teacher presence

How to really engage students online

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