Course Development

Engaging online learning experiences start with the role of faculty

05/24/17   |  
Christine Lewinski, Ed.D.

This blog is the first in a series dedicated to the unique challenges and opportunities we see with online teaching and learning. Christine Lewinski, Ed.D., Keypath’s Director of Faculty Engagement and former university professor, will explore topics including online faculty development, online teaching best practices, online course tools and trends and more. Have a topic you’d like Christine to cover? We’d love to hear about it.

Want to better engage students online? Start with faculty

We know that online teaching is different from traditional on-ground teaching. One reason why? A meeting time or physical space do not signal when and where instruction begins or ends. This can lead to a learning experience made up of random acts of participation.

What can online programs do to foster a cohesive student learning experience? Develop a faculty engagement strategy aimed at helping students make sense of what and how they’re learning. Here are two impactful faculty roles to consider as part of a strategy of engaged instruction.

#1 Think about Online Teaching as Storytelling

While some definitions of storytelling focus on make-believe or fable, storytelling in the context of online teaching is closer to this definition from the National Storytelling Network: “Storytelling is the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination.” In what ways can teach online be an interactive art that encourages imagination?

  1. Provide context at the start of instruction by communicating important concepts for the week. This includes reinforcing the mindset for the week. “Together we will be working hard to apply the concept of… in preparation for…” “This week’s focus is collaboration on the design of your team project.”
  2. Create a through-line within the course and to the world outside the course: “In last week’s activity you were able to….this week you will…” “As you build your digital identity, this assignment provides professional evidence of…” Reinforcing the through-line can also help students when they go to tell their unique story during a job search (Seelio by Keypath, n.d.).
  3. Maintain momentum. Online course design is brought to life as it is being taught. Plan intentional engagement by maintaining a visible presence across the week in posts, announcements, and grading feedback. Create anticipation with a synchronous session, new collaboration tool, or friendly competition to encourage imagination and problem-solving.  

Applying storytelling principles can build relevance and context which are both necessary conditions for effective learning.

#2 Think About Online Faculty as Moderators

Relevance and context are most impactful when they are developed within a positive climate for learning. In the moderator role, online instructors attend to the learning climate (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001). In my own teaching, I sensed when the group dynamic seemed off. In these times, I reflected: Were students overwhelmed? Was there an interpersonal dynamic I wasn’t aware of? Or were students struggling with the demands of the course that week? Looking for and responding to clues helped to address the class climate, and remove obstacles to learning. What does moderating look like in online teaching?

  1. Are students overwhelmed? One cause for overwhelm is confusion about the assignment expectations and fear about asking for clarification. If online students are submitting assignments later than usual, sending a class email or using the Q&A forum may help to determine and address the cause.
  2. Is there an interpersonal conflict? Conflict can occur as part of the learning process, especially in team-based projects.  One experienced online instructor created an Interventions Matrix—a progressive series of interventions he applied with his students: “Soft” interventions are indirect advice and gentle reminders; “Hard” interventions are direct communications with one or more team members; “Shock and Awe” are the most intensive and result in an all-team synchronous web-conference (Dool, 2007). A strategy in place at the outset can help manage student-student conflict.
  3. If submissions are sporadic or participation drops in an online forum, students may have time management challenges. Sending a class message with a pace-of-work schedule encourages self-sufficiency as students make priorities to stay on track.

Introducing the Storyteller and Moderator roles into a faculty engagement plan can counteract random acts of participation resulting in better engaged, and better-motivated learners.


Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D.R., & Archer, W. (2001, September). Assessing Teaching Presence in a Computer Conferencing Context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), 1-17. Retrieved from COI :

Dool, R. (2007). Mitigating conflict [blog post]. Retrieved from eLearn Magazine:

National Storytelling Network. (n.d.). What is Storytelling? Retrieved from National Storytelling Network:

Seelio by Keypath. (n.d.). Tell Your Story with Seelio. Retrieved from YouTube: