environment. While some good instructional
design and methods used in the face-to-face class setting work in online courses, additional
considerations are needed for the online learning environment. Instructors cannot produce
effective online courses by repackaging existing course material for online use. To be successful
many additions and adaptations are needed, and these additions take resources and support from
the sponsoring institution. The authors have found it takes them around 500 hours per three-
credit course to move the course from the face-to-face into an online format. One reason it takes
this amount of time is because DVDs of guest speakers, student presentations, seminars, and site
visits were planned and made. Students purchase the DVDs as part of their course materials. One
major benefit of this approach is that it is appealing to a wider variety of learning styles by
having readings, audio, and video components. Another major benefit is that the work done to
polish the online version is also beneficial in changing the face-to-face version.
While it is not easy to prepare a good online course, it is always important to think about
how to “astonish the customer” with the quality of what is presented. That will both provide a
good experience for the participant and grow the demand for online programs. The “customers”
are accustomed to being on the Internet and viewing commercial sites developed by graphic
designers. As materials are developed, graphic designers, videographers, high-tech classrooms
for burning presentations by guest speakers to DVD, free web-hosting sites for uploading videos,
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and support in using the technology for students taking the course, as well as for instructors, are
extremely important resources to teach the class.
With the increased demand for online learning opportunities comes the challenge for
instructors who are developing their first virtual course. Since research supports the need for
online instruction that is developed using an electronic pedagogy rather than the traditional
pedagogy for a face-to-face course, there seems to be a great need for instructors to have
opportunities to learn virtual best practices before creating an online course. The result will be
higher quality virtual learning environments and, in the end, increased learning opportunities for
the students.
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