Instructional Strategies and Technologies for Online Learner Engagment

Silhouette of head with different objects floating overhead

How can online instructors engage their students?

Active learning engages the learner directly in the learning process through instructional activities with differing degrees of interaction, whereas passive learning occurs indirectly and without interaction. Active learning is preferred because it triggers cognitive functioning. Furthermore, active learning is a component of Ignatian pedagogy (i.e., context, experience, action, reflection, evaluation) in its goal to teach to the whole person (i.e., mind, body, and spirit). This blog covers various instructional strategies and the digital tools that instructors use to engage students online through active learning. The purpose of learner engagement through active learning is to increase student satisfaction and student achievement.

What does active learning look like online?

Active learning can take on different formats and levels of engagement. The following examples include various disciplines from undergraduate and graduate level, hybrid and fully online courses.

Set the Stage
Tell your students what you expect of them in the online course. For example, one instructor provides a PowerPoint titled, Setting the Stage, to share course requirements for the online environment and address learning values such as the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset.  Dweck (2009) defined it as those who underestimate their ability to learn may have a fixed mindset, while those who believe that they can learn by establishing attainable goals and applying effort to learn have a growth mindset. Students with a growth mindset want to be corrected; their ego is not tied to learning. Conversely, those with a fixed mindset do not pay attention to corrective feedback. They believe that learning should not take any effort because it is tied to their intelligence; their ego influences how they learn. See my post to Focus on the Process to Support the Growth Mindset of Students.

Make sure students know how to use the learning management system (LMS) tools prior to high-stakes assignments. For example, my college’s navigational template provides a Start Here folder with two orientation tasks for students: the Online Student Acknowledgement form assignment and the ‘Getting Acquainted’ discussion. Additionally, ask students to take a quiz of zero value to familiarize them with the course tools. Some instructors use a syllabus quiz to ensure students have read their syllabi. Another example is the use of the quiz feature to poll students’ practical experience on the course topic to better understand their prior knowledge on the subject and drive instruction to meet students’ needs.

Discussions can have well thought out open-ended questions or no questions at all. For example, one instructor has had great success without providing questions in his online discussions. Instead, he tells students the purpose of discussions and that they will find suggestions for these by listening to his podcast or video lecture for that unit.

Monitor. For equity, a best practice is to create a matrix of teacher-student interactions to track your response efforts over the course of the semester. Monitoring your discussion posts will curtail various biases and ensure consistency. I usually set up a spreadsheet to do this and include personal information shared in the ‘Getting Acquainted’ discussion to provide a more personalized context to my interactions with each student.

Roles. Provide structure and student agency to discussions by assigning roles (e.g., starter, responder, and wrapper) and rotating those roles during the course; my peer, Dr. Angela Rand at the University of South Alabama did her dissertation on this. I’ve encouraged instructors at my college to incorporate this. One instructor noted a major difference in learner engagement when using this practice; without it, she had the same student posting first and everyone else waiting to reply. Student-moderated discussions provide social presence to build an online community of inquiry (COI). See my blog post how to plan for an online COI.

Media. Our LMS, Schoology, has a discussion feature for audio or video recording to share responses besides via text. This provides both teaching presence and social presence to the online COI.  Consider making some of your discussions media-based to provide variety and a different type of engagement than text-based ones. The exchange of media will close the psychological distance between you and your students.

Monitor. Schoology has a Student Completion option to monitor students’ completion of tasks (sequential or random). Once installed, instructors select the Student Progress tab to view task completion (view readings, visit links, submit assignments, post to discussions, & take a quiz). Students will see a green checkmark next to completed items. This is a passive learner engagement activity albeit a powerful one.

Groupwork. Student-led projects provide student agency in the design of their own learning. Provide the parameters, team roles (e.g., team leader/organizer, researcher, writer, & presenter), and peer evaluation forms to ensure everyone participates fully. Include expectations for group grade such as everyone provides proofreading of assignment prior to submission. Encourage student groups to set up their own ground rules for group meetings and task sharing. Monitor group work by asking to be added to the document workspace such as a shared Google folder.

Presentations. As for hybrid courses, maximize the face-to-face meeting by asking students to present their work to each other during seminar sessions in their level one courses. This is referred to as flipped learning when you use class time for student activities instead of teacher-centered activities. For fully online courses, students can share their media presentations (e.g., narrated PowerPoints saved as MP4 files, audio/podcast, or video projects) with other students in the Schoology Media Album. This tool allows students and teachers to provide feedback, as well as tags, titles, and captions.

Interactive products. Use premium ancillary interactive multimedia such as Cengage’s WebAssign for homework or supplant instruction with computer-adapted commercial products such as Pearson’s MyITLab. Take advantage of free educational technology such as EdPuzzle to engage learners while watching a video with questions to answer before preceding to the next segment; this tool provides the instructor with learner analytics. Use PeerWise to have students create questions on the topic of study for each other to answer; it’s also free.

How can students demonstrate mastery besides multiple-choice tests? These are still useful for testing recall. However, to engage the learner in higher order thinking skills, we should provide alternative assessments such as project-based learning, essays, portfolios, performance, products, and presentations. These do not need to be end-of-term projects. Formative assessments can be formal or informal (practice tests, digital exit tickets, & polls), which serve as comprehension checks during the course and subsequent student feedback. This is in contrast to summative assessments that test your cumulative knowledge on a topic at the end of the term. Formative assessments promote fairness by gathering evidence of students’ understanding throughout the course, which can be used to better inform/modify your instructional practices to meet students’ needs.

Mastery. Set tests for multiple attempts to help students achieve mastery. This triggers new learning and/or review of content, as student revisit content for answers.

Feedback & Guidance
Rubrics. Schoology provides blank rubrics for you to establish the criteria and scale for various tasks. For example, these can be attached to discussions and assignments. Rubrics provide consistency and speed with grading. The rubric feature on Schoology allows you to provide feedback at the criterion level and for overall performance. Additionally, you can tag your departmental student learning outcomes to these rubrics to help students understand why the task is important.

Scaffolded instructional feedback. Scaffolding instruction provides content in meaningful and manageable chunks of information. This entails providing visuals for structure, context, or direction and just-in-time definitions. For example, segment a lecture at viable points and ask reflective questions. For writing, break large tasks such as research papers into point-based phases of the writing process (e.g., outline, literature review with five citations, rough draft, & final paper). Design for tolerance for error by providing space to practice (e.g., mock interviews/comps/presentations, tutorials, & simulations).

Peer feedback. It is critical to provide guidelines and criteria for peer feedback tasks. For writing, assign a peer review of first draft papers utilizing MS Word tracked changes or Google Docs suggested edits. Access to the documents would be shared with the instructor for review. For media, use the Schoology Media Album. It will accept narrated PowerPoints if you save them as MP4 files.

Embedded librarian. Utilize the library liaisons in your course assignments. They can model the Socratic method of inquiry as a mentor. Your library liaison’s contact information should be included in the course’s Start Here folder along with pertinent information on access to the Library databases and digital literacy.

Evaluation of Course Design
Create a questionnaire to obtain course design feedback at midterm to determine any barriers and/or add additional questions to your student evaluations at the end of the term. For example, ask whether specific learning objects such as the narrated PowerPoints or audio files were helpful. Incorporate pertinent student feedback into small modifications during the term or redesign of your course for the following semester.

What are other ways to engage learners?

Learner Strategies
Based on my teaching experience, students come with vastly different skill sets. Provide students with strategies and tips on how to learn the content.  Additionally, share bad examples of study habits that do not yield results for long-term memory (e.g., cramming for a test).  Share how learning strategies build their brains’ schema on the topic and its relation to other subjects for long-term memory. See my Student Learning Organizer of Metacognitive Strategies on the Learning Strategies. It is shared with freshmen at my college.  Also, see my list of cognitive strategies to share with students. The difference between metacognitive and cognitive being meta-awareness versus concreteness respectively. Most students are likely familiar with the structurally cognitive ones such as creating a concept map but not be familiar with the others.

How do you engage your students? 

Sandra Rogers, Ph.D.

Bransford, J. D., Brown A. L., & Cocking R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Bruning, R. H., Schraw, G. J., & Norby, M. M. (2011). Cognitive psychology and instruction. New York, NY: Pearson.

Dweck, C. (2009). Developing Growth Mindsets: How Praise Can Harm, and How To Use it Well. [Presentation]. Paper presented at the Scottish Learning Festival, Glasgow. Retrieved from

Ericsson, K. A. (1996). The acquisition of expert performance. In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), The road to excellence: The acquisition of expert performance in the arts, science, sports, and games (pp. 1- 50). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Ormrod, J. E. (2012). Human learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Roediger, H. L. III, & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181-210.

Ward, J. (2010). The student’s guide to cognitive neuroscience. New York, NY: Psychological Press.

West, C.K., Farmer, J.A., & Wolff, P.M. (1991). Instructional design: Implications from cognitive science. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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Accessibility Policy for Postsecondary Distance Education

I have been developing an accessibility policy for distance education for my college. It’s specific to the Schoology learning management system and other technologies and protocols we use on our campus.  It’s based on the policy that I used at my former workplace for my instructional design graduate assistantship, the University of South Alabama’s Innovation in Learning Center. I would love my readers’ feedback on it.

The logo has the word accessibility with four icons on it: eye, hand, ear, and brain.
This Accessibility Logo was created by Christy Blew of The University of Illinois on behalf of the EDUCAUSE IT Accessibility Constituent Group.

Accessibility Statement for Distance Education

The U.S. federal laws require online course accessibility for persons with disabilities. Follow these basic guidelines for compliance: (Section 504, 1973 Rehabilitation Act & Section 508, Electronic and Information Technology)

  1. Describe images and hyperlinks with alternative text.
  2. Do not use coloring as the sole indicator of meaning.
  3. Use san serif fonts for online text.
  4. Check and repair all portable document formats (PDFs) for accessibility.
  5. Caption all video and provide transcripts for audio.
  6. Provide students with disabilities the prescribed accommodations, as needed.

Images. Alternative (alt) text helps students that use assistive technology (e.g., screen readers) as their learning accommodation. For example, screen readers such as Microsoft’s JAWS (Job Access with Speech) read the description aloud to the user with vision impairment. Make sure you concisely provide alt text for each image in your online course so that students will hear and learn about the images shared. This includes images on a course page or within a document or multimedia presentation (e.g., PowerPoint, Word, or PDF). For Schoology, currently, you cannot add the description for the image during upload. Add it afterward by selecting the image in edit mode. For PowerPoint 2016, follow this pathway to add alt text: Right-click image > Select Format Picture > Select Alt Text. For PDFs, use Adobe Acrobat Pro XI to add alt text to images. This software allows you to edit PDFs and is available in the Faculty Development Center.

Hyperlinks. When you add links to Schoology, it asks for the name of the link to display and the URL. Provide the specific name of the website instead of a confusing web address, also known as the URL (Uniform Resource Locator). The exact name of the website will aid all learners in understanding where the link will take them. Additionally, assistive technology (e.g., JAWS) will read aloud the long URL if you do not give it a name. Imagine listening to an entire URL reading: “h-t-t-p-s-semicolon-forward slash-forward slash-shc-period-schoology-period-com-forward slash-home.” This would cause extra cognitive load on the listener. Here are good and bad examples:

Use of color. Color-coding presents a problem for visually impaired students, as they will not be able to access the meaning of particular coloring of text for emphasis (e.g., red text conveying importance, etc.).  Simply add the word or words to convey the meaning such as Important.

Fonts. Sans serif fonts are recommended for online text to provide accessibility. Sans serif fonts do not have the ‘hats and shoes’ on certain letters that serif fonts include. Fortunately, Arial, which is a sans serif font, is the default for Schoology. Avoid using serif fonts because they may waver and become difficult to read on low bandwidth or poor Internet connections.

PDFs. Are your PDFs readable? Conduct a word search within the Find box of a PDF for a word you see in the document. Type Ctrl+F if you don’t see a Find box. If you receive the message, “No matches were found,” then the document is a scanned image, which cannot be read by persons who use assistive technology. Use Adobe Acrobat Pro XI to repair unreadable (scanned image) PDFs. Remember that this software is available in BL12. Here is the pathway to fix your PDFs with Adobe Acrobat Pro XI: File>Action Wizard>Create Accessible PDFs> Action Step #5 is the Accessibility Checker.

Ensure your Word documents are accessible before you save them as a PDF. Microsoft has accessibility checkers that will highlight any issues in your document. Within Word 2016, select the following pathway: File > Info> Check for Issues > Check Accessibility. Then fix issues such as missing alt text for images. See Adobe Accessibility Quick Reference Card for information on earlier versions of MS Word that you may have at home. Currently, our campus has MS Office 2016 on its computers.

Media. Caption all media. Closed captioning is the preferred format (instead of open captions) so the user can turn it on or off according to their needs. If you do not have your media captioned, at the very least, provide a script until you caption the video. However, transcripts do not provide equal access to media files because the words and images from the video are not in sync to enhance meaning.  Audio files or podcasts must include a transcript.  For narrated PowerPoints, transcribe the audio in the note’s section of each slide.

Captioning Key, funded by the National Association of the Deaf and The Described and Captioned and Media Program, provides a document on specific quality assurance guidelines for closed-captioning. They mention several free captioning services.  Our current practice is to upload media to YouTube and use their auto-captioning service and then correct inaccuracies. Ask the instructional designer for the how-to guide on how to set up an unlisted YouTube channel and the video tutorial on how to correct automated captions on YouTube in your video manager account. We also provide the video software production/editor tool, Camtasia Studio 9, which incorporates closed-captioning. The instructional designer can train you to use it.

Providing accommodations in Schoology. In Schoology, you can assign assignments or tests to individuals when you create them. Reuse your existing assignment or test by saving it to your Personal Resources in Schoology. Then bring it back into your course as a new test with a different name. We suggest naming it with ‘Extended Time’ in the title so students know they are receiving the accommodation. Go to the Schoology test settings to add the prescribed accommodations. Warning: Do not reassign the mainstream test to an individual in Schoology, as it will disappear the test scores of the other students. Instead, instructors should make a separate assignment or test for the student(s) with accommodations.

Publishers’ accessibility statements. As a best practice, online courses should provide accessibility statements to the publishers they use (Quality Matters™ Rubric Standards, 2014). This will help those who need access to alternative text files and/or eBooks from publishers, as well as other alternatives to interactive products for adaptive technologies used.  Visit the Instructional Design LibGuide on Accessibility where Dr. Rogers has provided a list of publishers’ links to their accessibility statements. If you do not see the publisher you use listed, please notify her, and she will add it.

Dr. Sandra Rogers,

Instructional Design Specialist

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Blackboard Test Generator Converts MS Word Formatted Tests into LMS Quizzes

The Blackboard (Bb) Test Generator converts your electronic file tests (i.e., MS Word or Text) into the learning management system (LMS) test questions. Bb Test Generator is an open educational resource. This will save time from building a multiple choice or T/F test online one question at a time IF you already have it prepared. The College of Southern Idaho provides a Bb test generator website where you can copy-and-paste your test to the Bb test generator to convert it into a zip file that can be uploaded into Schoology. The directions on their Website are fairly straightforward. After you convert the text, you’ll obtain a bbquiz zip file.

For Schoology LMS, follow these steps after you log into your  course to upload the test:

  1. Create a blank test in Schoology.
  2. Then select Add Question.
  3. From the drop-down menu, select Import Test/Quiz.

  1. Select Blackboard 7.1-9.0 button for import type from the pop-up window. Select next and locate your bbquiz zip file for import from your computer.

5. Then provide the appropriate test settings within Schoology.

  1. Save!

Note. In Schoology, the default points awarded for test questions is 1. To change them all to something else without having to manually do this one-by-one for long tests, follow these steps:

  1. Select the Options tab within the Quiz Questions view, and save your test to the Schoology Question Bank. Make a new Question Bank if you don’t have one already. Save Question Bank to your personal Resources (Home) on Schoology.

Schoology Test creation options include a drop-down menu for Add Questions to Bank

  1. Then delete your quiz after you’ve saved it to the Schoology Question Bank. Yes, start all over!
  2. Create a new test (Add Quiz), and use questions from your test bank.

  3. Select From Question Banks from the drop-down menu to Add Questions.

Quiz creation tool includes a tab to Add Questions with a option in the drop-down menu for From Question Bank5. Open the Question Bank in your Resources to add Set Points BEFORE you copy it over. This is the only material you can actually edit within your personal resources in Schoology.

In your personal resources, within your saved Question Bank, you can set points for all test items by typing in the value


My Schoology Gradebook Training Notes

Schoology Gradebook tool to copy settings to new courses resides in Grade Setup view

For the past two years, our College has used Schoology‘s Enterprise version as our learning management system (LMS). We’re very pleased with it as administrators and have received positive feedback from faculty and students on its functionality. During this time, I’ve developed supporting documentation and videos for in-house training purposes. This post focuses on Schoology’s Gradebook. These are my training notes for this tool. Granted, Schoology provides their own Support Center with very good information supported by interactive screen captures (gifs) to illustrate directions. My notes provide specific tasks and tool features for an overview based on frequently asked questions in my role as the LMS support on campus.

Workshop Agenda for Schoology Gradebook Review  (9/19/18) 

  1. GRADING CRITERIA: Use Grade Setup for weighted categories after you add categories to the Otherwise, all categories are set to 100% by default! Select the checkbox titled Weight Categories. It’s invisible until you add a category to your Gradebook. Make sure the grading criteria and naming convention used in your syllabus match that of your course grading categories.
  2. GRADEBOOK COLUMNS: Add a Grade column manually to Gradebook for items that are not assigned in Schoology (e.g., participation). Select the plus sign (+) in Gradebook view. Afterward, add grades manually by hovering over the grade slot or import from Excel sheet by selecting the vertical 3-dot icon near the plus sign in Gradebook and selecting Import from the drop-down menu.
  3. IMPORT/EXPORT GRADES: Import/Export grades to/from Gradebook by selecting the vertical 3-dot image in Gradebook view. Then select Import or Export from the drop-down menu. For imports, make sure the Excel columns are named as you would like to display them in Gradebook.
  4. REUSING GRADEBOOK SETTINGS IN OTHER COURSES: Use the Copy Settings tab of Gradebook in Grade Setup before copying course content into a blank shell to lay the operational foundations. Copy the original course by selecting the Options tab near Materials. Select Save course to Resources and then pull it into your new course after you copy the Gradebook’s settings.
  5. ACCESS ALL YOUR CURRENT GRADEBOOKS: Grade multiple courses from Gradebook view. Select the notebook icon in the upper right-hand corner and then select which course’s Gradebook you want to view next.
  6. BULK EDIT GRADEBOOK: To view the settings of all assignments, discussions, and tests at once, go to the vertical 3-dot icon in Gradebook view, and select Bulk Edit to see the name, category, points, factor, rubric, due date, and period.
  7. ACCESS USER ANALYTICS: Select Analytics to see User Statistics. Select a username to see stats per item.
  8. EXPAND GRADEBOOK VIEW: Toggle the Gradebook to full screen with the bidirectional arrow icon in Gradebook. This will help you see all the items in Gradebook instead of scrolling over.
  9. ACCOMMODATIONS: For accommodations for students with certified disabilities, copy test or assignment and assign to an individual when you create it. Within Assignment creation (or edit mode), select the three-dot pyramid icon for Individually Assign. WARNING: Do not re-assign original test from class to individual or your class test grades will disappear. (If this happens, re-assign test to regular class and the grades should reappear.)
  10. RUBRICS/SCALES: You can create Rubrics with criteria and/or Scales for grading such as P/F with ranges (F = 0-60 & P = 61-100). You can reuse rubrics/scales in other courses by saving them to your personal Resources.
  11. ALIGN LEARNING OBJECTIVES: Your school’s LMS administrator can add your departmental student learning outcomes from an Excel sheet to the Schoology system for use in course assignments. After they’ve been added to the system, when you create an assignment (or in edit view), select the bull’s eye target icon for Align Learning Objectives. Then select the Custom Learning Objectives to find your departmental ones under the School heading.
  12. DROP LOWEST GRADE: Follow this pathway to drop the lowest grade: Go to Gradebook>Grade Set Up>Add button beside Categories>Type the Category for your Quiz and then type in # in the section for Drop Lowest Grade>Click Create. To avoid grade inflation early on, don’t turn this on until later in the semester.
  13. EXTRA CREDIT: To give extra credit in Schoology without penalizing those who didn’t do the extra work, create a new assignment worth 0 maximum points within one of your existing Grading Categories, and then assign the number of extra credit points to each student who completes the item accordingly. (Note: You must already have something else graded in that category for this to work).

Do you use Schoology? Let me know if you found this information helpful! View my Advanced Schoology Gradebook video tutorial for a virtual tour of its features.

Hashtags: #LMS #Schoology #Gradebook #training #tutorial

Goodbye eCollege, Hello Schoology!

Venn Diagram comparing the features of eCollege and Schoology with Schoology providing twice as many.

Here’s the Venn Diagram of eCollege versus Schoology.  Pearson closed its door on eCollege and eCompanion, so we adopted a new learning management system (LMS).  Schoology, by comparison, has so many more features for our learners.