Engaging Students in Online Courses: Adding Experiential to Asynchrony

close up on keyboard

Teaching online is a unique experience for faculty and students. Although I love the online environment for some courses, it does present its own challenges. One of those challenges is how to engage online students in activities that push them to go beyond simply reading, interpreting, and interacting. After all, the idea (in most cases) is that the student can apply their learning, knowledge, and skills in their respective fields of study. As such, we are constantly seeking ways to engage students in learning that goes beyond the “click-through” material.

In this article, I share a few ideas—starting with the simplest and working through some more complicated endeavors—that may assist you in bringing more engagement to your online classroom.

Scaffolding the Recording Experience

To effectively engage in online learning that involves interactivity, students need to develop a sense of technology competence. While our most tech-savvy students have no problems jumping right in, others may need a scaffolded approach to engaging in online interactivity. Here’s one idea that may help get you started.

Most LMS platforms allow for the submission of video and audio files to a drop-box, assignment submission folder, or other location for grading within the course. Rather than asking students to record and post a video of a role-play or presentation, you could craft scaffolded assignments that promote real-time connectedness. For the first assignment, you could leverage Instant Messaging (IM) by asking students to work in pairs, sending messages back in forth in a “text-only” interactive session. Many LMS platforms have this capability and even allow for printed transcripts of conversations. Free IM providers are easy enough to find if your LMS does not provide such a capability. Next, students could collaborate using the synchronous video option either provided by your LMS or by a third party (e.g. Skype and Adobe Connect) and submit this work for feedback. Finally, students could take their skills into the real world, recording and uploading their experiential assignments to the LMS for review.

Case Studies

Case studies are a popular way to move students toward applying theory and knowledge in a meaningful way. The general procedure is to supply a narrative of the case and ask the student to respond by either answering questions or developing an intervention based on a theory or knowledge base covered in the course. Although there’s nothing wrong with this tried-and-true approach, with the addition of technologies like Adobe Captivate or Articulate Storyline, you can prompt students to take actions to move the story forward, select response options with variable feedback, and participate in a way that adds a visual component to the experience.

These two software options are only a couple examples of the many programs available to us and that can be learned with very little training. Although somewhat labor intensive, these activities can be used in nearly any learning management system (LMS) and can be reused, edited, and revised as needed. This type of activity development allows for case studies to presented in a way that calls for interactivity and that is represented in a way that visual cues, characters, and information can be displayed to students thereby enhancing their ability to connect with the story, perceiving the experience as a more real-life activity rather than an academic exercise.


Whether it’s in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” or score-based style, creating interactive content that includes a scoring system and the ability to replay scenarios allows students to engage with the content, potentially without the fear of grading. Although some instructors would advocate for grading these types of assignments, this usually comes in the form of a grade for completing/attempting the game rather than to assess knowledge. Regardless, most LMS systems are capable of tracking a student’s progress through these types of activities and even grading them, if you so choose.

To give a little more clarity to the idea of gamification, consider this example. Imagine creating the case study example above but taking it a step further. Instead of simply asking students to respond to questions or interact with the content, you could add a points system that allows students to earn points for successfully selecting responses that would be indicative of a particular action or approach to a problem. When completing the activity, students would receive a score and can then replay again, attempting to achieve the best score. Most software applications that allow for this type of gamification have additional templates for “mini-games” or activities that can be customized to fit nearly any content and with tools that allow for quick development with relatively little training.


Barzilai, S., & Blau, I. (2014). Scaffolding game-based learning: Impact on learning achievements, perceived learning, and game experiences. Computers & Education70, 65-79.

Qian, M., & Clark, K. R. (2016). Game-based Learning and 21st century skills: A review of recent research. Computers in Human Behavior63, 50-58.

Whitton, Nicola. Learning with digital games: A practical guide to engaging students in higher education. Routledge, 2009.

Dr. Eric J. Perry is assistant professor and coordinator of counselor education at Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA. He has experience as an online instructor, instructional designer, and curriculum developer.