Engagement in Online Learning


Engagement in Online Learning



Robinson, C., & Hullinger, H. (2008). New benchmarks in higher education: Student engagement in online learning. Journal of Education for Business, 84(2), 101-108.

As online learning opportunities continue to increase, the need to measure the quality of education provided in this format also increases.  Robinson and Hullinger summarize a survey study conducted of student engagement.  There were 225 participants in the study, each of which were enrolled in at least one completely online course. The participants attended one of the following institutions:  Oklahoma State University of Tulsa, Cappella University in Minneapolis, MN, or Northeastern State University of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

One of the challenges in evaluating the quality of online courses is that most measures or descriptors are specific to more “traditional” classrooms.  Bucy (2003) says, “ Rather than using research to help replicate what is done in the traditional classroom, researchers should focus on identifying what is done well in the online learning environment.” (Robinson & Hullinger, 2008, p. 101). Engagement was selected as one criterion for evaluating the quality of online courses, as high levels of student engagement are often indicators of student success in traditional and online educational settings.   Specifically, the authors used specific dimensions of engagement set forth by Kuh (2001) of “ level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, and enriching educational experiences.”(Robinson & Hullinger, 2008 p.102).

The authors discuss that online course lend themselves to using the five levels of thinking commonly discussed in educational settings: memorization, analysis, synthesis, judgment, and application. The higher order thinking skills may be even more prevalent in online courses than in traditional courses. “ The availability of technology serves to increase the opportunities for higher order levels of thinking.” (Robinson & Hullinger, 2008 p. 103).  Student survey participants found the standards were high, and they had to “work harder than they thought they could” (Robinson & Hullinger, 2008, p. 103) to fulfill the academic requirements to their satisfaction.  One area of weakness in online settings related to academic challenge was, not surprisingly, speaking.  The authors suggest more thought be put into incorporating academic speaking skills development in online courses.

The second and third categories of engagement designated by the authors- Student-faculty interaction and Active and collaborative learning- showed related themes.  Feedback from faculty, as well as feedback from peers was a frequent type of interaction.  Online classrooms are commonly referred to as learning communities and the “collaborative work empowers and engages the learner” (Robinson & Hullinger, 2008, p.105) in ways that allow for application in the future. This would also allow for increased academic rigor, as described earlier.

Enriching educational experiences was the last engagement dimension the authors sought to explore.  This can be a somewhat ambiguous term.  Kuh (2003) and Avendano (2003) define this as an educational experience that “involves the development of the person to learn to work effectively with people from different background and enables the use of technology to facilitate collaboration.”( Robinson & Hullinger, 2008, p. 105).  This definition has two aspects that students identified on the survey- interactions with people and the opportunities to participate in authentic learning activities.

This study by Robinson & Hullinger sought to describe student engagement in online learning settings.  Using four dimensions of engagement, the authors found that student engagement can lead to a quality online learning experience. Generally, interaction between peers and between students and faculty increased engagement encouraged high academic standards.  Chickering & Ehrmann( 1996) say, “Learning online promotes applications to real-life situations and problem-solving.” (Robinson & Hullinger, 2008, p. 105). Authentic learning promotes enriched educational environments, which correlates to increased student success.  As Hiltz & Shea (2005) described, “ Central to the success of online education are active learners who proactively take charge of their learning.” (Robinson and Hullinger, 2008, p. 105).  This reflects a recommendation by the authors to extend studies to larger groups and to extend studies to address student engagement, but how we can seek to increase engagement.


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