Faculty Focus


Wallflowers in the Online Classroom

student studying on laptop

What does it mean to be a wallflower? Such a person might be thought of as shy and might sit apart from others at a party or social gathering, choosing to listen and observe rather than participate. And in the online classroom, a wallflower might be the person who reads course information and discussion boards regularly, but never posts. So how do instructors know if this online wallflower is really engaged in the course?

Angelique Hamane of Pepperdine University knows something about being a wallflower. “I learn from the periphery,” she says, noting that she knows all about popular restaurants from perusing Yelp, and that she’s a “virtual doctor” thanks to regular surfing of WebMD. She contends that this practice is typical. In a conference presentation, she advanced the idea that “in our everyday lives, we are engaged in learning without actually contributing.” Why should the online classroom be any different?

A great deal of research supports the understanding that student engagement is linked to student success. Hamane defines engagement as “the amount of time and effort a student puts forth in academically purposeful activities.” This time and effort is generally indicative of how well a student will learn and perform in the class.

In a face-to-face class, it is relatively easy to tell if students are engaged, even if they aren’t continually contributing to class discussions. Students who appear awake, alert, and involved with the material (by taking notes, referencing textbooks, or giving the “a-ha” reaction to statements made in class) are generally engaged. On the other hand, students who are dozing, surfing the web, working on other assignments, or texting are probably not engaged with the material.

Online, however, it is not as easy to tell if a student is engaged with the material. Students either post or don’t post to a discussion board, for example, and it is easy to assume that the more one posts, the more engaged one is.

Hamane and Pepperdine professor Farzin Madjidi set out to explore the issues surrounding student engagement in online classes. They posed two research questions:

  • “What is the relationship between student success and students’ actual level of engagement as measured by an LMS?”
  • “What is the relationship between student success and students’ perceived level of engagement?”

The study looked at students’ final percentage scores in their online courses; actual levels of engagement as defined by frequency of forum views, posts, and replies; and perceived levels of engagement. Their results demonstrate that student engagement can take many forms, and student success can be linked to many types of engagement.

Study Results and Implications

The researchers first examined data on log-ons, simply measuring whether or not students logged into the LMS. Not surprisingly, “log-on had no correlation with student success,” Hamane says. Just as a student in a face-to-face class needs to do more than simply walk through the classroom door, a student studying online needs to do more than just log on to the LMS.

The study also looked at which pages a student visited, and student visits to discussion boards correlated with student success. However, the students didn’t have to post—they just needed to spend time there.

This simple finding leads to important implications for instructors and administrators who work with online courses. For example, Hamane encourages all students to visit and spend time on the discussion boards by writing exam questions that send the students back to the discussions to find information and craft their answers. She also posts “higher-order discussion questions” on the boards that will require more than a yes/no answer and that will require students to think and write more.

Hamane uses these findings to help students who may be struggling in class. “If students say they are having a hard time, I immediately look at reports to see who logs in” to discussions, she says. However, this can be a cumbersome process, so she suggests administrators assist.

“Administrators can provide a support system. Extracting data can be time-consuming, so hire a programmer to [create] a dashboard” that allows instructors real-time information on student log-ins and activity online. The real-time data will be more valuable than that gathered after the course is completed.

Overall, it is important for administrators and instructors to understand that some “wallflower” students may be engaged in an online course without a lot of visible activity online. “Anecdotally, these students said they didn’t like to put themselves out there,” Hamane says.

Hamane notes that the presence of “wallflowers” in a course doesn’t mean an instructor should avoid requirements of participation in discussion boards any more than a face-to-face instructor would not require a minimum amount of in-class discussion. Hamane still requires her online students to do a certain amount of posting, but she uses this requirement as a way for students to “scaffold” their skills and abilities to prepare for the next class. “I want them to post and write, but I understand it may not be in them,” she says. “I understand when they don’t [post].” This understanding is the biggest takeaway from the study. “There are students who are actually engaged, but we can’t see it,” Hamane says.

Reprinted from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Distance Education Report, 18.12 (2014): 1-2. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.