Socially Engaged Learning

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Key Takeaways

  • Various instructional models for online learning focus on efficiencies of time and space, from flipped classrooms to competency-based education, MOOCs, and online learning environments that rely on reading, writing, and discussion.
  • The model proposed here for online education focuses on social learning and student engagement, training faculty and designing online courses to make interaction the driving factor in creating a highly personalized experience for students.
  • The model's five-point framework highlights best practices to create a high level of student engagement, with guidance on reading and writing instruction, peer group work, discussion, experiential learning, and assessment.

The common online format of read, write, discuss often results in a subpar academic experience.1 Hidden biases within online education can create unintended obstacles for learners, and many of these biases have grown rather than shrunk over time. Perhaps paradoxically, we see an inverse relationship between easy access and student engagement. This is nowhere illustrated better than in massive open online courses, or MOOCs — a sort of post-apocalyptic approach to online education with limited faculty engagement. Traditional online education suffers from similar biases, though not to the same extreme. For example, online education offers great flexibility in asynchronous learning, but it need not follow that online education takes place exclusively in an asynchronous format. Limitations in this common mode of delivery can likewise limit student engagement.2 This is problematic because the data show that student engagement drives learning.3

Online education promises great cost efficiencies; for-profit institutions have developed courses of read, write, discuss at a low cost.4 Nonprofit and public universities realize similar cost efficiencies. Among the most prominent is Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), now with over 70,000 students. What sets SNHU apart, however, is its resource-intensive use of data analytics to improve student success. In this way, SNHU is making a sustained effort to layer additional services over the typical online experience.5 Thus, the process of online course development that achieves a high level of quality requires significant effort and rigor.6

Over the past decade, a variety of new instructional models have been heralded as the next generation of higher education; among those models are flipped classrooms, competency-based education, MOOCs, and traditional online learning environments of read, write, discuss.7 These models focus heavily on efficiencies of time and space. The model we propose for online education focuses instead on social learning and student engagement, training faculty and designing online courses to make student interaction the driving factor in creating a highly personalized experience for students. We suggest the antithesis of MOOCs: using the flexibility of the online environment to create personalized learning environments. We use a fundamentally different set of assumptions than traditional online classes, to revolutionize online courses with socially engaged learning. To this end, we have developed a five-point framework highlighting best practices for faculty to use in their courses to create a high level of student engagement: project-based instruction, peer group work, discussion, experiential learning, and assessment.

1. Project-based Instruction

Reading and writing are the foundation of the online learning experience. Yet, a problematic bias exists in online education if reading is used as a substitute for teaching. The problem of insufficient instruction ought not be exacerbated by assigning a higher quantity of reading materials with few controls in place for quality. This can instead be resolved by using depth as a method to focus instructional activity: limit reading material to focus on an overarching project.

Scaffolded Learning

In this approach, faculty assign progressive readings within a class environment. Instruction is focused by assigning different sections of readings to different groups of students. As a result, students must do the work in order to teach other students, while the role of the faculty member is to actively guide and bridge gaps in the report-back instruction that students are engaging in. This creates a highly interactive environment because the learning of one group of students depends on another group of students.

Collaborative Development

Writing often challenges students: overcoming this challenge is among the more pressing priorities of modern educators. One method to help address this challenge are asynchronous writing projects that are collaboratively developed, with students working in small groups. This approach has the benefit of requiring students to learn to communicate effectively. It also reflects the modern workplace, where work is often done in a collaborative and iterative manner. In this model writing focuses on brevity rather than length. Each group may have an assigned leader who rotates per assignment and is responsible for the overall submission, and whose proportional grade reflects their leadership role.

2. Peer Group Work

Students working with their peers has been demonstrated time and again to be a highly effective form of learning.8 Yet, without careful and thoughtful design work, online courses may be built with very limited group work components. This is, however, an artificial limitation: a variety of tools help students engage in group work online. Two pedagogical methods in particular can be used to facilitate group work.

Synchronous Activities

These are activities where students work together on a project and discuss the project in real time in order to build relationships and interpersonal skills. This approach is common in physical classrooms. Learning how to successfully engage in content with peers is a critical skill for the modern workplace. This approach does not need to be organized from the top down: students are highly capable of arranging synchronous meetings on their own, but they do need to be required to describe their process of working as a group.

Cooperative Learning

Students need not be confined to particular classrooms. In this model, faculty can assign students to work across classes; for example, capstone students might collaborate on a project with students earlier in the program. This helps create a sense of community among students through mentoring and leadership development, while also providing a platform for learning by teaching. This approach can also encourage online adjunct faculty to develop greater connectivity to their adjunct or full-time peers to improve collaboration and continuity between their coursework and across sections.

3. Discussion

Building relationships and engaging in constructive dialogue are critical components of active learning. Effective online discussion, however, requires a significant level of rigor and management. The essence of constructive dialogue is active listening and measured articulation. This is certainly achievable in an online forum, but it requires a thoughtful framework of clear student expectations and active engagement by faculty.


Discussion should be a debate rather than a gauge of competency: asking a group of students to repeat by rote the same learning objective is not conducive to effective learning. Discussions that generate debate are those topics and questions that do not have objective answers. Nuanced discussion gives everyone the opportunity to voice their unique perspective, exercise critical thinking, and engage in scholarly debate. Since it is rare for one question to allow for 30 unique perspectives, more than one topic needs to be used to give all students an opportunity. Faculty engagement in every discussion is an invaluable instructional opportunity.

Structured Discussions

The structure of discussion ought not become a substitution of quantity for quality (e.g. students must post x times per week, etc.). Responsiveness matters, and the online bias against synchronous activity must be rigorously questioned: Is it too rigorous an academic requirement to ask students to be highly responsive to a classroom debate? Additionally, structure can be used to give everyone a way to contribute, assigning discussion roles to avoid repetitive participation. For example, consider the following four roles: one group of students advocates for a particular point, another group advocates an opposing point, another group serves as debate moderators, and a final group synthesizes the full debate.

4. Experiential Learning

Experiential learning is an exciting way to draw on the wisdom of the student body and bring to the forefront their localized life experiences and how that influences their learning. This diversity offers a wonderful opportunity for learning from each other.

Volunteer Work

Internships need not be limited to traditional vocational roles. Liberal arts studies, for example, provide a level of abstraction that enables more flexibility in the types of volunteer work that can be made relevant to the coursework. As a part of the admissions process for their program of study, students select a local organization to volunteer or intern with. Each course has a component where students identify challenges that arise from their work in a form that might suit group work, discussion, a self-directed project, etc. This approach has the benefit of diverse real-world and relevant experience balanced and guided by academic rigor.


An alternate approach that is self-contained within a course is to perform simulated activities. This can be done through specifically designed technology platforms or the more analog method of pairing student cohorts with professional counterparts to shadow work on a challenging project. This approach has the benefit of being organized in a centralized manner and thus more focused on particular learning objectives, while still providing the benefit of experiential learning.

5. Assessment

Effectiveness in assessment derives from engagement in student learning. Online learning often presents a variety of barriers to engagement, making accurate assessment challenging. Online courses that consistently require students to write a paper as their primary form of assessment rely on a relatively narrow method of assessment. We propose student-driven flexibility combined with more emphasis on group work.

Student Choice

Engage in universal design for learning. Faculty can provide choices for the way in which some assignments are completed. For some assignments, faculty would permit students to submit their work in a format they feel is most appropriate: writing a paper, making a presentation, conducting an interview, performing a demonstration, etc. This approach allows students to demonstrate learning in a variety of ways and provides new pathways for faculty and institutional support of student learning.


Grading participation and collaboration online is challenging because student collaboration often occurs out of sight. One way to address this challenge is to change incentives by using tiered grading. When assessing group assignments, a grade is assigned first to the group, then modified to each student based on their individual contributions. Individual contributions are best assessed when faculty can view the group spaces used by the students. This helps direct focus on learning outcomes as opposed to the performance of discrete tasks. It also avoids the issue of group work masking a lack of participation by some students.

Socially Engaged Classrooms

We suggest that courses designed in the format described here be labeled socially "engaged" classrooms as opposed to traditional "online" classrooms. It might be necessary to increase the compensation of faculty teaching online to convert a course into this format; courses run this way certainly require more work from the faculty member involved. The framework described is an abstract summary of methodologies, not an overly prescriptive framework. Faculty should not feel that they must have any particular component in a given class. Instead, our objective for this framework is that a socially "engaged" online course is any course organized with a substantive plan and accountability model for each of the five critical criteria: instruction, group work, experiential learning, discussion, and assessment. We believe that courses designed with this model will improve student retention and, with the focus on developing professional and interpersonal skills, improve job placement.


  1. Yinying Wang and Janet Decker, "Can virtual schools thrive in the real world?" TechTrends, Vol. 58, No. 6 (November/December 2014); I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman with Doug Lederman and Scott Jaschik, "Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education, 2012," Babson Survey Research Group and Inside Higher Ed; and E. C. Boling, M. Hough, et al. "Cutting the distance in distance education: Perspectives on what promotes positive, online learning experiences," Internet and Higher Education, Vol. 15 (2012).
  2. Katrina A. Meyer, "Limits to Student Engagement," Student Engagement in Online Learning: What Works and Why, ASHE Higher Education Report, Vol. 40, No.6 (2014): 75–87.
  3. Marcia Dixson, "Creating Effective Student Engagement in Online Courses: What Do Students Find Engaging?" Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2010): n. pag. Web. 24 Jan. 2016.
  4. Tamara Butler Batagglino, Matt Haldeman, and Eleanor Laurans, "The Costs of Online Learning," Chapter 3, Education Reform for the Digital Era, Chester E. Finn Jr. and Daniela R. Fairchild, Eds. (Thomas B. Fordman Institute, April 2012), 55-76; and William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, Kelly A. Lack, and Thomas I. Nygren, "Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials," Ithaka S+R, May 22, 2012.
  5. Matthew Thornton, "Connecting to Success: Innovating Student Services with Enterprise Social Media," address, 2013 Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning, November 20, 2013, Orlando, FL.
  6. Maria Puzziferro and Kaye Shelton, "A Model for Developing High-Quality Online Courses: Integrating a Systems Approach with Learning Theory," Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 12, Issue 3–4 (2008): 119–1136.
  7. Steven Mintz, "New Models of Higher Education," Higher Ed Beta blog, Inside Higher Ed, October 15, 2014.
  8. Patti Shank, "Considering Collaboration," Faculty Focus Special Report: Student Collaboration in the Online Classroom, Online Classroom, 12–13.

Brian Basgen is executive director for IT at Bay Path University, where he also teaches online in the graduate cybersecurity management program. He is an active member of the EDUCAUSE community and is currently serving as the co-chair of the 2016 Connect Conference.

Peter A. Testori serves as the director of the Center for Online & Digital Learning at Bay Path University, where he also teaches courses in the online teaching and program administration concentration of the higher education administration graduate program. Testori has worked in the field of online learning and learning technologies for the past six years and brings a student development and instructional design background to his role at the university. He is an active member of NERCOMP.

© 2016 Brian Basgen and Peter Testori. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 International.