Online Learning and Teaching: Thinking beyond the technology to student engagement

By Associate Professor Petrea Redmond and Dr Alice Brown (School of Education, University of Southern Queensland)

#InThisTogether #COVID-19 #highereducation #TEL

COVID-19 has made a significant global impact on all sectors of education.  These are unprecedented times when teaching, learning, and living is very dynamic and looks very different from before.  For some, it has been and continues to be fast, fun, crazy, unplanned, and an opportunity for innovation and inspiration. Others are challenged, confused, experience a lack of confidence, stressed, and unsure of how to provide an equivalent quality of educational experience online. And for others still, it is old hat and business as usual, due to having taught online since the mid-2000’s.

Transitioning from face-to-face to online teaching provides opportunities for innovation alongside a range of associated challenges. As educators engage within this space and negotiate changing contexts, new technologies, resulting pedagogical implications, they shift and move across a continuum of practice.   These efforts include educators needing to reconceptualise student learning online with a key consideration given to the pedagogical practices they adopt, and ways in which they can potentially enhance students’ engagement in learning and with their learning community.

There are many terms used to describe the current teaching and learning experience that we find ourselves in, including homeschooling, remote learning, emergency remote teaching, E-learning, hybrid learning, blended learning, and online learning.  Whatever it is called in your context, it is likely to change education and the way that we teach not just within the present crisis but also in the future.

While we are currently physically distancing ourselves from our students, it is essential to integrate opportunities for connectedness. Research shows that online presence and student engagement are critical factors contributing to student retention and success.  Key to successful learning at this point is the ongoing connectivity of students with the content of their courses, their peers, and their teaching teams. Being present in synchronous chats, asynchronous forums, on the phone, email, or carrier pigeon is key to keeping students engaged, and this will go a long way to reducing student attrition.

Student engagement with educational contexts is critical in planning for online learning.  Readers are encouraged to consider the type of engagement they are preparing for in their courses and how each type of engagement might be afforded.  The Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education (Redmond, Heffernan, Abawi, Brown & Henderson, 2018) paper argues that student engagement is an important benchmark and indicator of the quality of the student experience for higher education.  The framework was created from a review of the literature, and it identifies indicators for five key elements of online engagement. The table below summarizes the elements and indicators.

Online engagement element Indicators (illustrative only)
Social engagement


Building community
Creating a sense of belonging
Developing relationships
Establishing trust
Cognitive engagement


Thinking critically
Activating metacognition
Integrating ideas
Justifying decisions
Developing deep discipline understandings
Distributing expertise
Behavioral engagement



Developing academic skills
Identifying opportunities and challenges
Developing multidisciplinary skills
Developing agency
Upholding online learning norms
Supporting and encouraging peers
Collaborative engagement


Learning with peers
Relating to faculty members
Connecting to institutional opportunities
Developing professional networks
Emotional engagement



Managing expectations
Articulating assumptions
Recognizing motivations
Committing to learning

The authors identify multiple applications and uses for the framework, such as a lens for instructors to plan teaching and learning;  a tool for instructional designers to use and assist Instructors in planning for active and multiple types of student engagement; a device for teaching teams to refer to for critical reflection.  More broadly, at the program level, the framework is a valuable tool as a way of auditing the types of online engagement employed across courses. At the macro level, it could be used as a reference point to inform interpretations and benchmarking of engagement.

These different types of engagement manifest in different ways in online and in face-to-face contexts.  One of the challenges for universities currently is how to highlight opportunities for engagement and the importance of engagement in virtual environments. The Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education provides indicators to support practices that foster different types of online engagement.

For people who are interested in reading the open-access Online Learning article ‘An Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education,’ it is available from CC-BY 4.0.

The authors were invited by ALT to present a webinar on the paper; you can listen to the recording at

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