Category Archives: Learner Engagement

The extent to which we can engage the online learner can greatly influence student success. Designing courses that encourage learners to connect with their instructor and classmates as well as the course content is an important aspect of learner engagement. Active learning approaches are another proven strategy for online learning.

In praise of the open-book exam

Whether or not students should be required to take proctored exams in an online course has been debated for as long as there have been online courses and I suspect it will not be resolved anytime soon. Nevertheless, there has been a good deal written about the subject that is worth considering.

Open book online exam

CC-BY-NC by Jared Stein on Flickr

A recent study compared proctored and non-proctored student outcomes in online courses. Lee William Daffin, Jr. and Ashley A. Jones from Washington State University, found that with the non-proctored online exams, students took about twice as long to complete their exams and performed between 10% and 15% better than students taking proctored exams.

Despite the instructions that the exam was to be taken closed-book, we might reason that students spent the extra time looking up answers in the text or searching online. Again, this brings up the issue of how to prevent cheating in an online course without requiring students to visit the testing center.

Daffin and Jones suggest trying the following methods to discourage cheating:

  • Explaining the technology used to discourage cheating (e.g. Safe Assign, Bb Monitor)
  • Creating a large enough test bank from which to draw questions
  • Randomizing both questions and answers
  • Including essay questions
  • Posting class and/ or institutional policies and penalties for cheating
  • Shortening the time frames to complete tests
  • Having students sign Code of Conduct / Honor statements

Daffin and Jones offer yet one more option…

A final possibility is to make online exams open notes/book from the start but increase the difficulty of such exams so that they are not simply testing the recollection of facts (Feller, 1994; Williams & Wong, 2009; Stowell, 2015). Though students would be permitted to utilize outside sources, eliminating student misconduct issues, they would still need a good understanding of the material to be able to accurately apply it and could not simply look up answers as they took the exam. – L.W.Daffin & A.A.Jones

In another study, Beth Johanns, Amber Dinkins, and Jill Moore, from Indiana State University, looked at the research around open-book vs closed-book exams and found there are some unique advantages for student learning with both formats. Open-book exams, in particular, were found to help learners develop critical thinking skills. While the closed-book required students expend more time and effort in preparation for the exam, they were also more likely to cram and therefore rely on short-term memorization. On the other hand, open-book exams were shown to engage learners more deeply by encouraging them to gather and critically analyze information – oftentimes from multiple sources.

In their study, Johanns, Dinkins, & Moore explored yet a third type of exam – collaborative testing. In this approach, students prepared for a closed-book exam but were permitted to collaborate with other students while completing the examination. This approach has been shown to promote creative thinking and increased metacognition.

Finally, it is clear there are both opportunities and challenges with any single approach to online assessment. Perhaps the best solution is to provide multiple options. Rather than requiring students to schedule weekly visits to the testing center, consider reducing the closed-book to the midterm and/or final exams and maybe mix things up with open-book and collaborative exams in the interim.


Daffin, Jr., L.W., & Jones, A.A. (2018). Comparing student performance on proctored and non- proctored exams in online psychology courses. Online Learning, 22(1), 131-145. doi:10.24059/olj.v22i1.107


Johanns, B., Dinkins, A., & Moore, J. (2017). A systematic review comparing open-book and closed-book examinations: Evaluating effect on development of critical thinking skills. Nurse Education in Practice, 27, 89-94. doi.:10.1016/j.nepr.2017.08.018




Whether synchronous online course activities meet accessibility guidelines may depend on how you use them.

Man web-conferencing using an iPhone

CC-BY Public.Resource.Org on Flickr

Adding synchronous activities to your asynchronous online class can help to foster social presence and instructor immediacy. Using such tools as Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, etc. can add an element of interactivity and engagement to the online course that might otherwise be missing. Web-conferencing can be used to prepare students for upcoming assignments, review recent material, offer virtual office hours, and more…

but what about accessibility?

Our campus recently adopted a policy that essentially requires all online instruction meet accessibility guidelines. While our facilities department is well versed in ensuring campus physical learning spaces meet ADA requirements, faculty may struggle with how to approach accessibility within the virtual learning environment. When the disabilities office notifies an instructor that a student in their class needs further accommodation they also provide the direction and support necessary to meet the student’s needs.

Universal design vs. Accommodation

To accommodate a specific student with a disability is to retrofit instruction to meet that student’s needs. However, by applying Universal Design principles we anticipate a wide range of learners’ needs and design the instruction and learning environment accordingly.

Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities.

Employing universal design principles in instruction does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. There will always be the need for some specific accommodations, such as sign language interpreters for students who are deaf. However, applying universal design concepts in course planning will assure full access to the content for most students and minimize the need for specific accommodations. DOIT Center

So how can we go about ensuring online synchronous activities are accessible to all students regardless of ability? Part of the answer may depend on how the synchronous tools are being used.

Several web-conferencing solutions permit attendees to participate by dialing in on their phones rather than using computer VoIP. A phone connection may be used with other devices and services – such as Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) – to translate voice to text. Also by dialing in for the web-conference rather than using the browser or app, students can avoid exceeding their data cap when they are not connected via WiFi.

When presenting to the entire class in real-time, provide links to accessible digital materials in advance for participants to review and follow along during the session. Provide detailed descriptions and annotations to go along with any images, charts and graphs used within the presentation. Take the time to describe the significance of each graphic in detail during the presentation. These practices will also help when transcribing or captioning the session for recordings after the event.

By using the chat feature provided in most web-conferencing solutions all participants can submit questions. Assign a moderator to keep track of the chat window and type in the presenter’s answers to posted questions. Whether a question is being asked by someone in the lecture hall or via chat, it is always a good idea to repeat the question before responding.

Rather than using only video and voice features, offer chat and/or text messaging as options for conferences with individual students. Be sure the information on how and when to connect is also made accessible. Web links should provide a description and any further instructions in plain text (as opposed to images, arrows, highlighted text, etc.) to be read by screen-reader software. Include a phone number in the invite as well in the event description for hearing impaired students to access via TRS services.

By taking the time to create accessible web-conferences we not only accommodate the student with a visual or hearing impairment, we make the presentation more usable for all participants.


DOIT Center: Universal design vs. accommodation

Federal Communications Commission: Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS)

W3C: Understanding WCAG 2.0 – Time-based Media

IBM Human Ability & Accessibility Center: Overcoming accessibility challenges of web-conferencing


Virtual office hours revisited

Asynchronous online learning is often considered the gold standard of distance learning, as it is the most convenient and flexible format in regards to scheduling. Learners can interact with the content, instructor, and classmates at anytime and from anywhere. However, a frequent complaint of new-to-online students is the sense of isolation often experienced in the virtual classroom.

Isolation - man sitting alone in the desert

Isolation CC-BY Henrik Dacquin on Flickr

One of the ways instructors can help to mitigate this isolation is to leverage technology to improve instructor immediacy. Such practices might include posting short videos of themselves explaining a particularly challenging concept or going over an assignment. By providing audio feedback comments along with writing assignments, students begin to recognize their instructors as real people. Another important practice is to offer students the option of connecting in real-time using virtual office hours.

Patrick Lowenthal has been studying and writing about social presence in the online classroom for a number of years. In a recent paper, entitled, Live synchronous web meetings in asynchronous online courses, he and colleagues Joanna Dunlap and Chareen Snelson took a look at how virtual office hours might be improved using a design-based research (DBR) approach.

Lowenthal questioned whether it was a good use of his time in earlier attempts offering virtual office house due to lack of student participation. However, more recently he began to consider revisiting the practice, and to look  at ways to increase student attendance and learner engagement.

By changing up the branding, limiting the number of sessions, and tying an instructional component to the synchronous sessions, he and his colleagues discovered they could increase student participation from less than ten to around fifty percent. Students reported the sessions were a good use of their time and allowed them to get to know their instructor better (improved instructor immediacy).

The following findings / recommendations are from their study (shared with permission):

Orientation to live sessions

  1. Refer to virtual office hours using a more inviting title. For example, for more informal live sessions, select a name like Happy Hours, Coffee Breaks, Afternoon Tea, Bat Cave, and Around the Campfire. For more formal live sessions, consider titles such as Consultations, Design Studio, Conference Room, Headquarters, and Open Space.
  2. Inform students at the start of the semester when synchronous sessions are scheduled. 3. Inform students of the agenda for each live session in advance.
  3. Remind students of approaching live sessions in daily/weekly communications, such as via the announcements feature of a learning management system.
  4. Provide low-stakes opportunities for students to troubleshoot and get acquainted with the synchronous format and associated tools. For example, during the first few weeks of a course, have each student—or small groups of students—visit with you in Adobe Connect for the sole purpose of checking out tool functionality, and to hear and see each other laugh.
  5. Share a short recording of a live session with students new to live sessions so they can get a sense of how they work and what to expect in advance of participating in a live session.


  1. Consider students’ time zones when scheduling live sessions. Use a tool like Doodle, for example, to determine best times to meet.
  2. Schedule live sessions strategically; they do not need to be scheduled weekly. For example, schedule live sessions prior to the due dates of major deliverables or in advance of exams.
  3. Vary the day of the week and time of day. Consider scheduling two live sessions per week on different days and at different times of day.


  1. Be transparent with students as to your reasons for including live sessions in your online courses.
  2. Ask students to share questions in advance of live sessions so sessions may be tailored to meet specific goals, needs, and interests.
  3. Make live sessions relevant in terms of content and activity. Make sure the live sessions add value to the students’ learning experience in an online course. For example, include a brief direct-instruction component, demonstration, or guest speaker in each live session.
  4. Provide a comparable learning experience for those unable to attend a live session. For example, give those students specific questions/prompts to respond to while watching the recording.

Incentives and assessment

  1. Add incentives for attendance (e.g., require it or allow students to earn points), but provide options—equitable in terms of learning experience—for those who have schedule conflicts.
  2. Involve students in learning activities during synchronous sessions that support their work on projects, papers, and so on. For example, provide a lab demonstration that will help students complete their own experiments in the lab. Interaction
  3. Start each live session with a brief ice-breaker and/or get-to-know-you activity to help establish connections between and among instructor and students, and to get warmed up with the technology before launching into more coursework-oriented activities.
  4. Provide both informal and structured time and opportunity for students to interact with each other.


  1. Have students contribute to or determine “rules of engagement” for interacting with each other during live sessions.
  2. Model the type and level of interaction that supports student engagement during live sessions.
  3. Get students involved in the live meetings. For example, have them collaborate on a response to a problem of practice or peer review each other’s work.
  4. Ask for questions from students who are unable to attend, and respond to the questions during the live session.

Mitigating the sense of isolation that new-to-online learners often experience can help them to make the important connections and establish the support network they need to persist in meeting their educational goals. The full paper can be found in the reference section below.


P. Lowenthal, J. Dunlap, C. Snelson (2017). Live Synchronous Web Meetings in Asynchronous Online Courses: Reconceptualizing Virtual Office Hours. Online Learning Journal. Retrieved from

Bridging the transactional distance between instructor and student

Orcutt and Dringus (2017) share the results of their study on what experienced online instructors do to establish teaching presence and create a climate of academic intellectual curiosity.


Source: Beyond Being There: Practices that Establish Presence, Engage Students and Influence Intellectual Curiosity in a Structured Online Learning Environment

Their findings demonstrate the effectiveness of developing teaching presence well before the course actually begins. By initiating “authentic relationships” through the use of welcome posts or emails students are able to connect with their instructors before the first day of class. This proactive approach establishes teaching and social presence and help learners to develop a sense of “being there” – closing the perceived transactional distance typical of the virtual learning environment.

Teen on Smarphone

Smartphone Learning

For the past several years the Horizon Report has listed mobile learning, in one form or another, as an emerging educational technology (e.g. mobile computing, mobile apps, social media, BYOD, mobile learning). Mobile technologies have changed over the years: from the early PDAs, Blackberrys and feature phones with texting capability and cameras, to tablets and eReaders to the ubiquitous smartphones of today. According to the ECAR 2016 Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 96% of undergraduate students now own a smartphone. Smartphones have clearly emerged as the mobile technology of choice, while the tablet, eReader and wearable technology ownership has dropped off.

Chart showing rate of undergraduate smartphone ownership

Undergraduate Smartphone Ownership

Considering that community college students oftentimes have access to fewer resources, it seems at first that this would be counter-intuitive. However, when you consider that the smartphone may be the main source of Internet access, it begins to make more sense. The cost of the smartphone is usually spread out over monthly payments within a contract. This means lower costs up-front and lower costs overall when compared to the combined costs of cellular and monthly broadband Internet service to the home.

Despite near universal device ownership, students have yet to fully embrace the smartphone as a tool for learning. The ECAR study indicates that most students (appx 80%) do use their smartphones for one or more classes while only 46% consider them “essential for coursework” compared to their laptops at 93%. This is understandable considering the fact that many online courses tend to be reading and writing intensive. The size of the screen and necessity of “typing” with a virtual keyboard, can mean reading and writing with the smartphone a laborious task.

The top three ways listed by students for using academic technology include making it easier to access coursework (72%), increasing communication with other students (65%), as well as with their instructors (60%) – in other words, student-to-content, student-to-student, and student-to-instructor interactivity. Anderson’s Interaction Equivalency Theorem states that “deep and meaningful formal learning is supported as long as one (or more) of the three forms of interaction is at a high level”.

What if we were to design the course with the smartphone learner in mind? Not necessarily that the course must be taken using a smartphone, but that the learner who uses a smartphone as their primary technology would not be disadvantaged. What would we then need to do differently?

Rather than delivering content primarily in the form of text, the use of video and/or audio formats might prove more mobile-friendly. Smartphones are great for watching short videos or listing to music. Video and audio files (podcasts) can can be easily created using various mobile apps or web-conferencing solutions (e.g. Voice Recorder,, Skype). By using Google Drive or, media can be made available for students to download offline, when they may be without a WiFi connection as well as for those students with limited data plans.

The ability to take photos, record and share images, audio and video via the smartphone camera can be a powerful tool for both student-to-content and student-to-student interactivity. By sharing or attaching photos, screenshots, video or audio files, learners can create authentic artifacts. Such media can be submitted to an e-portfolio or blog (e.g. Tumblr) for peer review or assessment of learning.

Most social media technologies (SMT) are designed to work with the smartphone as well as with desktop browsers. By replacing LMS threaded discussion with SMT (e.g. GroupMe), messaging, engaging in group discussions, as well as sharing news, scholarly articles, video, etc. becomes a simple and familiar process.

Scheduling virtual office hours using Skype, Zoom, or Hangouts can increase student-to-instructor interactivity and improve student satisfaction. Skype also can be used for asynchronous video and audio communication, supporting teaching presence and instructor immediacy.

Despite the pervasiveness of smartphone ownership by today’s undergraduate students, their use of the technology for academic purposes has not kept up with the rate of adoption. One reason students may not leverage their mobile devices for formal learning is educators have yet to fully “harness” the affordances of the technology for teaching and learning.


Brooks, D.C. (2016). ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology 2016. EDUCAUSE.

ANDERSON, T (2003). Getting the Mix Right Again: An Updated and Theoretical Rationale for Interaction. IRRODL

Cochrane, T., Bateman, R. (2010). Smartphones give you wings: Pedagogical
affordances of mobile Web 2.0. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

Virtual Office Hours

In their paper, “Using Virtual Office Hours to Enhance Student-Faculty Interaction”, Lei Li and Jennifer Pitts (2009) from Colorado State University found that students enrolled in courses that offered virtual office hours experienced a higher level of satisfaction than those students enrolled in traditional on-campus courses. Apparently, just by making the virtual office hours an option for students, regardless of whether they availed themselves of the opportunity, was enough to increase the students’ comfort level with the instructor and the online course.


Skype & Coffee by I. Keller of Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA

Ll, L., Pitts, J. (2009). Does it really matter? Using virtual office hours to enhance student-faculty interaction. Journal of Information Systems Education, Vol 20. No. 2.


What can we learn from the unsuccessful online student?

We have quite a bit of information on what it takes to be a successful online student but we may also be able to learn a few things from a couple of studies focusing on the unsuccessful online student.


Great Expectations by Greg Myers on Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA

Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY, surveyed 438 unsuccessful online students over a ten year span about their online learning experience. “Unsuccessful students” were defined as those who either failed or withdrew from the online course (Fetzner, 2013).

Online course retention rates are on average, between 5 – 10% lower than for on-campus courses. Findings from the study show the group of students least likely to complete include the “first-time, full-time” students, with a difference in the success rate of 32%. The top three reasons given by the unsuccessful students for dropping or failing their courses, were “falling behind in coursework”, “personal problems”, and conflicts with work and/or family responsibilities (Fetzner, 2013).

In another study examining student engagement and online persistence, researchers from from the University of Georgia collected data on 423 students enrolled in thirteen online course sections over three semesters. The withdrawal rate for the asynchronous online courses was very high at 32%. Of those students who stayed enrolled in the courses, only 75% successfully completed the course (Morrie, Finnegan, Wu 2005).

Findings from the UG study (2005) indicated that unsuccessful completers (those finishing the course earning a D or F grade) were much less likely to participate or engage meaningfully in course discussions / postings, etc.

It is apparent from both studies that students may have very unrealistic expectations of what it takes to succeed going into the online learning environment. I have heard anecdotally on numerous occasions of students who have enrolled in an online course for the first time because they thought it would be “easier”.

Our campus is developing an “Introduction to Distance Learning” module in our LMS for students enrolling in an online or blended course for the first time at our college. At the moment they enroll they will be automatically enrolled in the module. An email message will alert them that they need to complete the module before their online course begins. The purpose of the module is to help students better understand what they can expect in taking an online course in regards to organizational skills, time-on-task, the amount of reading and writing required, as well as their access to, and comfort with, technology, etc.

I would be interested to hear of what other colleges have done to help mitigate unrealistic expectations of the first-time online student.


Fetzner, M. (2013). What do unsuccessful online students want us to know? Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol 17, No. 1

Morris, L., Finnegan, C., Wu, S. (2005). Tracking student behavior, persistence, and achievement in online courses. Internet and Higher Education Vol 8. 221-231.