Research-based Frameworks for Addressing and Assessing Online Learning Engagement

I begin this post with three hypotheses about online learning, based on my experience as a community college composition and humanities teacher in both face to face and digital formats, and on my experience as a graduate student who has taken digital courses from two public research institutions and one private university. The first hypothesis is that the ratio of nontraditional to traditional students is greater in digital than in brick and mortar formats. The second hypothesis is that despite the prevalence in #edtech online instructor training of “frameworks” and lists of “best practices” and available technologies, most college teachers and institutions that are implementing online learning formats could do more to align online course design and instructor behavior with cognitivist and constructivist learning theory, with empirically verified pedagogical strategies, and with systematic piloting and review of digital innovations at the course and program level.

At the intersection of these two hypotheses is the crux of the matter: if a higher ratio of first generation, English language learner, adult, and other nontraditional students is enrolling in online (defined here as any combination of synchronous or asynchronous learning) courses, and the shift to teaching in digital spaces and/or new technological innovations requires teachers to develop new communication, technology and pedagogical design skills while amplifying the negative effect of the lack of such skills, do resulting negative impacts on student retention and motivation create a significant disparate impact for nontraditional students? On the flip side, how can implementation of learning theories such as andragogy and social constructionism, together with more evidence-based review of digital teaching approaches, result in increased success for the less traditional student population that tends to take online courses?

A number of studies confirm that nontraditional students comprise the majority of online leaners (Chen, Lambert & Guidry, 2010: Thompson, Miller & Pomykal Franz, 2013). Teachers and institutions who create online learning experiences thus need to consider both the assumptions of adult learning theory, such as that adult learners have and use more personal experience in learning, maintain responsibility for their own learning and resist situations where learning appears to be dispensed or controlled by others, and are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated (Holton, Swanson, & Naquin, 2001), as well as the issues of diversity such as adaption, acculturation, identity formation, and diverse practices and understandings of knowledge acquisition and demonstration (Nielsen, 2014).

I would like to posit that a question as complex as how to build capacity at the course and institutional level for supporting such learners in online formats cannot be addressed effectively without systematic analysis, design, and evaluation of possible solutions that consider not only what innovations may work but why they work and whether they are scalable.

In this post, I respond to recent literature seeking to put principles of learning theory into conversation with systematic qualitative analytical approaches to problems of student engagement by suggesting that other educators join in early implementation of these models as well as in systematic review of results. I’ll discuss two research-based frameworks for online course design and one for course/program review.




Chen, P., Lambert, A., & Guidry, K. (2010). Engaging online learners: The impact of web-based learning technology on college student engagement. Computers & Education, 54, 1222-1232. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.11.008

Ford, C., McNally, D., & Ford, K. (2017). Using design-based research in higher education innovation. Online learning, 21(3), 50-67. doi:10.24059/oli.v%vi%i

Holton, E.F., Swanson, R.A., & Naquin, S.S. (2001). Andragogy in practice: Clarifying the andragogical model of adult learning. Performance improvement quarterly, 14(1), 118-143. Retrieved from

Lehman, R.M. & Conceição, S. (2013) Motivating and retaining online students: Research-based strategies that work, Jossey-Bass / Wiley. Retrieved from

Nielsen, K. (2014) On class, race, and dynamics of privilege: Supporting generation 1.5 writers across the curriculum. In Zawacki, T.M. & Cox, M. (Eds.), WAC and second-language writers: Research towards linguistically and culturally inclusive programs and practices (pp. 129-150). Retrieved from

Oremus, W. (2015, October 25). No more pencils, no more books: Artificially intelligent software is replacing the textbook—and reshaping American education. Slate. Retrieved from

Redmond, Pl, Abawi, L., Brown, A., Henderson, R., & Heffernan, A. (2018). An online engagement framework for higher education. Online learning, 22(1), 183-204. doi:10.24059/olj.v22i1.1175

Thompson, N., Miller, N., & Pomykal Franz, D. (2013). Comparing online and face-to-face learning experiences for non-traditional students: A case study of three online teacher education candidates. The quarterly review of distance education, 14(4), 233-251.

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