In March, due to the spread of coronavirus, community colleges and universities nationwide closed their physical campuses and quickly moved to online classes. The effort was vital to ensure that instruction continued.

According to a recent report in “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” only 24% of higher education institutions will offer fully in-person classes this fall. The others will offer fully online or blended learning. With the majority of students learning in an online classroom, creating engaging online and blended learning experiences is critical.

Why is engagement important to learning?

Engagement has long been a defining and critical component of the educational process and context. John Dewey, one of the most referenced scholars of education, said engagement is an essential element of the educational process. It’s through interaction, he said, that a student transforms the information they receive into knowledge (Dewey, 1916).

How do we engage students in online or blended classes?

Anderson and Garrison define three types of interaction in an online classroom:

1) student-teacher

2) student-student

3) student-content

By classifying interactions in this way, educators can determine the type of interaction that’s most effective for a particular learning outcome.

Student-Teacher Engagement

In this type of interaction, the teacher delivers information, provides feedback, answers questions, and encourages and guides the student.

  • Provide direct instruction. Record audio or video of your lecture or hold an online video session. Create an infographic or model to support your lesson.
  • Offer feedback on assignments. Make notes on the document the students submit or provide a summary of comments.
  • Facilitate group discussions. Read discussion posts several times a week. Provide a summary of what the students shared and post a follow-up question.
  • Answer questions. Set specific online office hours, create a course question discussion area, or have students email you directly.

Student-Student Engagement

This type of interaction is between two students or among a group of students and can happen with or without the teacher.

  • Create a shared lab environment that allows students to interact with each other.
  • Organize students into small discussion groups and/or create peer-reviewed assignments.
  • Create an online student lounge or chat room/hang out to enable students to socialize.

Student-Content Engagement

With this type of interaction, students obtain information directly from learning content/materials.

Recent research found that student-content engagement is the most crucial form of interaction, because it’s where deep learning takes place (Zimmerman, 2012). Once students access learning content, such as hands-on labs or recorded lectures, they can consume it their own way. They can pause, rewind, repeat and move forward at their own pace until they truly understand the content.

Further, a recent study by the University of Washington’s Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) Center and The Boeing Company that compared challenge-based learning to traditional lecture found challenge-based learning to be more effective and engaging.

Researchers said, “The results … showed greater interaction—more sharing of knowledge related to and beyond the course content—among participants in the challenge-based group. In addition, the challenge-based group performed significantly better on post-test items requiring integration and synthesis of concepts. The increased interactivity in the challenge course provided opportunities for the course instructor and participants to articulate connections among concepts and build upon expressed ideas.” (O’Mahony, Vye, Bransford, Sanders, Stevens, Stephens, et al, 2012, p. 21).

For successful student-content engagement:

  • Create different types of content, including example text, audio, video, and hands-on labs or simulations.
  • Provide challenges that require students to interact with the content and that encourage deeper learning, creative thinking and problem-solving.
  • Provide scored assignments/labs, quizzes or tests to check for understanding.

Engagement in the New Normal

The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the way higher education institutions will engage with students. We have learned that engagement is achievable not only in an in-person setting, but in virtual settings as well. Converting in-person classes to online classes is a process, but by utilizing instructional/educational technologies, such as hands-on labs, recorded lectures, video sessions and online student lounges, you can easily create a rich educational environment that enables students to learn from teachers, from content and from other students. 

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Anderson, T., and Garrison, D.R. (1998). Learning in a networked world: New roles and responsibilities. In C. Gibson (Ed.), Distance Learners in Higher Education. (p. 97-112). Madison, WI.: Atwood Publishing.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan. Retrieved from here.

O’Mahony, T., Vye, N., Bransford, J., Sanders, E., Stevens, R., & Stephens, R. et al. (2012). A Comparison of Lecture-Based and Challenge-Based Learning in a Workplace Setting: Course Designs, Patterns of Interactivity, and Learning Outcomes. Journal Of The Learning Sciences21(1), 182-206. doi: 10.1080/10508406.2011.611775

Zimmerman, T. (2012, September 30). Exploring Learner to Content Interaction as a Success Factor in Online Courses. Retrieved August 20, 2020, from

Guest Blogger: Dr. Carol Gravel

Dr. Carol Gravel is the Executive Director and Principal Consultant at Binnacle Consulting where she helps organizations navigate 21 century talent and learning to address the needs of their current and future workforce.

During her career, Carol has held senior leadership roles in HR, OD, talent management and learning. She has been invited to present at numerous international conferences such as the Oxford University Global HR conference and the International Online Learning Consortium conference.   She has been published in several peer reviewed journals as well as several international talent and learning professional publications.

Dr. Gravel holds a master’s in education, a doctorate in education, with a focus on instructional technology and a graduate certification in project management from George Washington University. In addition, she earned her SHRM-CP certification from the Society of Human Resource Management and the Certified Professional in Training Management (CTPM) from The Training Industry.