Engagement: The Secret to Teaching Online This Fall

When hundreds of spring and summer undergraduate courses were abruptly moved from onsite to online delivery in the wake of COVID-19, several faculty and students nationwide reacted with panic and uncertainty. Currently, instructors are busy preparing for the 2020-2021 academic year where several students will continue taking courses online. At my institution, fall academic courses will be primarily virtual (along with several others across the nation), with some in-person and hybrid instruction for performance-based, clinical, and laboratory courses, and some students living on campus.

I believe faculty want to teach and students want to learn.  Therefore, rushed course conversions from in-person to online are probably insufficient to get through the fall, given that faculty won’t have time to prepare. Those teaching during these uncertain times may find some clarity in reassessing their commitment to Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  The UDL framework considers the variabilities of all learners, thus including learners who are underrepresented and formerly relegated to the margins of our higher education systems.  To its credit, COVID-19 has exposed vast inequalities in higher education for both institutions and learners.  This unevenness can be influenced by several factors, including personal income, family history, location, state, and federal policies. This past spring, I witnessed students dropping classes during the online rush because they did not have reliable internet or a working, personal computer. This fall, the expectations and stakes will be higher, so here are few things to consider when planning an online class. 

Beware of the synchronous versus asynchronous trap.  Before the spring quarter, several colleges and universities had never offered online classes during their regular academic year, while others only provided continuing education courses online, and some offered a few online programs.  A few years ago, I developed an online master’s program in special education and an onsite undergraduate program in the same area.  I quickly realized that several administrators had not considered the need for well-placed online-learning paths.  Designing online instruction as a discipline is backed by decades of eLearning science.  I had to take several courses in eLearning, read copious research articles, and speak to various EdTech vendors to understand the scope and magnitude of eLearning. I also relied on my experience as a special education teacher at a K-12 online public school. Near the end of my first quarter in higher education, I made a personal pledge never to teach a fully-traditional, onsite course.  Since then, all of my classes have been hybrid or entirely online. 

Right now, faculty may believe they are preparing eLearning courses. However, several will instead be developing and teaching remote courses as they try to teach as close to their onsite method as possible, using much of their same pedagogical approaches. At the same time, many are still busy attempting to get a handle of the intricacies of their Learning-Management Systems (LMS), conferencing technologies (Zoom), and remote testing protocols to develop Quality Matters level eLearning courses. 

In order to make a smooth transition, faculty should avoid the synchronous versus asynchronous trap. Instead, they should be willing to use both approaches. Synchronous learning is online or remote learning that happens live and in real-time, whereas asynchronous learning occurs through online channels without real-time interaction. Instead of dedicating one’s entire fall semester or quarter to one modality, instructors should consider using both.  Supporting both synchronous and asynchronous models can result in blended courses suited to supporting the flipped teaching model.  If faculty have not done so already, they should begin developing course content accessible on an LMS, where some of the course activities can be completed before or after a live session meets. 

Keep it simple with eLearning modalities.  I advise instructors to use all of the approaches below when developing courses for remote or online learning.  Let students and the nature of the content you teach dictate whether synchronous knowledge-gaining or asynchronous knowledge-gaining experiences are best.  I highly advise the use of both options in the same teaching segment.  For example, in a 60-minute live lesson via Zoom (or Teams), I have found the following strategies for engaging students beneficial:

  • Lecture for no more than 20 minutes (with copious amounts of engaging activities and formative assessment).
  • Break students into active group discussions (break out rooms) and end the live class with a debrief.
  • Break instructions down into three to five clear, concise, and sequential steps. Always provide guidance in written form and ask students if they have clarifying questions (I ask students to give me a green check if they are ready to start).  
  • Switch gears and offer new and diverse ways for students to engage physically, verbally, or textually every six to eight minutes. Leverage all forms of communication, including verbal responses, gestures, and chat responses.
  • I allow students in my virtual sessions to use their hands, bodies, and facial expressions to demonstrate understanding or responses to questions.
  • Optionally, I develop an interactive google doc/hyperdoc to increase participation instead of PowerPoint slides. When I am using slides, I use a third-party software presentation and a participation software such as PearDeck to assess student engagement effectively. 

Lastly, several instructors have been trained to believe that synchronous learning is better because students receive immediate feedback. The reality is that this belief is far from a universal truth.  Not all-recursive feedback should be immediate, and again, instructors should let the nature of the content taught and the make-up of the class decide how and when they offer feedback. 

The promise of virtual engagement.  The assumption we have to move to understand all elements at play is essential to active knowledge-making.  Therefore, keeping it simple with eLearning modalities means using a multimodal approach focused on usability and multiple uses of text, media, sound, and data resources for fostering learning and teaching content.  In the traditional classroom, two forms of confinement are present—boundedness in space and time.  Faculty would be mistaken to bound online or remote learning to the same. Instead, faculty should consider using what eLearning experts refer to as ubiquitous learning: teaching remote courses with the diversity of their learners in mind, and offering ease of access to content at any time using the learner’s preferred device.

I encourage faculty to figure out their new normal, to set a new standard of teaching and learning, and be good at it.  My point is not to radically redesign assignments, but to consider what affordances the online space provides that are consonant with your vision and learner needs.  One way to focus on authentic assessment is by designing learning activities that students can later use as evidence of learning (more than quizzes).  Many instructors worry that students will cheat during online quizzes or exams and that online learning makes plagiarism easier. However, the best defenses against cheating are well-designed assignments and rubrics.  Cheating is less likely with authentic assessments.  For example, there is value in scaffolding assessments. I often require students to turn in portions of assignments at specific times throughout the semester, starting with ideation and moving toward the final product.  They receive feedback from their peers or me with every submission.  Additionally, instead of multiple-choice quizzes, I require students to use a video of themselves answering questions or doing presentations (I often use Flipgrid).  Successful online instruction must be flexible and focus on providing a space for live, virtual collaboration, giving clear instructions, and continuously checking for understanding.

Neria Sebastien, EdD, is currently an assistant professor of special education at Seattle University’s College of Education.  Sebastien has previously served as the director of online special education programs at Walla Walla University and an online K-12 public-school teacher (Oregon Virtual Academy).

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Tips for Fostering Students’ Self-Regulated Learning in Asynchronous Online Learning Environments

Due to the pandemic, both instructors and students have had to adapt quickly to different forms of online learning models.  Asynchronous learning has emerged as a predominant model because of its flexibility in allowing students to learn anytime and anywhere. Although convenient, this type of learning model requires students to exercise a high degree of self-regulated learning. Self-regulated learning is defined “as the degree to which students are metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active participants in their own learning process” (Zimmerman, 2008, p.2). In other words, self-regulated learning involves a high degree of motivation and self-direction.

For students who lack self-regulated learning skills, asynchronous learning can be extremely challenging and overwhelming. This in turn can hinder a student’s motivation to succeed. As a result, it is essential for educators to help foster students’ self-regulated learning skills so that they can succeed with a highly self-directed asynchronous learning model. Zimmerman (2000) proposes a three-phase cyclical model of self-regulation by which students combine cognitive, behavioral, and motivational strategies in order to attain task-specific goals. Educators can help students develop important self-regulated learning skills within each of the three phases of the model.

(1) At the forethought phase, students must create an effective learning plan. Educators can help students do so by helping them identify their learning goals. Learning goals should be specific—challenging but attainable, proximal, and hierarchically organized with larger overarching goals. In addition, educators should help students allocate appropriate amounts of time to complete learning tasks. Educators can do so by having students break tasks into smaller, more manageable sub-tasks that should be completed by specified dates. If tasks are taking longer or faster than the expected time, allocations should be adjusted accordingly. This information can be used to inform future planning.

(2) At the performance phase, students deploy differing strategies towards achieving their learning goals. This phase also requires students to exercise self-control and to self-observe the effectiveness of the strategies they are using to complete their learning tasks. Educators can help students at this phase by teaching and modeling various strategies that can be used for completing a learning task. In other words, they can equip students with a toolbox of strategies they can use for completing a task. This way students will not be stuck on just one strategy or approach.

Most important is for educators to teach students to be flexible in their learning tactics. For example, students should be reminded to reflect continuously on the effectiveness of their learning approaches and revise their strategies if necessary. One way of doing so is to encourage students to actively think aloud in a structured way while completing a learning task (see Ebner & Ehri 2013 and Ebner & Ehri, 2016). A structured think-aloud method involves continuously thinking about one’s learning goals, and the effectiveness of each action for attaining one’s goals. If a student recognizes that an action or strategy is not working well, they will then need to exercise flexibility by trying a different approach instead. Research by Ebner & Ehri (2013; 2016) revealed the effectiveness of students using a structured think-aloud approach for improving learning outcomes with college students. Furthermore, asking students to create a checklist of their learning goals and a record of their actions and the effectiveness of those actions for reaching their learning goals can also be a concrete way to help students self-reflect during the performance phase.

(3) Finally, the self-reflection phase requires students to self-reflect on their learning outcomes and experience. This phase is crucial for informing future learning success. It is important that students who did not perform as well as they hoped or expected, do not become fixated on their final grades, and instead focus on what they can learn from their experiences and improve or do differently next time.

Educators can help students develop mastery versus performance mindsets by providing students with timely, specific, and concrete feedback on learning tasks and assessments. Using detailed analytic scoring rubrics can be one useful way of organizing and providing students with specific and concrete feedback. Educators also can encourage students to self-assess their own work by providing them with grading rubrics to self-evaluate their own work before turning in assignments. Or educators can ask students to write why they believe their work should receive a particular grade and what they feel they did well or needs improvement.

In sum, with the advent and prevalence of asynchronous online learning models, it is important for educators to equip students with essential self-regulated skills. By encouraging students to be proactive and self-reflective learners, students will have the drive and ability to succeed.

Rachel Ebner is an educational psychologist who bridges theory, research, and practice by developing innovative methods to advance and assess student learning both inside and outside of the classroom. Her research has focused on investigating ways to help students self-regulate their online learning. Dr. Ebner currently serves as a university director of student learning assessment and also teaches university-level courses in educational and developmental psychology.  She holds an MA in developmental psychology from Columbia University’s Teachers College and an EdM in risk & prevention from Harvard Graduate School of Education.  She earned her doctorate in educational psychology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where she specialized in learning, development, and instruction.


Ebner, R., & Ehri, L. (2013). Vocabulary learning on the Internet:  Using a structured think-aloud procedure.  Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56 (6), 472-481, republished in Digital Literacies: An IRA Cross-Journal Virtual Issue (International Reading Association).

Ebner, R. & Ehri. L. (2016) Teaching students how to self-regulate their online vocabulary learning by using a structured think-to-yourself procedure.  Journal of College Reading and Learning, 46(1), 62-73, DOI: 10.1080/10790195.2015.1075448.  Published online Oct. 5, 2015 and available at  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10790195.2015.1075448

Zimmerman, B.J. (2000). Attaining self-regulation: A socialcognitive perspective. In M. Boekaerts, P.R. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 13–39). San Diego, CA: Academic. doi:10.1016/B978-012109890-2/50031-7

Zimmerman, B.J. (2008). Investigating self-regulation and motivation: Historical background, methodological developments, and future prospects. American Educational Journal, 45(1), 166–183. doi:10.3102/0002831207312909

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A Flexible Teaching Model: A Seamless Pivot from Face-to-Face to Online Teaching

When I envision teaching this fall, my highest priorities are social presence and flexibility. No matter the outcome of the fall 2020 semester, my goal is for students to leave my course feeling as if they were part of a community in which their voices mattered. I want to embrace critical thinking and rigor, which have the power to transform students. This year, I am adopting a flexible teaching model that meets my expectations, and will guide and support my students through these unchartered waters. Within my model, I have considered content delivery; collaborative, active learning; synchronous experiences; and a strong social presence. The following is my plan for the fall semester:

Content delivery

Content such as videos, audios, recorded presentations, articles, and other resources will be organized online and intuitively arranged in folders, so that students can easily navigate the course. Our current reality has forced me to reassess the content that I offer students. I am prioritizing my existing content and embracing a quality-over-quantity approach in which I offer a bit less content but more consistent, immediate feedback. I am also shifting to more compelling content, some being videos made by others. Yes, I enjoy narrating presentations, but I also appreciate the excitement of finding and adopting an already-created, right-on-point video. Learners appreciate a variety of content offerings. If a course has multiple sections, various instructors can share in the organization of content to lighten the load. Students can also be responsible for finding a piece of content and posting it on a discussion board with an explanation of why an article, video clip, piece of artwork, method of solving a problem, or poem is important. Students feel a sense of ownership and become more responsible for their own learning when they are required to take the lead.

Rationale: Providing all content online frees instructors’ obligations of ensuring that all students hear and view content synchronously. The online content—at the students’ fingertips—reduces questions and supports student learning. Wearing a mask while lecturing and live streaming those lectures for students who cannot be present can make content delivery cumbersome in the face-to-face environment. Posting all content online is also a proactive step in the event that multiple class sessions move completely online.

Collaborative, active learning

I have also determined that most active learning and student collaboration will happen outside of the face-to-face classroom in my own courses. Once students collaborate, they can then report back in an organized way. For example, I can ask students an essential question directly related to our weekly objectives. Students can pair up and answer this question together via FaceTime, Zoom, WebEx, or even through the good old telephone. Students can even use shared documents through Google or Microsoft. Once students finish their discussions—similar to a think-pair-share—they can post their ideas on the discussion board. This exchange of ideas initiates a conversation that begins online and then continues in a synchronous class environment.

Rationale: Active learning is an important part of the learning process. However, physical distancing while wearing masks can make face-to-face, in-class collaborations difficult. Communicating with each other in an online platform gives students the freedom and autonomy to collaborate safely and effectively, and as a bonus, they can see each other’s faces! Students can choose from a wide array of online communication tools that fit their needs for small group collaborative sessions. Instructors can also attend some small group sessions to model communication skills and to act as a catalyst for deeper inquiry.

Synchronous experiences

You may be wondering, If content and student collaborations occur online, then how will I use my face-to-face class time? Some universities—like mine—have adopted a model in which most instructors will see half the students on one day and the rest of the students during the next class meeting. These smaller groups work well for Q&A sessions, town hall meetings, discussions to deepen learner understanding, opportunities to build connections with students, and even troubleshooting when students become stuck. These sessions will be valuable, and guide and support students as they navigate through the course.

Rationale: If a face-to-face meeting is not possible, this model easily allows instructors to engage the entire class synchronously online. Therefore, if a circumstance arises and the class cannot gather together, the course flow is not interrupted, and productivity and support still occur in the online synchronous environment.

Strong social presence

Besides synchronously meeting with students once a week, I want to create a strong social presence that is consistent, intentional, and predictable. Cultivating a sense of community in a learner-centered classroom is part of my teaching philosophy; I want to be present in a variety of ways. I plan to start each week with a short audio recording that sets the tone. Even if this information can be found somewhere else within the course, it is important for students to hear my voice guiding them through the expectations for the week. I also plan to be present on the discussion board, where I’ll provide feedback and ask deeper questions to encourage critical thinking. Additionally, most students appreciate individual email check ins. When students are absent or falling behind, I plan to communicate with them individually and offer support. A strong social presence also means holding office hours, which I now call “student hours.” I recently read that a professor adopted this new name for office hours, and I agree that shifting to “student hours” sends a message to students that this precious time is reserved for them.

Rationale: Besides the weekly synchronous meeting, instructors should provide several interactions each week so that students feel the instructors’ presence. Multiple modes of communication throughout the week allow instructors to create a community of learners no matter what the circumstances might be.

This flexible teaching model resonates with me because no matter the scenario, this model works. For example, if circumstances arise in which one or more students must be 100% online, they can access the content, collaborate with peers, and even tune in for synchronous meetings via an online platform. Meanwhile a strong social presence will support students as they navigate the course. If circumstances dictate that I must move my course completely online—without disruption—my only modification becomes a weekly synchronous online meeting for the entire class instead of smaller face-to-face meetings. As we plan for the fall, creating a structure that allows instructors to support students through any situation becomes vital. You can also modify this model to meet your individualized needs as you create a plan that supports a learner-centered environment for your students.

Julie Sochacki, JD, is a clinical associate professor of English and director of the English secondary education program at University of Hartford. Julie is a life-long learner and has been experimenting with active learning in the classroom for 26 years. Contact her at [email protected]

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