Learning to engage students online

Teaching is about so much more than communicating knowledge; it is everything that occurs in an environment with students that generates learning. With more and more learning moving online, being an effective teacher also means a thorough understanding and use of the quirks and tricks of the online context and knowledge.

We were part of a cohort that recently completed the action-oriented Navitas course Foundations of Learning and Teaching Online – Essential Concepts. We all walked away at the end of the course – or, rather clicked away – having learnt about some principles of teaching online and applied them to our own contexts and challenges.

We shared our most challenging experiences in learning and teaching online and discussed the strategies to overcome these challenges. You can watch the presentations by three of us via the recorded webinar or read on:




One of the hardest challenges moving from face-to-face to a technology-enabled environment can be the loss of relationship with your students. The human connections and energy of a buzzing classroom often disappear.

Strategies that might help to bring back some engaging human elements into the online environment are:

  • Establish the relationship with your students from the outset by introducing yourself online in a human way. Maintain this relationship throughout the course by recapping lessons, posting weekly announcements or announcing what’s coming up next for the learning sequence.
  • Use media to bridge the gap: podcasts, images, cartoons, animations, or video part of a lesson so that students can see a face.
  • Take an active interest in your students by making sure your responses online are personalised, specific and timely.
  • Be available to your students by providing contact information. You may also decide to list some specific times you will be online to answer questions.



Recent studies have revealed links between emotional presence and students’ motivation, self-regulation and academic achievement (Rientes & Rivers, 2014). It is quite a commonsense viewpoint that says that how students are feeling will impact how they interact with the material. Online contexts make it more difficult for teachers to ascertain how students are feeling, and we all know this feeling from the times we have asked questions or shared something online that receives few responses or engagement from students.

To overcome the lack of traditional visual and auditory cues in your online classroom, we offer these suggestions:

  • Run synchronous sessions using webcams to bring back the face-to-face interactions and insights.
  • Scan course discussion boards for keywords. You can use tools like Word Clouds to help gauge the current issues or mood with a cohort.
  • Take advantage of data mining options! It’s easier than ever to analyse users of a system, their frequency of attendance, click-through rates on the links you share, or time spent viewing each page. Modern learning management systems offer great built-in tools to track students’ learning.



Online teaching is an exciting and productive medium to reach many students and particularly students who find it difficult to commit to face-to-face studies. But we need to be creative and flexible in an online mode and make sure that we keep on top of new ways to engage with students.

There are some great foundations of good teaching that can be applied to create an engaging online environment. For example:

  • Record all your classes or parts of your classes and make them available online.
  • Add interaction to your online classes with live text communications or interactive whiteboards.
  • Turn to tried-and-tested good pedagogy like planning good questions. The way you ask questions online can determine whether or not students engage. Put some thought into when to use a closed question or an open question. Always think about what the question is asking students to do and make sure to sequence the questions to help your students build from a question that asks them to analyse or reflect to relating and applying.

Interested in a course for yourself or a colleague? Check out the PD & Events page.

Search the word ‘online‘ on this site for more resources from teachers staff and others across Navitas around the world, or join in the conversation on Yammer.