• Resources
  • Blog
  • Creating Engaging Online Courses: 6 Universities Share Tried-and-True Strategies

Creating Engaging Online Courses: 6 Universities Share Tried-and-True Strategies

These educators know the ins and outs of building engaging online courses with the right technology, content, and pedagogy.

female student sitting on grassy lawn on laptop

Contrary to the common belief that modern technology promotes distance and hinders relationships, the right technology can elevate our experience, foster connection, and cultivate community. This holds most true for online learning technology.

Many institutions lean on their Learning Management Systems (LMS) to manage, monitor, and report on online courses. It has all the essential course management features, as well as many of the assessment and communication capabilities needed to deliver course materials and track outcomes. It can do the job, for the most part.

It just wasn’t made for the job. As institutions continue to undergo digital transformation, students expect online learning experiences to mirror the classroom experience. From communication and collaboration, to instructor and peer support on assignments, to feeling a sense of community in online courses, expectations around online learning are evolving.

Institutions with strong student engagement in online courses are the ones finding ways to build virtual online classrooms — and that means rethinking their use of technology.

“Just as we’ve designed our online courses purposefully, we want to deliver those courses using technology built for this purpose. Our online student engagement depends on being able to foster an equitable and inclusive classroom experience, outside the classroom. That’s why we use digital learning tools that integrate with the LMS for our online courses” Traci Rushing Instructional Designer at Southern Arkansas University Tech
Traci Rushing Headshot

Here, we’ll explore some of the most effective strategies, including the tools, used by six institutions — Copiah-Lincoln Community College, Eastern Florida State College Online, Meridian Community College, Southern Arkansas University Tech, Tidewater Community College, and West Virginia University — to improve participation and student engagement in online courses.

How to Build a Community for Your Online Learners

Classroom and online courses can differ drastically in the level of interaction between students and instructors. Distance education and online courses present distinct barriers to traditional student engagement and participation, amplified by the actual distance between the learners, their peers, and the instructor.

As a result, students can experience a growing sense of isolation, which often inhibits performance. To activate student participation, institutions are creating connection and cultivating a stronger sense of community in their online courses — making students feel more inclined to contribute.

1. Make it easier to talk about difficult topics

Copiah-Lincoln Community College has found success in using emotion-based and real-world applicable discussion prompts.

“We put great care into building our discussion prompts for online courses. For example, we’ll use prompts that reference current events and social justice issues to solicit response from students. We found emotion-based responses came out naturally in the discussions,” said Dr. Amanda Hood, Director of eLearning for Copiah-Lincoln. “It gives students the chance to articulate their opinions, understand competing perspectives, and compose thoughtful responses — similar to a classroom setting. It’s also good practice for figuring out how to resolve conflict and for the interactions they’ll have in the future.”

2. Meet students where they are

For better engagement, it’s also important to be inclusive of the different ways students communicate and learner styles.

West Virginia University is seeing an increase in organic interaction among students in their online courses because of how easy it is to communicate right from within a discussion board.

“Students can submit written responses, create snippets of audio, or make and send videos right from within our online collaboration & discussion tool. We’re excited about this easy-to-use method for instructors and students to engage with the content and each other,” said Beth Bailey, WVU Instructional Designer.

Michele Korgeski, an Instructional Designer at WVU, echoes these sentiments. Harmonize has not only impacted student-student interaction, but it has also opened the door for students to interact with their instructors and vice-versa.

“Students and instructors can seamlessly carry on rich conversations about any course topic. In the past, this type of interaction was hard to find and often viewed as another graded requirement. With Harmonize, we’re finding there’s less hesitation to respond to someone with video or audio comments. This is resulting in more meaningful and engaging discussions between students and instructors,” said Michele Korgeski, WVU Instructional Designer.

Rick Bebout, Technology Specialist at WVU, shared that the quality of responses is better. “The options in Harmonize that students have to choose from is allowing them to express themselves in dynamic ways, helping us move from transactional to more meaningful exchanges.”

Implementing discussion boards like this for online courses have been effective in creating connection and classroom community online, while building student engagement.

3. Create avenues for communication

Because instruction is delivered asynchronously, and material can be accessed by students at any time, online courses are typically built with one-way, transactional communication in mind.

It’s important to mirror the in-classroom experience online if you want to increase student participation and create better community. Institutions are employing different avenues of communication to create conversations in their course.

“We have our instructors use course Q&Apolls, and enable chat portals for our students.  It’s giving online learners a chance to be seen and heard. It’s a more inclusive approach to communication, which is creating an online experience more equitable to the classroom experience,” says Andrew Lieb, Collegewide Chair at Eastern Florida State College Online.

Erin Richardson from Meridian Community College agrees that polls have high impact on student engagement. “We have received such positive feedback from students who said they feel more engaged in the course when we used polls. They have a voice and a say in the course decisions that will affect their experience.”

How to Enable Student Collaboration

During collaboration, students receive attention from their peers, which is thought to increase the level of engagement and participation in the learning process. Collaborative learning strategies also enhance students’ academic outcomes.

In a meta-analysis of 1,000+ empirical studies, evidence showed that peer-assisted methods outperformed traditional methods, with small-group collaboration increasing students’ ability to transfer their learning to new contexts. Use these tips to power student collaboration online.

1. Use Peer Reviews, 1:1 Communication & Milestones

Southern Arkansas University Tech uses the learner-centered strategy of peer critiques in online courses, and couples it with opportunities for students to provide feedback anonymously and also work 1-on-1 with each other through virtual chat portals. The idea is to help students strengthen their evaluative skills, practice articulating constructive feedback, and become receptive to feedback.

For example, in an online speech course, students are required to write a narrative outline & speech and submit it for peer critique. Through prompts set by milestones, students are required to provide at least three comments on a number of students’ speeches.

“The feedback students were providing was at least 10 times better, and the number of comments per speech more than doubled. We found that anonymous critiques elicit more constructive feedback, which is helping our students better iterate their work before final submissions and grades,” said Rushing.

Students at SAU Tech also participate in 1-on-1 or small-group collaboration projects. That collaboration is powered through chat portals. The key here is the look and feel.

“We make it look and feel like text messaging — a familiar medium to students — but rather than taking the students out of the course to a mobile texting app, the portal is connected to the course to keep the students engaged in the relevant material.”

“At Tidewater Community College, we’re also intentional about enabling collaboration in our online courses. We set in place milestones or checkpoints throughout the course at particular times that require collaborative activities, peer reviews, and comments on other students’ discussion inputs,” Instructional Designer Dr. Heather Brown shared.

This approach provides clear instruction and expectation for students who don’t have the advantage of in-class collaboration guidance. It also continues to honor the asynchronous communication needs of most online learners.

“Using milestones to guide our online students through collaborative learning activities is keeping our students engaged and on track, while simultaneously working to create a stronger sense of classroom community. We see our students becoming more responsive to each other, which is creating connection,” said Dr. Brown.

2. Keep it social and leverage tools that feel familiar

Any technology an institution employs to facilitate online courses must be easy to use for both students and instructors. Tools with user-friendly designs are naturally easier to learn how to use; they also allow instructors and students to complete tasks quickly and offer an intuitive navigation — to even a first-time user. When designed this way, digital learning tools are easier to learn, and that’s critical for online participation.

Plus, tools with a user experience that mimics real-life experiences have the highest usability — think features like tagging, in-app and email notifications, and social media-like interfaces. If a student or instructor logs in and can connect the screen they’re viewing to something they are familiar with in their personal lives, they are likely to explore it more deeply.

As an example, Harmonize’s online discussion tool provides a social media-like experience, with content creation, sharing, and reaction capabilities — making it both recognizable and easy to use, which leads to increased student activity and engagement. When you enable students with familiar tools that can provide a variety of options for them to express themselves and contribute to the course, you’re also being inclusive of how different students learn best and building a more inclusive classroom online.

Eastern Florida State College Online takes advantage of instructor-student tagging. “Like social media, the tag lets a student know I’m there and that I will respond with feedback. We also tag on discussion boards, and it’s a way to get students’ attention and demonstrate that their contributions are valued. Our online students feel like someone’s really there for them,” said Lieb.

Quick How-to Checklist of Tips for Student Engagement

The key to better online learning is creating a sense of community by building courses in a way that mirrors the face-to-face classroom experience. To bring online classes closer in feel to the on-campus experience:

  • Make it easier to discuss relevant and challenging topics
  • Meet students where they are by being inclusive of different learning styles
  • Create multiple avenues for interaction using polls, Q&A, chat, video, discussion boards
  • Facilitate frequent collaboration through peer reviews, 1:1 or group work, and milestones
  • Use tools that are easy and familiar in look and feel

When you foster a social learning environment where students are seen and heard and provide easy ways to interact with their instructor and peers, you’ll see student engagement blossom. If you’re interested in learning how we can help you drive student engagement in your online courses, we’d love to set up some time to connect.