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Chronicling engagement: students’ experience of
online learning over time
Tracey Muir, Naomi Milthorpe, Cathy Stone, Janet Dyment, Elizabeth
Freeman & Belinda Hopwood
To cite this article: Tracey Muir, Naomi Milthorpe, Cathy Stone, Janet Dyment, Elizabeth
Freeman & Belinda Hopwood (2019) Chronicling engagement: students’ experience of online
learning over time, Distance Education, 40:2, 262-277, DOI: 10.1080/01587919.2019.1600367
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2019.1600367
Published online: 28 Apr 2019.
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Chronicling engagement: students’ experience of online
learning over time
Tracey Muira, Naomi Milthorpeb, Cathy Stoneb, Janet Dymenta, Elizabeth Freemanb
and Belinda Hopwooda
aSchool of Education, University of Tasmania, Launceston, Australia; bSchool of Humanities, University of
Tasmania, Hobart, Australia
Although there is ample research into student engagement in
online learning, much of this investigates the student experience
through surveys administered at a fixed point in time, usually at
the exit point of a single unit of study or course. The study
described in this paper, by contrast, aimed to understand online
student engagement over a whole semester, guided by two overarching questions: What factors impact students’ engagement
over a semester? What factors account for fluctuation in engagement levels over time? This paper presents results from weekly
feedback on online education students’ engagement over the
length of one semester at a regional Australian university. It also
chronicles in more depth the experiences of one student across
the same semester. The findings offer longitudinal accounts of
student engagement, demonstrating that levels of engagement
fluctuate and are influenced by a variety of factors.
Received 6 January 2019
Accepted 25 March 2019
Engagement; online initial
teacher education; flexibility;
The growth of online education in the Australian tertiary sector over the past decade
(Department of Education and Training, 2017a) has opened the doors of higher education
to a wider, more diverse student cohort. Students from backgrounds historically underrepresented in Australian higher education—such as those from lower socio-economic
status backgrounds, students with a disability, those from regional and rural areas of
Australia, and Australian Indigenous students (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders)—are
more strongly represented in online enrolments than in on-campus, face-to-face modes of
study (Stone, 2017). This is particularly the case within undergraduate degrees offered
entirely online, with no or little face-to-face attendance required. The majority of undergraduate online students are also mature-age and combining their studies with work and
family responsibilities (Hewson, 2018; Michael, 2012; Ragusa & Crampton, 2018; Signor &
Moore, 2014; Stone, O’Shea, May, Delahunty, & Partington, 2016). Many are also first within
their families to attend university (Stone & O’Shea, 2013).
CONTACT Tracey Muir Tracey.Muir@utas.edu.au School of Education, University of Tasmania, PO Box: Locked
Bag 1307, Launceston, Tasmania 7250, Australia
2019, VOL. 40, NO. 2, 262–277
© 2019 Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, Inc.
While the number of external students in Australian higher education is now rising
faster than those studying on-campus (Department of Education and Training, 2018,
p. 14), the retention rate is less positive (Greenland & Moore, 2014), with evidence that
external students in Australia are two and a half times more likely than on-campus
students to withdraw without a qualification (Department of Education and Training,
2017b). A recent Australian report into improving outcomes in online higher education
(Stone, 2017) points to the importance of regular, constructive communication with
students, particularly “establishing a strong teacher-presence” (p. 36). It also highlights
the importance of course design “that engages and connects students with their
teacher, other students and the course material” (p. 39), and in which support for
students, including technology support, is embedded. These findings echo other
research that has highlighted both the importance of teacher communication with
students (Lambrinidis, 2014; Vincenzes & Drew, 2017) and ensuring course design and
delivery are interactive and engaging (Devlin & McKay, 2016; Park & Choi, 2009).
Review of the literature
Engagement is a multifaceted concept that encompasses behavioural, emotional, and
cognitive aspects (Fredericks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). Behavioural engagement refers
to participation and includes involvement in academic, social, or extracurricular activities.
Emotional engagement encompasses affective reactions to teachers, classmates, and the
institution in which the learning occurs. Finally, cognitive engagement incorporates
thoughtfulness and willingness to exert the effort to comprehend subject matter and
master skills (Fredericks et al., 2004). In the online learning context, Kuh (2001) has identified
dimensions of engagement, including level of academic challenge, active and collaborative
learning, student-faculty interaction, and enriching educational experiences. A study evaluating online experiences of students in the United States (Robinson & Hullinger, 2008)
found that all Kuh’s (2001) dimensions influenced student engagement and that levels of
engagement varied among age groups. Mature-age students (>25 years), for example,
worked harder to meet expectations, participated more in collaborative projects, and
contributed more to online discussions. Engagement has also been linked with academic
emotions (e.g., Pekrun & Linnenbrink-Garcia, 2012) and seen as a mediator between
students’ emotions and their achievement. Engagement was also found to occur along
a continuum, indicating that just as emotions fluctuate, engagement will also fluctuate over
time. As engagement is both dynamic and situational, survey instruments that are often
administered at a single point in time are limited in capturing the complexity of the
construct (Kahu, 2013). Our research adopts a holistic perspective that is not measurable
by one-off surveys but best understood through in-depth qualitative work (Kahu, 2013).
Engagement in online learning
A review of the literature revealed a number of inherent challenges in studying successfully online. The convenience factor of studying online can be diminished by technical
problems, lack of interaction with tutors and other students, problems with instructional
DISTANCE EDUCATION 263
materials, and students’ own difficulties with time management (Ilgaz & Gülbahar, 2015).
Students have expressed experiencing feelings of alienation, perceived lack of relevance,
and the drudgery of study (Wimpenny & Savin-Baden, 2013) as influencing online
engagement. For many older students, with work and family responsibilities, there is
evidence that “work-related factors” and “personal reasons relating to health and family
commitments” (Greenland & Moore, 2014, p. 53) can also impact upon engagement and
significantly contribute to attrition.
There is a considerable body of research demonstrating that for online learners,
particularly from non-traditional backgrounds, “social presence . . . is vital to creating
a learning environment conducive to students feeling connected to each other and their
respective tutors” (Lambrinidis, 2014, p. 257). The presence of the online teacher or
instructor is vital for building interaction and connectedness between teacher and
student, and student and student. Ragusa and Crampton (2018) found that “the quality
and timeliness of lecturer feedback was the most valued form of learning communication identified by students regardless of course” (p. 15). There is much discussion in the
literature about practical ways to achieve this, including synchronous and asynchronous
interactions, through discussion boards, blogs, chat rooms, wikis, and social media;
creative use of video, audio-clips, and vignettes; assessment tasks that are paced and
scaffolded and provide prompt, constructive feedback; both individual and small group
work, well facilitated; and matching technology to the task (e.g., Boton & Gregory, 2015;
Moore (1993) described three interaction categories that foster student engagement:
learner–learner, learner–instructor, and learner–content. Martin, and Bolliger (2018) found
that learners most valued learner-instructor engagement strategies and perceived a sense
of belonging when they could interact with instructors who were accessible through
multiple means. Consistent instructor presence was considered the most valued engagement strategy (Martin & Bolliger, 2018). As Wimpenny and Savin-Baden (2013) found, an
academic’s style and approach can adversely affect student engagement, with some
students being made to “feel an inconvenience” (p. 12) as a result of staff responses.
Taking these factors into consideration, the research discussed in this paper aimed to
answer the following research questions: What factors impact upon students’ engagement over a semester? What factors account for fluctuation in engagement levels over
time? This paper presents the results from students’ weekly feedback and chronicles the
experiences of one student, Angela (pseudonym), as an individual case study of a student
studying a Bachelor of Education degree, fully online, at an Australian regional university.
Through an in-depth analysis of one student’s online experience, a longitudinal account of
engagement over the length of one full semester emerges. Patterns of engagement (and
disengagement) that emerge from this student’s story have implications for the ways in
which educators can support online students to persist with their studies.
We took an interpretive qualitative approach to the research design to understand in
depth the students’ engagement with learning online and to explore those experiences
that may be multi-layered, complex and “as varied as the situations and contexts
supporting them” (Cohen, Mannion, & Morrison, 2011, p. 18).
264 T. MUIR ET AL.
Student participants were recruited from the School of Education at an Australian
regional university, following formal ethical approval from that university. All were
enrolled in their third year of a four-year education degree. The degree was offered in
three modes: fully on-campus, fully online, or mixed mode. Online delivery was provided
through the university’s learning management system and typically consisted of
recorded lectures, prescribed readings, online learning content and activities, 2 or 3
assessment tasks, and discussion boards. We adopted a purposeful approach to sampling (Creswell, 2012) and chose to recruit students who were nominated by previous
lecturers as “engaged learners”, who would “stay the course” and not withdraw from
study. To help identify potential participants, an engaged online learner was described
as someone who consistently and reliably participated in discussion forums or other
learning activities, collaborated with other students, and engaged with the lectures and
readings. Participant study load varied from 50% of a full-time load (two units of study)
to 100% (four units of study), with some studying a 75% load (three units of study).
To gain a clear understanding of student engagement over time, this study adopted
a prospective longitudinal method (Cohen et al., 2011), which allowed for student input at
multiple points in time across a 13-week semester. This approach aimed to identify factors
that influenced engagement in the online space over time, and to provide more opportunities
to “catch the complexity” underpinning student behaviour in response to their studies (Cohen
et al., 2011, p. 266). In doing so, it adds to the existing literature, which tends to capture
student voice through survey instruments often at exit points, rather than over a sustained
period of time (e.g., Ilgaz & Gulbahar, 2015; Park & Choi, 2009; Ragusa & Crampton, 2018).
Study participants were asked to complete a weekly questionnaire, administered via
SurveyMonkey, which sought to capture their experiences throughout the 13-week semester. Bearing in mind the limitations of using surveys to capture the complexity of
engagement, for the purpose of this paper we have focused on students’ responses to
two open-ended questions: “Describe positive/negative things your online lecturers did
that influenced your engagement” and “Describe any things that might be affecting your
engagement in your studies (e.g., have you been sick? lots of work? lots of assignments?).”
To gain rich accounts of online student engagement over time, we also collected data
using semi-structured interviews (Hatch, 2002). Our team developed interview schedules
through guidance from educational research texts such as those by Creswell (2012) and
Cohen et al. (2011) and research related to online teaching and learning in higher education
(e.g., Bolliger & Wasilik, 2009; Crawford & Jenkins, 2017; Gannon Cook, Ley, Crawford, &
Warner, 2009). Open-ended questions covered key themes, with additional optional
prompting questions to delve more deeply into the experience of participants. Illustrative
questions included “Were there any learning activities this week that were (a) very rewarding and helped you stay engaged or (b) challenging in a negative sense and made it difficult
to stay engaged?” and “If you had advice to give to the lecturer this week to promote
engagement, what might you offer?”. Students were encouraged to narrate from their own
personal perspective (Hollway & Jefferson, 2000), providing “stories that reveal truths about
human experience” (Riessman, 2008, p. 10). Eight interviews were conducted with each
student: one before the semester began (pre-semester interview), six fortnightly during
semester (during semester interview), and one follow-up after semester (post-semester).
Collated interview data from participants are reported elsewhere (under review), but we
have selected Angela’s interview data to present her story as detailed later in the paper.
DISTANCE EDUCATION 265
Interviews were conducted by a member of the project team by audio or video calls
and ranged between 15 and 30 minutes. Each interview was verbatim transcribed, and the
transcripts were initially read through by the research team to gain a general sense of the
main themes. The process of moving from transcribed accounts to research data involved
thematic analysis that employed both deductive and inductive coding. Deductive themes –
such as engaging factors, disengaging factors, and attributes and skills necessary for
online study – were informed by previous research into online teaching and learning in
higher education and teacher education. Inductive themes that emerged from the data,
such as notions of flexibility in the online space, are reported on in the Results and
Discussion sections. These steps of data analysis are consistent with Creswell’s (2012) steps
for analysing and interpreting qualitative data. Following this initial analysis, data were
imported into NVivo and assigned codes. Nodes and child-nodes were created to reflect
the inductive and deductive themes. There were 23 nodes and 37 child-nodes with a total
of 5000 references taken from the data. The node with highest number of references was
Lecturer Communication (n = 114 from 42 sources), followed by Relevant/Authentic activities, which had 91 references from 40 sources.
Students’ real names were replaced with pseudonyms in all documentation and are
used consistently in the Results and Discussion sections below.
In order to provide a snapshot of how students’ engagement fluctuated over the course
of a semester, the first part of this section looks at students’ responses to the survey,
with a particular focus on their responses to two open-ended questions about the
factors influencing their engagement. The survey required students to rate their level
of engagement for that week on a scale of 1–10 (with 1 being not engaged at all, 5 being
engaged enough and 10 being totally engaged). They were asked whether or not their
units were equally engaging (yes/no), with the choice to provide an additional openended response.
Figure 1 shows that students’ cumulative ratings of their engagement levels fluctuated
across the semester. The lowest levels of engagement were recorded in Week 1 (qualitative comments indicate this was influenced by some units not having commenced). In
Week 1, only two students indicated that they were equally engaged in all their units, with
five responding negatively. Weeks 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9 all recorded engagement levels of 6,
which was the next lowest. Analysis of qualitative comments for those weeks (n = 19)
showed that engagement was influenced primarily by assessment tasks (12 comments),
unit/s workload (4), relevance (2), and lecturer input (1). The highest levels of engagement
were recorded for Weeks 2 and 6. Interestingly, both these weeks followed a break (some
units did not commence until Week 2, and Week 6 followed Easter).
Results from the open-ended survey questions showed that assessment, unit/s workloads,
nature of the units (including relevance), lecturer presence, and work/life commitments
were all named as factors that influenced individual weekly engagement. The following
comments are illustrative of the responses received in relation to each of these factors.
266 T. MUIR ET AL.
The units with assignments due sooner have engaged my interest the most. (Evan, Week 2)
I have been busy trying to complete an assignment for one of the units, and not spent any
time on the other unit at all. (Sonia, Week 7)
I feel at this point in the semester I am no longer engaged. I am just trying to get all my
assessment tasks completed and engaging only enough to get the information I need to do
this. (Carol, Week 8)
I have assignments due, so those units are the most engaging out of necessity. (Julie, Week 9)
Trying to get all my assessments done – it feels a little like the learning has stopped and
everything is just about assessment tasks. (Penny, Week 11)
Workload across units
Workload across units was also a factor, particularly in terms of students’ consideration
of whether or not their units were equally engaging. Penny, for example, commented
“have fallen behind – trying to catch up” (Penny, Week 4), while Margaret felt
“Overwhelmed with the workload of three subjects!” (Margaret, Week 1).
Nature of the units
Students indicated that they were more likely to be engaged if they found the
content “interesting” (Carol, Week 2) and if lecturers provided material relevant to
the profession; students frequently compared interesting units with those that were
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8 Week 9 Week 10Week 11Week 12
Self-rated levels of engagement
Figure 1. Students’ ratings of engagement levels over 12 weeks of semester.
DISTANCE EDUCATION 267
Mostly [engaging] – some units are drier than others (Linda, Week 2)
In one of the units I felt the [lecturer] gave a better range of ways to develop our thinking
about the topic by presenting videos, interviews and reading materials. (Sonia, Week 3)
One online tutorial is particularly boring and into the future I may not continue to devote
time to this learning activity and use my time more productively completing assessment
tasks. (Fiona, Week 3)
[Unit] had a series of interviews about parent-teacher interviews. [. . .] I learnt more listening to
them talk about their experiences than 20 journal articles could have provided. (Fiona, Week 5)
Students evaluated the impact of the lecturer upon their engagement. Positive comments referred to lecturer support, such as providing webinars explaining assessment
expectations and varying the content and presentation of subject matter. Students were
explicit on the ways negative lecturer behaviours impacted their engagement:
Failure to engage by the lecturer makes stepping up to one unit very difficult . . . why should
I be bothered if the lecturer can’t? (Sonia, Week 5)
Asked for further feedback on assignment submitted . . . and was told no it wasn’t possible.
Not sure how not aiding someone who wants to learn and do better is in the best interests
of education. (Julie, Week 9)
Work/life commitments and events played a role in students’ capacity to remain
engaged with their studies, as the following comments demonstrate:
Still not 100% well and I’ve had a few medical appointments so that’s having an impact, as
well as my Dad’s health not being great, so it’s a bit stressful. (Linda, Week 3)
I have been very busy with my work outside of uni and so I have been trying to play catch
up. I haven’t engaged as much in uni work as a whole. (Sonia, Week 5)
Influences across semester
In terms of looking for patterns in responses across the semester, some weeks did share
commonalities. For example, in Weeks 6, 7, and 8, feedback regarding the influence of
assessment tasks on engaging equally with all units was common. Likewise, students’
comments indicated a lack of interaction with discussion boards in Weeks 10, 11, and 12
as assessment tasks were due.
This section has looked at the nine participants’ self-reporting of their engagement
over the course of a semester. The next section probes further into the data to chronicle
one of the participants’ experiences of study over the course of that semester. Because
we were interested in investigating the lived experience of the online learner, the
majority of this section is devoted to documenting, through a case study of both survey
and interview data, the experiences of one participant, Angela, to provide more insight
into online engagement and effective engaging practice. Angela was chosen for
a number of reasons: she fits in the demographic profile of many online students, as
268 T. MUIR ET AL.
mature-age, in paid employment, and with significant family responsibilities and extracurricular interests, including a holiday planned during semester. Although she did not
complete the final surveys, Angela was chosen as our case study because her interviews
were rich in detail on the challenges and benefits of managing study online alongside
significant personal and workplace commitments.
Angela manages part-time study with part-time work in the school education sector. She
is married, with adult children who live at home and attend university themselves.
Angela began her degree through mutual encouragement from a colleague (her
“study buddy”), who is also studying online in the same course. Angela self-identified
as proactive and a high achiever. At the time of the interviews, Angela had arranged to
accelerate her studies, enrolling in three units (75% load) instead of two (50%), and had
planned a 10-day family holiday around Week 10 of semester. It was important to
Angela to maintain a balance between her studies and her family life, including time
with her husband, such as by taking a holiday together.
Although Angela was anxious about the increased workload, and about the impact of
the holiday on her studies, she felt confident about finishing her units because of her
organised approach. Angela completed five surveys over the course of the semester,
aligning with semester Weeks 1, 3, 5, 6, and 9 (Angela was overseas during Weeks 10
and 11 of semester, so unable to complete the survey in those weeks). In Week 1, she
reported an engagement level of 0, peaked at an engagement level of 8 in Week 6, and
her final survey in Week 9 reported an engagement level of 6 (see Figure 2).
In the pre-semester interview, Angela discussed what the coming 13 weeks entailed,
including the increased workload of moving from her usual two to three units. Angela was
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
Week 1 Week 3 Week 5 Week 6 Week 9
Angela’s level of engagement
Level of engagement
Figure 2. Angela’s levels of engagement over the course of the semester.
DISTANCE EDUCATION 269
apprehensive but “cautiously confident” about this move, describing how she was preparing by downloading unit outlines, reading assessment criteria, and planning around
assessment due dates. She stated that mature-age students need to be “clever with [. . .]
time [. . .] cause it’s got to fit in with the rest of your life”, highlighting a central theme of
her interviews—balancing work and life commitments. Angela also identified one of her
key support systems: her study buddy. Angela and her study buddy were purposefully
studying the same units at the same time. Studying with a friend was the “best choice”,
Angela said, because they could offer mutual support and confidence. During this interview, Angela also discussed her individual perceptions and experiences of online learning.
For Angela, being engaged meant a higher quality of work, “go[ing] the extra step”: doing
“extra reading”, contacting lecturers and tutors personally, and adding “sincere value” to
discussion boards rather than “just making comments ’cause I know that’s the expectation”. She acknowledged the need for online students to be more self-disciplined: “the
onus is a great deal more on you to be responsible”. She expected as much from her
lecturers and tutors in return. Viewing learning as a “reciprocal relationship”, Angela
appreciated when the teaching staff member was “not just going through the process”,
but planning specifically for online learning, including setting clear expectations, making
content fully available non-synchronously, providing exemplars, being themselves engaging in recorded lectures, and being available for contact during non-office hours.
Angela’s pre-semester interview revealed a student who was highly motivated to succeed
and cognisant of the challenges, benefits and limitations of online study.
In her second interview, conducted in Week 2 of semester, Angela described feeling
“overwhelmed” by her increased study load. Two of her units had multiple small assessment
tasks spread throughout the semester, so Angela sat down with her study buddy to create
a spreadsheet to manage due dates. As we found with many of our participants, Angela did
not devote equal time to each unit evenly throughout the semester. In this interview,
Angela described spending the most time and energy on one unit because it took more
effort (it had “laborious” reading involving unfamiliar, technical language): “I like to get the
most complex one [done] otherwise it’s just hanging over my head like a dark cloud.”
Conversely, another of her units seemed reasonably “simple”, needing less time.
A key theme that emerged in Interview 2 was teacher presence and behaviour.
Angela described being engaged by lecturers who showed personality or variety in
their lectures: telling a story that personalised the material or themselves (“she wasn’t
just a person on a screen”) or making lecture recordings in an unusual location. Lecturers
with “boring” lecture delivery, or whose voices were difficult to understand or hear, were
“sterile” and disengaging. Engagement was boosted by “catchy, interactive” and practical learning activities, while heavy, theory-based reading was “hard”. Angela dwelt
upon feeling alienated when one of her lecturers posted feedback to online discussions,
naming other students in the group but failing to acknowledge Angela’s contribution.
While Angela said she was “trying not to take it personally”, it was clear that this
experience could, if repeated, be highly disengaging.
As she described in Interview 2, interacting with her peers online, particularly in
discussion spaces, was less important to Angela. Discussion boards were “superficial”,
not engaging or “thought provoking”. Angela found more positive interaction in her
offline friendship with her study buddy but acknowledged that without this she may
have wanted more interaction with peers online.
270 T. MUIR ET AL.
In Interview 3, conducted in Week 4, Angela reiterated many points from the previous
interview. Angela was working hard to manage the workload but could see that her
attention was unbalanced: one unit had very little workload, while another had
“copious” reading and lots of activities. For Angela in this week, the readings were
a key theme: “long, laborious readings” dominated her study schedule but were disengaging, particularly if written in technical “jargon”. Obversely, one assigned reading that
helped her see “the big picture” was “fantastic”, prompting interactivity with the textbook itself: she described “highlights [. . .] and Post-It notes everywhere because it just
really consolidated what I knew.”
Angela’s third interview shows how the same essential activity (reading an assigned text
or posting to the discussion board) can be either engaging or disengaging. Angela
described vividly her disappointment when lecturers didn’t respond to her posts: “you
draft it and correct it and get it right and put it up, and then sometimes you just get
nothing back and you think, ‘Oh geez’”. She also noted her satisfaction in seeing the “little
red dot” in the corner of the learning management system webpage, notifying her of the
lecturer’s real-time feedback. This suggests that teacher presence is as important—if not
more so—than the design of the activity or task itself. Although she prized teacher
interactivity, Angela didn’t strongly desire peer-to-peer interactivity, because of her study
buddy. She repeated her feeling that online discussion boards were “a means to an end”:
I could see [. . .] the lecturer needs some way of gauging our involvement, our engagement
and our understanding, but myself personally if I didn’t have to post things or I didn’t have
to engage other students it wouldn’t be detrimental to my learning.” (Interview 3)
In her fourth interview, in Week 6 of semester, Angela was more “anxious”: it was getting
close to assessment time for many units and she was recovering from the disappointment of
receiving a poor quiz grade. This event prompted Angela towards more focused comments
about assessment: including design, instructions, and expectations. Angela identified those
units which had been designed with online learners in mind: learning materials were fully
accessible from day one; students could move at their own pace; there was clarity
in situating the materials and forward-planning in directions for assessment tasks; and
compulsory activities were not time-bound. It was those units that she found most engaging. Interview 4 (Week 6) corresponds with Angela’s peak in self-reported engagement, as
shown in Figure 2. In her interview, she described working hard on assessments, even “up at
2 in the morning for five hours [. . .] writing like no one’s business”.
Angela commented frequently on asynchronous flexibility, prizing the freedom to
move at her own pace: to “zoom ahead” (Interviews 3, 5, 6, 7) or to take a break from
study. “Zooming ahead” meant strategically accessing course content ahead of time
(lectures, discussion posts) while maintaining focus on major assessment tasks. As
Angela described in detail in her fifth interview, for many students, assessments are
both the main “focus” of work as well as the major distraction from engagement:
I definitely lose balance while I’m focusing [on assessment] and really just do minimal work
[. . .] and then move on. I just feel like [. . .] it’s the assessments that are going to help me
pass. (Interview 5)
[. . .] I think from weeks, let’s say, 1 to 5 where there’s no assessments [. . .] you give the
lectures [and] readings a lot of time, a lot of thought. [But . . .] the closer it gets to
DISTANCE EDUCATION 271
assessment and the weeks of assessment, it may go from like 16 people answering to 3.
This was a common theme for our participants: engagement with content and peers is
mediated by proximity to assessment due dates.
Interviews 6 (Week 9 of semester) and 7 (Week 11) framed Angela’s overseas holiday
and dwelled on the issue of asynchronous flexibility: the ability to fit study around other
life commitments and the frustration at not being permitted to do so, because of either
unit design or lecturer behaviour. Angela wanted to be able to “go at the speed you
want” through the content and mechanised assessments such as quizzes (Interview 6). In
Interview 6, she described accessing the Week 10 content in one of her units, to ensure
she had completed the minimum engagement requirements prior to going on holiday.
She wanted to be “clever with time” (Interview 7) but felt frustrated by temporal
constraints placed on the material: “I feel like I’m working with my hands tied behind
my back. [. . .] the whole point of doing distance study [is] that it’s got to be flexible.”
(Interview 6) Angela’s exasperation chimes with the literature on flexibility, which
emphasises students’ desire to interact with material asynchronously.
In her post-semester interview, Angela summarised key points of discussion shared
throughout the semester. She was ambivalent about discussion boards, seeing them as
a “double-edged sword”: potentially useful for encountering new ideas, but also “laborious”. She reiterated her feeling that having materials and content available from the
start of the semester was paramount for allowing her to engage fully with her learning:
Angela wanted to be “organised and [. . .] proactive”, “chipping away at things slowly”.
Temporal restraints on access were Angela’s “biggest gripe”. Moreover, as a comment
prompted by our interviewer revealed, temporal restraints affected Angela’s decision
about how many units to enrol in:
If you could be guaranteed that all the units would be like the one where
the content was just there ready, [. . .] would that have affected your
decision about doing four?
Yes. Yes, because while the assessment is immense, [. . .] knowing I could
get through things week to week [. . .]. It would have swayed me, because
that would have cut down my degree by a year. (Interview 8)
The survey results and Angela’s interviews share common themes: work-life balance and
the priorities of life commitments for online learners; managing assessment and weekly
workload, including the overwhelming early weeks; teacher presence; and relevance and
interactivity of learning tasks. Survey comments showed that students associated
engagement with online interactions, such as contributing to online discussion boards.
A number of students mentioned that they were “not as engaged” since they had
assessment tasks due. There was a tendency to “sacrifice” engagement in one unit to
focus on others to meet assessment requirements. It could be argued that students’
attention to assessment tasks was evidence of the engagement dimension of academic
challenge (Kuh, 2001) as they were required to devote considerable time and effort to
272 T. MUIR ET AL.
complete the tasks successfully. Students’ interpretations of their levels of engagement
support the view that engagement is indeed multifaceted (Fredericks et al., 2004): it can
occur along a continuum (Robinson & Hullinger, 2008), and individuals differ in their
constructs of engagement.
Interaction with learning content, lecturers and peers was significant throughout the
survey data and Angela’s interviews. Students appreciated active and collaborative learning (Kuh, 2001), although peer interaction through discussion boards was not as highly
valued as student-faculty interaction (Kuh, 2001). Like the online students in Ragusa and
Crampton’s (2018) study, these students valued quality, timely feedback. Similarly, lecturers and subjects that stimulated interest (Park & Choi, 2009) were reported as having
a positive effect on engagement. Angela praised a unit that provided multiple interactive
activities instead of theoretical readings on the topic, as modelling an alternative pedagogical technique she could put in her teaching “backpack” (Interview 2). She also
described many instances of disengagement when she perceived her teachers to themselves be disengaged: for example, if they failed to reply to her in the discussion forum.
Although students generally perceived contribution to discussion boards as indicating
engagement, Angela’s narrative suggests that many students may only be engaging thus
superficially. Angela’s interviews show that it is the presence and behaviour of the lecturer,
rather than peers, which is key to student engagement online (Stone et al., 2016).
Angela repeatedly emphasized organisation, clarity, and flexibility, appreciating clear
instructions, timely communication, and study guides. She praised units which allowed
her to move at her own pace and was infuriated by those that imposed what she saw as
arbitrary temporal limits. Clear expectations emerged as a key issue related to time
management, for more than one of our interview subjects, as Angela expressed: “it can
become really frustrating and easy to become overwhelmed when you’re not getting
distinctive information, when everything’s a little bit vague” (Interview 7). The reverse
side of the need for forward planning on the teachers’ side, as Angela identified
(Interviews 1 and 8), was that successful learning online occurs when the student is
prepared, dedicated, self-motivated and has good support (from friends, colleagues and
partners). This finding is consistent with other research that identifies family and support
as factors in influencing online engagement (Park & Choi, 2009; Stone et al., 2016).
As a mature-age woman, married and with adult children, studying part-time and
working in paid employment, Angela can be considered demographically representative
of a significant proportion of online undergraduate students at Australian universities.
This balancing act between study and family responsibilities often results in guilt,
sacrifice and stress, along with interruptions to study progress (Stone & O’Shea, 2013).
Angela is also representative of the many online, mature-age students, who set high
aspirations and have high expectations. Many of these students work with great dedication, finding “pride and satisfaction from grades, from achieving milestones” (Kahu,
Stephens, Leach, & Zepke, 2015, p. 492). Angela is no exception.
Our results show that the factors which impacted students’ engagement with their
units over a semester included workload across units; assessment tasks; the nature of the
units (including delivery and relevance); the presence of, and relationship with, the
lecturer; and other life commitments. These findings are consistent with the research
literature (e.g., Stone et al., 2016). Peer interaction through forums such as discussion
boards was not identified as a strong factor impacting upon engagement and
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technology was not seen as a particular barrier, which is in contrast to findings in some
other studies (e.g., Yoo & Huang, 2013). The results show that fluctuating levels of
engagement were attributable to competing demands, such as concurrent deadlines
and life commitments outside of university study. As Wimpenny and Savin-Baden (2013)
found, an academic’s style and approach can adversely affect student engagement,
leading to recommendations for lecturers and tutors to be clear about their roles and
level of interaction with students from the outset to manage a range of expectations.
Conclusions and recommendations
Understanding the factors that influence student engagement online has strong potential benefits for improving educational outcomes, including retention and completion
times. This is of significant importance for regional universities, whose cohorts are more
likely to struggle and have higher attrition. Through a longitudinal research methodology, this study captured a more nuanced picture of the sustained impact of known
factors on student engagement over time, including students’ self-management of high
workloads, teacher presence and relationship, and work-life balance. While the students
in this study experienced similar learning approaches, their accounts varied, indicating
the presence of persistence and resilience. This could be an area for future research,
whereby students’ persistence and resilience to continue despite experiencing feelings
of drudgery or alienation (Wimpenny & Savin-Baden, 2013) could be investigated.
The results of this study could be useful for course coordinators and administrators
seeking to redesign rules, policies and institutional expectations with online students in
mind. With this in mind, we offer the following recommendations for lecturers and
instructors wishing to improve outcomes for their students:
● Where possible, make learning materials fully accessible at the beginning of semester, to allow students to move at their own pace through content.
● Ensure your unit is clearly mapped and logically sequenced.
● Try to respond at least once a week to all students, even if it’s just to acknowledge
● Avoid making compulsory activities time-bound.
In particular, the results of this study provide a timely reminder of the importance of
planning, design, and teacher presence in successfully engaging the online learner. It is
hoped that the findings from this study, and particularly the insights gained from
Angela’s experience, can be used to inform and improve online teaching, resulting in
enhanced online engagement.
This research received internal funding from UTAS Hothouse Funding Scheme.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
274 T. MUIR ET AL.
This work was supported by an internal UTAS CALE Hothouse Scheme grant.
Notes on contributors
Tracey Muir is an Associate Professor and Deputy Head of the School of Education at the
University of Tasmania. Her research interests focus on student engagement, particularly in
mathematics education, and online teaching and learning.
Naomi Milthorpe is Senior Lecturer in English at the School of Humanities, University of Tasmania.
She researches twentieth-century British literature, and English pedagogy. Naomi is the author of
Evelyn Waugh’s satire: Texts and contexts (2016) and editor of Digital English, a web handbook of
practical exercises for tertiary English teachers.
Cathy Stone is a researcher in the field of post-secondary student equity, retention and success.
She is a Conjoint Associate Professor in Social Work at the University of Newcastle and an Adjunct
Fellow with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University.
Janet Dyment is an Associate Professor and Deputy Head of the School of Education at the
University of Tasmania. Her research interests focus on high quality teaching and learning in initial
teacher education courses, particularly in regard to online pedagogies.
Elizabeth Freeman is a historian at the University of Tasmania who lectures on medieval European
history and researches Western Christian monasticism, especially the Cistercian monastic order
(12th to 16th centuries). Recently, she has developed an interest in the scholarship of learning and
teaching, including the area of student engagement.
Belinda Hopwood is a researcher and lecturer in the School of Education at the University of
Tasmania. Belinda specialises in the areas of English and literacy education, with particular interest
in teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge for the teaching of reading.
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