Engaging Learners in the Online & Blended Classroom

It is the start of a new school year and, one month in, class lists, both in traditional and alternative settings, have been established. In alternative settings, in particular, these lists could continue growing as students identify a learning setting that will, hopefully, provide for an effective learning environment. For teachers in all settings, this start of a school year means developing meaningful relationships with their students and establishing routines and expectations that will create a strong and engaging learning environment.

How does this engagement of students look in the online and blended classrooms? This blog post aims to prompt questions, share specific activities from teachers working in this space and comment on some research that has been done in the area (though this is not a “research citation” kind of posting).


One of the themes that is consistently repeated in the research is interaction between students and teachers as well as between students themselves. Engaging classes allow for both forms of interaction to occur.

Teacher interaction is sometimes referred to as teacher presence. This presence is embedded into the instruction designed by the teacher, as well as the intentional interactions teachers have with their students. Research suggests that teachers should be using a wide variety of channels to connect to their students including, for instance, announcements within the courses, emails, participation or facilitation in online discussion forums, and online chats or videos as appropriate to the particular setting.

There is, of course, consideration of the particular type of instructional delivery; synchronous delivery in blended settings where face to face interaction is likely would obviously be considered differently from asynchronous delivery at a distance. That said the importance of these connections between teachers and students is repeated frequently in the research, regardless of the specific setting.

In the first Alberta Video Conference Community of Practice in the early 2000’s, a scan of the literature at that time suggested the efficacy of a face to face interaction at the start of course work to humanize both the teacher and the student as they enter into a technologically mediated set of interactions. While this may have been logistically workable within a given school division, it does pose challenges as the reach of current online providers can extend well outside of the traditional boundaries of school divisions.

More and more teachers, certainly online but even in blended settings, have gone to a combination of video introduction (to present a more human side of the teacher) and conferencing software like Skype or Google Hangouts to facilitate greater interaction with their students. Online classrooms proliferate as both paid and free software present the opportunity for classroom interactions at a distance. While there are too many such options to comment here, each does have notable strengths and weaknesses that need to be analyzed to determine best fit with the particular distance education setting.

Similarly, there is frequent mention of student-student interactions as a strategy to encourage student engagement. Student-student interactions, like teacher-student interactions, can be impacted by the specific style of delivery whether synchronous or asynchronous, blended or entirely at a distance.

That said, there are a number of strategies to facilitate this kind of student-student interaction. Discussion forums are a notable opportunity to encourage and provide opportunity for this exchange of student views. Extending beyond this strategy, there may be opportunities for effective student collaborations through project work or through peer review.

Even in asynchronous deliveries, there may be the option of cohort groupings to ensure students are at points of instructional design where there might be common ground for project work. Conversely, peer review might be effectively facilitated by students grouped at various points of progress in the course, so a student further advanced in the course work can provide feedback and review for students at an earlier stage in the course.

Intentional design toward a variety of interaction can help to create an environment in which interaction produces greater student engagement.

Active Learning

Aside from the interactions between teachers and students, there is the question of how students are engaging with the curriculum through learning activities designed into course materials. Active learning activities provide for rich opportunities for students to engage with their learning outcomes. While this is not a research paper, for the purposes of this conversation active learning can be defined based on the work of Allen and Tanner (2005), who describe active learning as “seeking new information, organizing it in a way that is meaningful, and having the chance to explain to others”.

One of the benefits of the online classroom, or an online component of the blended classroom, is that it removes one of the pressures of the face to face classroom in that it allows for processing time by students who are presenting information or are responding to information presented. This helps to support an environment in which students feel safe in participating in such activities.

Active learning activities also allow for the potential of cross curricular collaboration, as some curricular outcomes are repeated across several subject areas. This helps to establish the relevance of the learning activities to students’ real experiences.

Various technologies can be used in establishing spaces for these activities. Discussion forums, mentioned earlier in the engagement of students through interaction, provide an asynchronous space for active learning activities while real time connectivity through Skype or Google Hangouts allow for nuanced synchronous spaces.

It is easy to see the overlap between the intentional design of active learning activities combined with the precepts of interaction.

Of course, this is not to dismiss traditional passive learning activities such as reading content, assessment activities, or viewing teacher designed videos. An appropriate balance of active and passive learning activities have reportedly produced greater student engagement. The key element is that both types of activities should be present in instructional design of online course content.

Instructional Design

Fundamental to all of these points is the intentional design of learning. The face to face classroom is just one possible learning environment but it is a learning environment that allows the teacher to react quickly to changing conditions in the classroom. Consider the re-teaching of concepts when student feedback reveals confusion, or the option to adjust active learning activities when so called “teachable moments” appear.

The primary use of online content enables students to consume that content at a variety of times without a teacher present. This forces the teacher to anticipate these challenges and design learning activities and interactions to address similar issues. The experience of the teacher is helpful in such anticipation, as is the ongoing feedback between teacher and students noted above. Most online platforms also have a great level of flexibility in allowing the teacher to edit or adjust instruction as such challenges emerge.

The one factor that presents the greatest impediment to such flexible and responsive instructional design is, naturally, time. Teachers need to take the time to consider the student feedback as part of their instructional design and determine the most effective response to curricular outcomes that have presented significant challenge to students.

To close the loop on design, authentic assessment has to be consistently analyzed to determine potential weaknesses in instructional design and to ensure that the feedback that can be gleaned is used to inform instruction.

Online and blended instruction have many unique aspects, but the value of meaningful relationships between teachers and students, students and peers, and students and content are a commonality across so much of the K-12 education landscape that consideration in the online or blended setting is an essential piece of the instructional puzzle.

What do you think? What strategies are you using to engage with your students and to build a connection between yourself and your students, or between your students and their peers? How are you planning active learning activities to support these relationships?

Frank McCallum is an Associate Principal for the Vista Virtual School in Alberta.  He is also a board member for the Canadian eLearning Network.