How to really engage students online

By Ameena Payne and Alison Torn

From engaging on social media to attending virtual conferences, across the globe, academia has experienced how digital spaces have allowed us to connect and become more fully human in solidarity with others. In a similar light, discussion forums offer the opportunity for students to socialise, give help and get help – as a community of practice:

Forums are also a place for reassurance and encouragement:

A discussion forum is an online communication tool that can support structured and semi-structured learning as well as social connectedness. They’re more important and easier to effectively use than you might think. They’ve been shown to increase critical thinking skills, encourage greater reflection and inspire deeper responses. Forums are fulfilling for us as instructors too! With them, we’re afforded an opportunity to build longer-term knowledge of and relationships with our students. Discussion boards allow us to defy the constraints of rote and disembodied digitised environments.

Discussion forums work well even with large cohorts. The great thing about forums is that once you set the stage, momentum is harnessed, and they become self-sustaining learning communities (with occasional check-ins and guidance from you, the instructor). Our strategies return the focus onto more personable interactions within digital spaces.

Students say a critical issue in online higher education has been a lack of adequate support, interaction and engagement with academic staff and peers. The data tells us that students over the age of 25, those who study fully online, Indigenous students, low SES, regional students and those with reported disability share the lowest ratings of engagement. We pursue intersectionality in our teaching practice and believe that education can only act as the great social equaliser if all students are engaged and supported to reach their academic goals.

Seven definitions of engagement were discussed at the AdvanceHE 2021 Student Engagement Conference. During the conference, Dr. Emma Taylor described various levels of student engagement. We aim to encourage the use of discussion forums as a means of ‘nudging them toward the final category [present, participatory and engaged].’ 

Incorporate multimedia messages designed with consideration of how the human mind works

The theory of multimedia learning assumes that the way that we grasp and use information includes dual channels for visual/pictorial and auditory/verbal processing. Each channel has a limit on what it can handle. The goal is to find the right balance of words (e.g. electronic text and/or spoken narration) and pictures (or video) while allowing students to draw upon their experiences, opinions and values to foster deep, active learning.

Source: https://www.mheducation.ca/blog/richard-mayers-cognitive-theory-of-multimedia-learning

What students said

The case for multimedia learning rests on the idea that we can better understand an explanation when it’s presented in words and pictures than when it’s presented in words alone.

Conversation and play are crucial to the student experience 

When communicators view themselves as similar, they’re more likely to empathise and engage. 

Students often share their family backgrounds, nervousness, excitement and responsibilities they’re juggling as they begin uni. In sharing, they ‘feel a sense of solidarity seeing others post about their concerns’, as one student put it. 

Stories connect us. Instructors who, through storytelling, display ‘intellectual candour’ balance vulnerability and credibility. This may build trust and rapport.

Encourage student agency and self-regulated learning

The use of the Socratic technique isn’t used to intimidate or to patronise students. We use it for the reason Socrates developed it: to develop reasoning skills in students and empower them to approach their learning academically and democratically.

What students said

Motivate students to connect with the discussion activity

Discussion forum participation shouldn’t be busy work; participation should allow students to work together toward their assignment(s) too. Reframes, or forum introductory posts, provide an opportunity to emphasise the importance of engaging with the discussion board activity. 

Look forward and use gaps in discussion to generate more exchanges that fill those gaps

A summary is a discussion board post that acknowledges students and wraps the discussion. Weaving expands upon the conversation, through Socratic questioning, and encourages students to engage with their peers to deepen learning and establish a sense of community

What students said

Community of Inquiry

We embed the community of inquiry framework into the discussion board experience. The optimised experience is made up of all 3 types of presence: social, teaching and cognitive.

Social Presence

Social presence is defined and centres around developing a shared social identity. The key is allowing the relationships to develop naturally.


Social presence helps students form a sense of belonging in online communities.

Teaching Presence

Teaching presence is strongly linked to student satisfaction.


It also centres around instructional design and student support.

Cognitive Presence

Cognitive presence contains four phases – triggering, exploration, integration, and resolution:

  • Triggering – defining and recognising problems; questioning 
  • Exploration – a search for explanations/ideas/solutions 
  • Integration – building and generating meaning
  • Resolution – applying new knowledge and understandings   


For many reasons, academia can be resistant to trying things a different way. ‘There is a need for a shared rethinking of education on the part of practitioners and leaders.’ Sometimes, we must have the courage to teach to transgress and lead the way.  

What do you think about the Community of Inquiry framework? What will you implement in future?

Ameena Payne teaches within the disciplines of social science and business in both higher education and vocational education at Swinburne Online. She is a fellow of Advance Higher Education Academy (AdvanceHE) and the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA). For any further discussion, Ameena can be contacted at info@ameenapayne.com or on Twitter – @ameenalpayne

 Dr Alison Torn is Senior Teaching Fellow at Leeds Trinity University, where she teaches social psychology and critical mental health, and leads on blended learning delivery. She is a Senior Fellow of Advance Higher Education Academy (AdvanceHE). For any further discussion, Alison can be contacted at a.torn@leedstrinity.ac.uk or on Twitter @AlisonTorn 

Dr Alison Torn

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

2 thoughts on “How to really engage students online

  1. As an online student for 7 years, I found the lack of interaction staff and peers very frustrating, but then this was also the case in face to face classes. I am well over 25, from a low SES background which, as Payne and Torn suggest, may be a factor.

    But I am a little wary of the theory of multimedia learning, as that sounds like the old, debunked idea of learning styles. Visual and auditory communication are no doubt useful for getting the attention of students, and I use them. But these also come at a high cost and so I suggest should not be used at the expense of written communication. As the authors suggest, there should be a balance.

    As an online student I felt, and still feel, uncomfortable sharing family background and responsibilities. As a male international student, in a mostly female class in another country, I did not know how to join the icebreaker discussions. As a result when it came time for group work I felt left out.

    Intellectual candor is difficult to achieve in an international classroom. What one culture considers normal to share can be deeply personal, or offensive, to others.

    The Socratic technique I suggest is largely a fiction, which only really works well when someone, like Plato, scripts both sides of the discussion. In reality, discussion is a much messier business.

    A key point I agreed with the authors on is “Discussion forum participation shouldn’t be busy work…”. For four seven long years I answered every question in the course notes and the discussion forms. However, in all that time there were ever only a handful of responses. I kept answering these questions because they were useful for my learning, but it was intensely frustrating that I was the only one who seemed to take it seriously.

    Acknowledging student contributions is useful, but I suggest also rewarding them with marks. Either an activity is important and so is something tested, or it it isn’t and so should be deleted from the course.

    Community of inquiry, I suggest, is another academic fiction. There is this idea that academics freely contribute to a discussion. That is not the reality: they contribute when they think there will be a reward. for them individually As in much of the rest of life, there is a problem with free riders. One of the most useful parts of students working in teams is so they can learn how to deal with non-performing members.

  2. Appreciative of you engaging with the article, Tom. These are tried and true strategies that work with my first year, mature-age fully online cohort- this includes Socratic questioning. Unsure if you have clicked on the affiliated links regarding multimedia theory and Socratic questioning in particular; it doesn’t seem so.

    Online discussion board participation is optional, and I firmly believe in keeping it optional and not ‘rewarding’ marks (or deducted for lack of engagement). However, there is evidence that supports that active engagement in the formative discussion activity leads to students’ success and higher marks. As outlined above. The benefit of engaging is that you are seeking feedback.

    You’re most welcome to shoot me an email (listed beneath my bio) if you’d like to discuss further. Take care!

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