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Engaging Students


To engage the students in online courses, instructors need to adopt teaching strategies that differ from those used in a traditional classroom. Given the lack of face-to-face contact that’s present in an on-ground course, faculty members must find ways  to foster collaboration and communication among students sitting at their own desks across town—or perhaps even across cities and states. In addition, there should be a variety of activities and assignments that can bring about the same degree of student engagement and active learning that students would experience in an on-ground course.

For example, instructors may:

  • Periodically send announcements or email messages to the entire class about upcoming assignments or important updates.
  • Communicate with individual students, including messages about their performance in the class or scheduled office hours with a student that may have questions.
  • Monitor students’ interactions with each other in some way, such as through the discussion forums.

All of these interactions are important and can greatly impact students’ experiences in their courses.

The Benefits of Interaction

Offering opportunities for different types of positive interaction can increase students’ satisfaction with their online courses. To list a few other key benefits, good quality interactions can:

  • Increase students’ learning.
  • Increase students’ motivation and effort.
  • Reduce the feelings of isolation that online learners sometimes face.
  • Reduce the demands on the instructor: students can be asked to take on leadership roles in the class by facilitating discussions, discovering useful resources, and supporting other students.
  • Help the instructor to assess the depth of students’ learning.
  • Provide students with real world skills related to collaboration, communication and leadership; the ability to master these skills by working remotely is an additional asset.

How to Begin

It can be hard to know where to begin when it comes to creating a good environment for interaction and collaboration. To help, the ID team has created a checklist with proven techniques for fostering positive and productive interaction among online learners. It includes rationales for why each step is beneficial as well as some tools and resources to help you get started.

This checklist is organized into different stages:

1) Developing a plan for the course (and organizing the materials)
2) Communicating with students about the course requirements
3) Fostering collaboration and facilitation during activities


New mandates for Title IV from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, require proof on student engagement in a Direct Contact Hours chart in your syllabus and in the online course. Please use the latest version of the online-syllabus-template with the chart already in place. And use the Online Instructional Equivalency and Substantive Interaction Grid to assist with designing your course within these expectations. (Requirements include at least two activities with substantive engagement.)

Canvas Functions for Further Engagement

Create an Ice Breaker Discussion

An ice breaker discussion is a quick and easy way of creating an online community at the beginning of the course. Have students share experiences, images, and videos. Canvas makes it easy to add video and images in discussions.

Have an Open Line of Communication

Canvas has many options to encourage communication between instructors and their students:

  • Inbox Messages
    These private messages are routed through a user’s school email account, so this is a great way to communicate privately with students both on Canvas and school email at the same time. Students can also view and send message from the Canvas app on their phone.
  • Announcements
    When an instructor creates a new announcement in a course, a notification will be sent to the student. The speed of the notification will vary depending on how students setup their Canvas notifications. Students can also add a mobile number as a way of contact.  Instructors should encourage students to adjust their notifications so they receive new notifications about announcements on their phone or preferred email.
  • Offer Some Synchronous Communication Options
    Offer online office hours and host some meetings online to give students face-to-face interaction. Instructors can use Canvas Conferences or GoToTraining for synchronous, online meetings. In conferences instructors can allow students to share web cams video with each other and to discuss course topics.
  • Discussions
    Discussions are a great way to encourage communication between among everyone in the course. Discussions  can be graded so students earn points for their participation. Students learn best by doing, so make the discussion interactive and challenging.
  • Use Video
    Many students learn better when content is presented in several different ways, such as video. Creating video can be time consuming and may require using new technology tools. To address these challenges, start small by adding an introductory video on the course home page. Canvas makes it easy to record directly from your webcam with the media comment tool in the rich content editor toolbar.  You can also add video comments in the SpeedGrader as well.