Build Instructor Presence & Student Engagement in Online Discussions

At the OLC Innovate Conference, I attended a presentation that laid out a strategy often used for in-person discussions but retooled for use in online courses. This strategy resonated strongly with me as it addresses questions I often get from instructors I work with in course development. How do I increase student engagement in discussions? How do I increase instructor presence in the course?

The presentation was given by Zora M. Wolfe, Ed.D. (Widener University) and Christopher A. Bogiages, Ph.D. (U. Of South Carolina) and was titled “A Brick-and-Mortar Strategy to Online Discussion Boards”. The strategy derives from the “5 Practices” framework developed initially for in-person mathematics course discussions. The basic structure is broken down into the following 5 steps; anticipate, monitor, select, sequence and connect. In this blog post I cover how these steps can be adapted to an online environment based on the presentation and a brief discussion I had with the presenters.

Proper planning and setting realistic deadlines for student posts, replies and follow-ups is an important part of this process. The instructor will not be present to monitor discussions synchronously, as you would in a face-to-face class. You’ll want to allow time for thoughtful responses and self-reflections (if you require them).


In this first step, build the requirements and instructions for the discussion. Present clear instructions about expectations for student responses. Use language and keywords that you expect students to use. Prompt their thinking. Anticipate how students may respond to questions. This will help clarify your instructions to guide student thinking. A bonus here is that getting students to use anticipated language and keywords will allow you to more quickly find (control-f) responses that you can use for your follow up engagement.

In a larger class, it can be beneficial to break students into discussion groups as you would in an in-person course.


As the discussion opens and unfolds, the instructor will periodically monitor student responses. Pay attention to how students are thinking about the subject. Consider stepping in with a comment if the discussion needs guidance (as you would in a face-to-face discussion). What should be emphasized? Are there misconceptions that can be used as a learning opportunity? Are students connecting their thinking to previous discussions?


In this step, the instructor will choose student posts as examples to emphasize the learning outcomes. The responses selected will depend on the pedagogy used. Did a student briefly hit all the points? Has anyone gone in-depth on a point you want to emphasize? Did a student connect concepts in a creative way, or build on previous knowledge? The instructor may discover new ideas that hadn’t been anticipated.

For a discussion that has been broken into groups, consider having each group write a summary of their conclusions. This is another strategy used in face-to-face discussions that will help an instructor manage a course with a larger enrollment.


In these last two steps the instructor will develop a summary of the discussion and any follow up activities they will have students participate in. Take the selections made in the previous step and sequence them in a way that will emphasize the subject matter and where you want to guide student thinking.


In this final step, present your summary to the students. Use this opportunity to connect student responses with the learning objectives, course material or previous discussions and content. Where does this discussion fit in with the overall course goals? How might it shape their thinking for upcoming material and learning objectives? The main goal here is that the instructor is using the students own words and thoughts to guide learning.

The strength of this discussion summary is that the instructor is engaging with the ideas presented by students and using them to build knowledge towards meeting weekly outcomes and course goals. This will also build motivation as students begin to realize that they will be recognized for thoughtful responses.

You can record your summary as a video to further increase instructor presence or you can simply add the summary as a page in the course. Another option is to follow up with personal self-reflection assignment. Post your discussion summary as an introduction to the self-reflection to help prompt their thinking

While this strategy requires more ‘maintenance’ by the instructor, it can help move student and instructor engagement to a central position in the learning process.

The instructional designers at Ecampus held a Research & Development Day recently to explore the topic of user experience (UX) design as it applies to Ecampus courses. As part of that day, fellow instructional designer, Dorothy Loftin and I explored how Canvas functions when used on Mobile Devices. Below are some findings from our testing.

Generally, we found that iPads work great as long as a student accesses the course through a browser. It was using the Canvas App (necessary on a smart phone) that presented changes and challenges in functionality. The good news is that many of these can be addressed with a few additions in course design. These additions should not significantly alter the experience for students who are using desktop and laptop computers. Today, I will present one of those strategies.

The most significant impact we experienced in using the Canvas App is navigation, how a student gets to content, activities and assessments. It can take quite a few clicks or taps to get to a specific page in Canvas using the mobile app, or to get from one page to another, and the navigation can vary depending on the device used. This may negatively impact the student user experience, distract, and generally increase cognitive load.

Navigation Strategy

One strategy to improve navigation is to provide alternate links for students to jump to commonly needed items in your course. Turns out, this can also benefit students who are on desktops or laptops.

The Home Page that I often use is immediately available for users on all devices. I have added links and buttons so students can jump directly to important sections of the course from here. This turns the Home Page into more of a landing page with quick links.

Page View in Desktop Browser Page View on iPhone
Desktop browser screen grab iPhone Screen Grab

The buttons take a student to the Module Page for a particular week. Module Pages, on the App, present students with links to all content and activities for that week. I limited the buttons to 3-across to make clicking them on a phone easier. As you probably notice, the App translates buttons into links. So, simply providing a list of text links would also work on multiple devices.

This Strategy to improve navigation can be used on any page where you want a student to be able to move quickly to new material, reducing frustration and cognitive load by making the navigational journey more immediate.

How to do it yourself resources:

By Christopher Lindberg