Communication & Engagement in the Online Classroom

computers connecting people through digital communication
Most teachers would agree that communication and engagement are key factors for student success in any classroom. In the online classroom, however, these variables play out a little differently than they might in a face-to-face setting. In this article, we break down what communication looks like in an online course, who is responsible for student engagement, and, finally, how communication and engagement interact in practice.

Our latest blog series has covered some of the basics on how to help students succeed in the online classroom.

Throughout this series, a few key themes have surfaced, including the importance of:

Today we’re going to take a deep dive into two other key elements in the equation for student success in the online classroom:

Communication and engagement. 

The two are closely related to one another, with communication being one fundamental component of student engagement in an online course.

What does communication look like in an online class?

Communication in an online course takes a variety of different forms. 

For example, communication can be a tool instructors use to establish and grow a relationship with learners. It can also take the form of course announcements and personalized messages of encouragement with learners that serve to relay information.

Communication can also be used to help learners master course content. 

As in any class, it is critical for online instructors to provide timely and detailed feedback to learners on their submitted work, so learners can see where they have mastered course material and where they still have gaps in their knowledge or understanding. 

Additionally, online instructors can use real-time, quick communications to check in with learners to ensure they are able to access course resources and are able to complete their required course work within a reasonable time frame.

These check ins also serve to maintain relationships between online instructors and learners as they indicate to learners that someone is there to help and cares about their course experience.

What does engagement look like in an online class?

Learner engagement and communication are key elements in the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching, which describes the standard of “learner engagement” by saying:

 “The online teacher promotes learner success through interactions with learners and other stakeholders and by facilitating meaningful learner engagement in learning activities.”

When it comes to online learning, the quantity and quality of engagement is ultimately left up to the student.

That being said, online instructors still have a number of responsibilities regarding engagement in the online course. It is their job to support each student’s agency and independence in the course. 

While it is up to online instructors to provide ample support for their students, it is up to the student to maintain control over their pace and progression.

This can be achieved through the online instructor helping the student identify a learner-customized path through the course that is in line with their goals and interests. 

How are communication and engagement related?

Despite the fact that online learners have agency over their course progression, instructors still have a responsibility to monitor learner progress and performance through a variety of tools. 

This monitoring is crucial in that it helps teachers identify learners who are progressing appropriately and those who are in need of intervention to achieve their learning goals. 

It is here where communication and engagement interact as online instructors must communicate frequently with not only the learner but the mentor, parents, and other stakeholders to develop strategies to support learner engagement for struggling students.  

Communication and engagement are critical elements of any learning experience, particularly so in online environments where instructors can use a variety of strategies to both communicate with and support online learners.

Success in Online Learning blog series

In our Success in Online Learning blog series, we discuss all things K-12 online learning in Michigan and across the nation. Our hope with this series is to provide a primer on K-12 online learning, cover established and emerging topics, and provide relevant research and resources. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the authors

Kristen DeBruler

Dr. Kristen DeBruler received her doctorate in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University. She taught in the Master of Arts in Educational Technology program at Michigan State University for three years. Her work focuses on K-12 online learning policy in Michigan and nation wide as well as understanding online learning best practices.

Christopher Harrington

Dr. Christopher Harrington has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with iNACOL and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.

Picture of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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