Maximizing Online Student Engagement During Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Faculty and school officials are currently scrambling to put together learning continuity plans during COVID-19 campus closures. 

We invited Dr. Perry Samson, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at University of Michigan, to join the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about engaging your live, in-person classes online during campus closures due to Coronavirus (COVID-19).

How the Polar Vortex Prepared Some for Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Last January, an amazing outbreak of cold air spread across the Midwest. Temperatures dropped as low as -35 Fahrenheit and wind chills plunged as low as -57. Michigan cancelled classes and told students, “Stay in your dorm, stay home, don’t try to go out.”

It was a tough call for Dr. Perry Samson because the course he taught was called Extreme Weather. “It didn’t seem right to cancel that class because of extreme weather,” he said. 

So using technology from Echo360, Perry broadcast his class live. Perry shared slides, and students asked questions. They could even indicate when they were confused as class was going on. Although the professor and students were all in different locations, it was still an interactive session. 

“I would call it active learning,” Perry said, “even though we aren’t all in the same place.”

In-person Engagement Versus Remote Student Engagement

Perry has been teaching a blended synchronous course for a few years, and he’s used that course to collect information about what students are actually doing during class. 

“I’ve just recently published a paper showing that even when you break it down by incoming grade point average,” Perry said, “there was quite a difference in the students who were watching from away versus those who were immersed in the classroom.” 

Perry also found that students who engage remotely don’t take as many notes, don’t view as many slides, and typically earn lower grades on exams. Unsurprisingly, less-motivated students tend to take the path of least resistance and watch from away. 

“We have to think about how to conduct class in a way that tries to nudge the remote synchronous world or remote asynchronous world to be more immersive and require more interaction,” Perry said.

Engaging Online Students Used to Face-to-Face Interaction

Given what we know about online students, then, you as a professor can’t just lecture via video and call it a course. You have to engage students deliberately. 

Offer multiple choice questions during a synchronous lecture. Have students choose the answer they think is right, show the polling results, and click on any of the options to see justifications for why someone chose that letter. It’s a great way to uncover misconceptions.

“I’m basically a vending machine they’ve put their coins in,” Perry said, “and I can offer feedback about why their logic for the wrong answer is wrong. And more importantly, if they got the answer right, why maybe they still got the logic wrong.”

Whatever interactive technology makes sense in your field, use it to give students the opportunity to pose questions as part of their answers to make the class more interactive.

Moving a Face-to-Face Course Online

One of the great things about the classroom is you can have students turn to each other and debate an answer. How do you maintain that kind of dialogue when you go online? 

Perry has found a solution. “In the system I use, there’s a question/answer window. The students can pose questions, and other students can answer the questions. My teaching assistant can jump in, or I can jump in and answer questions.”

To help the less confident students, Perry makes all these interactions anonymous except to himself and his teaching assistant. That anonymity lets students throw out ideas without anyone knowing who suggested something half-baked. 

Technology for Moving Face-to-Face Classes Online

There’s a wide range of technological possibilities here. Echo360 works for Perry. That program has a feature called Universal Classroom Capture that lets the instructor set the program to when they want the class delivered, walk to the laptop, and conduct class. 

For a small class, Zoom or Skype might work fine. With larger classes, you don’t want to have 250 little bullets on your screen, though. You can, however, supplement more advanced technology by using Zoom or Skype for small group discussions. 

Whatever you choose, make sure the technology allows you to do three things:

  1. Provide really good formative assessment questions so you can keep students engaged;
  2. Offer them a voice so they can ask questions online and usually three things;
  3. Get access to the data about who’s using and who’s not using the software.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Perry Samson from the University of Michigan. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.