Effective Practices for Student Engagement in the Online Environment

ASCCC Online Education Committee Chair
ASCCC At Large Representative, Online Education Committee Member

Faculty have primacy in designing and implementing content for their courses regardless of modality of instruction, whether traditional face-to-face classroom setting or online through a Learning Management System (LMS). In recent years, distance education in California Community Colleges has received more resources and attention than ever before.  With the inception of the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative (OEI), standards for online course design and professional development tools have been created, including a course design rubric. According to the OEI website, the “Rubric is intended to establish standards relating to course design, interaction and collaboration, assessment, learner support, and accessibility in order to ensure the provision of a high quality learning environment that promotes student success and conforms to existing regulations.” The rubric has been well-received by colleges, and in November of 2015 the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC) adopted a resolution urging local senates to establish course design standards for their colleges (Resolution 9.01 F15).

With the influx of tools to support course development, one might think that once a faculty member masters the design of the online course and checks for accessibility and compliance with Americans Disability Act, he or she only needs to upload content to ensure student success. Instead, the reality is that faculty need to engage online students in their learning and keep them engaged throughout the semester or quarter and thus usher them toward success.  An abundance of research exists on student engagement as a significant factor regarding retention and success metrics.  Fish, Wade & Wickersham (2009) and Hohnen & Murphy (2016) conclude that in order for learning to occur, whether online or on campus, students must be engaged.

According to the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE), student engagement can be measured through faculty-student interactions, active and collaborative learning experiences, and involvement in extra-curricular activities. Students who are engaged in these ways have greater indicators of student retention and success (CCCSE, 2015). These factors may be easier to address in a traditional face-to-face setting where the faculty and students are in the same room together; an online environment requires a greater effort to intentionally engage students in these ways. Weimer (2016) encourages faculty to create classroom questions that are engagement-focused rather than knowledge-focused. The premise is that an environment which promotes dialog and collaborative thinking encourages engagement. This principle can be applied to the online learning environment in the creation of online discussion boards that are engagement-focused rather than always content-driven.

Research in neuroscience posits that when students believe that a faculty member cares about them and when the faculty member offers positive feedback on their assignments and builds a sense of community within the virtual classroom, students will stay in the virtual class, engage in the material, and in turn press on to succeed (Hohnen & Murphy, 2016). The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Distance Education Report (2013) also reports that “the foundation of any quality instruction is the relationship between the instructor and the student.”  In order for students to be engaged and receptive to learning, they need to feel respected, trusted, and valued.  Student-teacher interaction as a best practice in a virtual environment boils down to effective communication. Not only is communication a fundamental tenet of effective practices, but a statutory requirement for “regular effective contact” between instructor and students is codified in §55204 of the California Education Code. The Distance Education Report further reported that 81.4% of faculty use email as their primary form of communication, while 78.8% of faculty cited discussion boards as their preferred method of communication.  Although these forms of communication can be very effective, faculty must also be aware that as the student body changes, so do the methods that we use to communicate with students.  An increasing number of students are using mobile smart phones as their primary interaction with technology. Faculty need to look beyond traditional tools of using email and discussion boards to interact with students and consider engaging students through the use of text messages, social media accounts, and other digital tools. Research further suggests the use of video teleconferencing for virtual office hours can strengthen connections between students and faculty and lead to greater persistence (Hohnen & Murphy, 2016).

Other effective practices include problem based learning (PBL) and contextualized learning. Contextualized learning occurs when faculty teach skills with direct reference to real world events and practices, developing relevant context which helps students recognize the value of material to their education and career completion (Perin, 2011).  While college courses commonly employ some type of group work and PBL in traditional face-to-face classes, those activities are more difficult to translate to virtual classrooms. Both PBL and contextualized learning highlight the active rather than the passive, with students drawing on prior knowledge and lived experiences to build new connections. These practices facilitate not only engagement but ultimately students’ mastery of material.

Although this list is by no means exhaustive, it does include some basic principles of what is considered best practices for faculty who have chosen to teach online.  Student engagement, problem based learning, and contextualized learning are cornerstones of quality instruction.  Faculty have a responsibility to ensure all courses being taught in an online environment have the same academic rigor as traditional, face-to-face courses. We must always consider how we are teaching and engaging students across modalities. Both we and our students will benefit if we work through local processes to insist on relevant professional development opportunities to remain current in effective instructional practices for online instruction. 


Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2015). Engagement rising: A decade of CCSSE data shows improvements across the board. Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, Program in Higher Education Leadership. Retrieved from https://www.ccsse.org/docs/Engagement_Rising.pdf.

Fish, W., Wade, W. & Wickersham, L.E. (2009). Best practices for online instructors: Reminders. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 10(3), 2009, pp. 279–284. Retrieved from https://learn.vccs.edu/bbcswebdav/institution/NVCC/ELI/TOTAL%20Project/Supplemental%20Files/fish%20-%20best%20practices%20for%20online%20instructors%20-%202009.pdf.

California Community Colleges. (2013). Distance education report. Sacramento, CA: General Services Printing Office.  Retrieved from http://californiacommunitycolleges.cccco.edu/Portals/0/reportsTB/REPORT…

Hohnen, B. & Murphy, T. (2016). The optimum context for learning: Drawing on neuroscience to inform best practice in the classroom. Educational & Child Psychology, 33 (1).

Online Education Initiative (2016). Online Course Design Standards. Retrieved from http://ccconlineed.org/faculty-resources/professional-development/online-course-design-standards/

Perin, D. (2011). Facilitating student learning through contextualization: A review of evidence. Community College Review

Weimer, M. (2016). Six things faculty can do to promote student engagement. Faculty Focus.  Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/