comment 0

Engagement, Engagement, Engagement: Three Rules of Online Teaching

by Rob Gearhart

Designing an online course with engagement at the heart is as important as the three rules of buying real estate, (location, location, location). While there is no ONE WAY to design and deliver an online course, most Ithaca College Summer (or Winter) Session online courses are delivered asynchronously (no real-time components). Here are a few principles defining good practice that employ engagement at its core and apply across various online course methods.

Principle 1. ENGAGE STUDENTS with CONTENT, YOU, and their PEERS (and, possibly, guest experts).

CONTENT: Design a plan for how students will interact with content. That content can come in many forms, such as recorded lectures, readings, activities, etc.

YOU: Incorporate experiences where you and your students interact on regular basis. Consider alternates to individual interactions, communication venues that fit your course objectives (e-mail, phone, skype, etc.) or group contact (discussion board, chat, etc.)

PEERS: Create opportunities where students interact with each other around learning goals. That may be accomplished through an entire class activity, or small group/team activity, using discussion boards, group mail and collaborative workspace.

EXPERTS (guests): for an added bonus, you might explore ways in which guest experts, based anywhere in the world – might participate in your course and interact with you and the students.

NOTE: there is more about your role as facilitator below… and discussion boards


TEACH “HOW” TO BE AN ONLINE STUDENT (many will be learning online for the first time): Reach out in advance, communicate expectations, set rules for participation, model engagement, facilitate a partnership in course inquiry, communicate parameters on your time (where, what, when, why and how you will respond).

REACH OUT: Introduce yourself. Create activities for your students to introduce themselves to their peers.

COMMUNICATE EXPECTATIONS: Contact students in advance of your course so they are clear on the expectations and what they need to do to get started. Our suggestion is to contact all registered summer session students at the following points:

  • 1-2 weeks before course begins
  • 1 day before course begins
  • First day of course
  • 1-3 days into course (for those who have not yet engaged in the online space)

SET RULES FOR PARTICIPATION: Be clear how that participation is assessed. For example, you may set expectations for how or how often you will expect a student to participate in online discussions. You may also set up a rubric for how that participation will be graded.

MODEL: Demonstrate what quality engagement should look like. Let your presence be known via individual connections and group facilitation.

ACT AS A FACILITATOR: Interject comments to enhance and expand topics – and then be committed to checking in regularly. (Be careful not to let your presence in group discussions “end” the conversation prematurely.)

COMMUNICATE YOUR TIME PARAMETERS: Make it clear to your students, when and why you will be online. For example, you could set a schedule for checking/responding to messages sometime in the morning, then again during a period in the afternoon, and perhaps a brief time early or late evening. When students understand your pattern they won’t expect an immediate response to their 3:00am query.

MAKE YOUR COURSE SCHEDULE AND DUE DATES CLEAR: Use the tools at your disposal, such as course calendars, announcements, etc. Get in the habit of posting reminders. Designate what is upcoming for the next few days, next week, etc.


CREATE ACHIEVABLE LEARNING OUTCOMES: An online course will meet the same student learning outcomes as its classroom equivalent course, but it may use different activities to reach those outcomes. One way to gauge whether the “scope of content” in an online course is appropriate is to estimate “time on task” for different activities and compare those to the generally accepted models for classroom courses. Make an estimated calculation of the activities in each of your modules, weeks, etc. and see how they compare. Factor in your best estimate of how long it takes to participate in an online discussion, or how to accommodate the fact that all participants will do that differently. Pick a reasonable average estimate and be consistent.

CONSIDER FACULTY WORKLOAD: Determine how the design and delivery of an online course will impact your workload. Usually, it takes MORE time to thoughtfully teach an online course and the two factors most often cited are: 1) the upfront development of content, and 2) student engagement, specifically facilitating online discussions.

  1. DEVELOPMENT: Any new course requires up front development time, so a new online course – whether it is a new course, or the transformation of an existing classroom course to an online format – will require that time and probably more. Time is required for recording lectures, developing activities, selecting readings, and copyright clearance. PLAN AHEAD! Course activities require regular updates.
  2. FACILITATION: The time it takes to be a good online facilitator should not be underestimated. As noted earlier, create a presence, be a good role model, and set expectations for engagement. And…when courses are compressed – into 2 weeks, or 5 weeks – we expect the students to complete the same amount of work in shorter times, so the expectation for intensive faculty engagement in the course is similar. Engaged, high quality online facilitation is where most of that time is spent.

QUESTIONS? NEED GUIDANCE? Contact members of the TELE Collaborative for support in demonstrating high quality online teaching practice.


Henderson, J. (2012, January 17). Transformative Learning: Four Activities that Set the Stage. Retrieved April 30, 2015, from

How to Humanize Your Online Class – 2. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2015, from

Mandernach, J., & Garrett, J. (2014, June 20). Effective Feedback Strategies for the Online Classroom. Retrieved April 30, 2015, from

Reiss, D. (1996). Discussion Patterns. Reiss. Retrieved April 30, 2015, from

Reiss, D. (1996). Ten Tips for Generating Engaged Online Discussions. Retrieved April 30, 2015, from

Using Rubrics to Grade Online Discussions – ELC Support. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2015, from

Venable, M. (2013, July 22). Make a Personal Connection in Your Online Classroom – Retrieved April 30, 2015, from

Wells, G. (2015, April 20). Five Steps to Improving Online Group Work Assignments. Retrieved April 30, 2015, from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s