The Extraordinary Teaching Project: Engaging Students Online

Featured Instructors:

Sarah Vigmostad, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering


Promote dynamic team-based learning in an online classroom


  • Helps students retain information
  • Encourages collaborative learning even across distances
  • Helps students understand concepts
  • Improves instructor-student relationship


Sarah Vigmostad describes how she uses group work in her online courses to foster authentic learning.


Online Engagement: Details & Examples

Flipped learning (sometimes called inverted learning) allows for more student-centered instruction by requiring students to encounter material (such as recorded lectures and reading assignments) independently so that class time can be used for interactive, applied learning with the instructor’s guidance.  Benefits are substantial:

  • Students can better control when and how often they first encounter course concepts.  Students can pause and re-watch recorded lectures until they fully understand the material. 
  • Students have significantly more class time to ask questions, evaluate concepts, and apply information in active-learning peer groups.  
  • Instructors are better able to connect with students in a meaningful way. 
  • Students feel greater ownership of their learning, and may have greater motivation.  
  • Synchronous learning in an online environment promotes both learner persistence and deeper learning.

Online Engagement: Best Practices

Practitioners recommend that instructors keep videos brief and simple (as short as 3-5 minutes) to help students focus and to make it easier for students to find what they need to review. 

Informing students in advance of technology requirements for participating in the course can help them to be active participants.   

Students can benefit from frequent communication about the nature and procedures for a flipped course as well as your expectations about how they should engage.  Student “buy in” to the flipped model can be encouraged by actively involving them in a discussion about how the flipped model works and why it can improve their learning. 

Image of teacher presenting in front of a large computer screen.
Consider asking your students to help create a list of expectations for the active-learning class activities: what do they expect to get out of the course?  What can they do to enhance their own learning?

Requiring students to take simple quizzes or other assessments before online class meetings not only helps to ensure that students prepare carefully but also can serve as a useful starting point for conversations about course content. 

Students taking a course online may not be able to access non-verbal cues during an in-class lecture, which may create awkward silences.  Professor Vigmostad recommends frequent checks for understanding either verbally or through the chat feature.  

Scholars have found that online instructors are most effective when they have characteristics suggested by the acronym “VOCAL.”  Effective online instructors are Visible, Organized, Compassionate, Analytical, and a Leader-by-example.  (These qualities also work well in traditional classrooms.)

It is helpful to provide ongoing support for students for both the technology and the flipped model of instruction. Professor Vigmostad’s Statics class benefits from dedicated technology support logged into all online classes at the university.  This way the instructor will not spend valuable class time troubleshooting problems. 

Online Engagement: Technology

Technology is making it possible for engaged instructors to expand teaching and learning in dynamic ways. Courses like the one described by Sarah Vigmostad require:  

1. A lecture capture/streaming video solution for recording lectures and also making them available online for students.

  • ​​​Panopto (UICapture) digitally records audio, video, or screen content and makes it available to students as either downloadable or streaming recordings. 
  • Kaltura is a digital media platform which allows users to upload, tag content with metadata, view, browse and play media assets via easy-to-use video and audio streaming software. Kaltura is integrated with ICON, and can be used to deliver content outside of ICON as well.

2. A drawing software solution for creating content with a simple stylus pen and computer tablet.

  • OneNote allows Instructors to import PowerPoint slides and then draw on them to explain content.  

3. A distance web conferencing solution for classes that meet online.

  • Zoom is a web conferencing solution offered by the University of Iowa. Zoom allows users to meet in online meetings, share audio and video information, schedule webinars, use questionnaires in meetings, and much more. 

Online Engagement: Bibliography & Related Content


Czerkawski, B. C. (2014) Designing Deeper Learning Experiences for Online Instruction. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 13(2): 29-40.

Davis, C. (2013) Flipped or Inverted Learning: Strategies for Course Design. Enhancing Instruction with Visual Media: Utilizing Video and Lecture Capture. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 241-65.

Hill, P. (2014) Flipped Classrooms: Annotated List of Resources. e-Literate. Retrieved from

Savery, J. R. (2005)  BE VOCAL: Characteristics of Successful Online Instructors. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 4(2): 141-52.

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