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Students’ Disengagement in Online Learning: Do Solutions Live up to their Promise?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 1397 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Online education witnessed a rapid growth over the past decade. According to The Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (2018), more than two-thirds of all Canadian public universities and colleges offer online courses for credit. In 2018, roughly one in five Canadian students are taking at least one online course for credit.

As a result of this growth, educators are constantly assessing the quality and effectiveness of online courses. A key issue in online education is the learners’ sense of isolation and dis-engagement (Al Samarraie, 2016). There are numerous definitions of engagement in the literature. One of the most useful definitions was introduced by Kuh as quoted in Stott (2016, 51): “the time and energy students devote to educationally-sound activities”. That definition adds a quantifiable dimension to an abstract concept like engagement, which makes it measurable for research purposes.

Why bother?

The lack of student engagement is a challenge worth exploring since the perils of disengagement can have negative implications on students as well instructors. On one hand, disengagement impacts students’ participation, satisfaction with the course, and attrition rate (Morris, 2005). On the other hand, dissatisfaction with a course was found to negatively impact the evaluation of the course’s instructor (Stott, 2016). According to Philip Stott (2016), students who fail to reach their goals in online courses tend to punish the instructors through poor ratings, which in turn renders some instructors reluctant to teaching online courses to avoid the risk of damaging their career.  

Causes of Disengagement

Several factors were documented to lead to a sense of disengagement among students enrolled in online courses such as lack of experience with online learning, a cumbersome LMS applied to all students, poor connectivity, slow instructor response times, and high work commitments (Stott, 2016). Another study pointed out that disengagement online can be caused by inadequacy of equipped e-learning system and the lack of advanced multi-media tools (Zhang, 2004). 

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An opposing view to the idea that online learning causes disengagement was presented by Li and Akins (2004) who considered the whole idea a “myth”. The authors argue that technology alone does not have to promote disengagement.  According to them, technology is only a tool, so an effective online course should be driven by sound pedagogical considerations. In other words, objectives need to be set to create an engaging learning environment in any course whether it is delivered online or offline. If that is not done properly, then a sense of disengagement can develop any way regardless of the mode of delivery. In my experience, I can relate to this perspective. As an experienced educator I have witnessed student disengagement in traditional classroom setting, so I can testify that disengagement is not only faced online. Yet, it is important to note that the disengagement problem is a multi-dimensional one that is caused by a mix of factors as appears from the literature. It is therefore over-simplistic to reduce the causes of the problem to only the proper planning of an engaging learning environment.

Possible solutions

Several strategies could raise the engagement levels of students online. The most quoted strategies in the literature were online communities, student collaboration with each other, and open-ended assignments (Trumbore, 2014). A leading influential factor on student engagement is also how supportive the environment is (Lundberg, 2015). A supportive environment is defined as one that includes a combination of positive interactions with faculty, staff, and students. This study found that student learning increases when the campus environment is broadly supportive of their success and when it encourages them to interact with diverse peers. Likewise, faculty make an important contribution to student learning by providing feedback that encourages students to work hard in order to meet those high expectations (Lundberg , 2015). The findings of this study are interesting because they suggest solutions for the disengagment problem from an institutional perspective rather than a learner perspective.

Now what?

Despite the efforts implemented and strategies suggested to increase engagement, lack of student engagement remains a current issue in online education (Kebritchi, 2017). This leads me to ask, why is that the case? Do solutions suggested by research findings live up to their promise?

Protopsalti (2019) offered one explanation by clarifying that whenever technology is used to fully replace face-to-face interaction, disengagement is inevitable. To him, technology can add to the learning experience when it supplements, rather than replaces, face-to-face interaction. He pinpointed that the outcomes of the hybrid models of blended learning employing this philosophy do not mirror the problems that emerge in fully online courses. In other words, solutions to disengagement in online courses do not live up to their promises because the full online presence of a course does not inherently lend itself to engagement.

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Another explanation is offered by Guri (2011) who highlighted that current research on e-learning is marked by thousands of sporadic studies that yield contradictory results, suffer from various biases or do not yield robust conclusion that enable policy makers to use them in a useful way. That could explain why suggested solutions to disengagement in many studies did not yield their expected outcome or eliminate the problem.  

Perhaps the way forward is for institutions and governments to plan wide-scope studies, to improve the quality of existing studies, and to consolidate the many findings into a comprehensive framework that might serve policy makers, practitioners, and researchers at a different level.


  • Al Samarraie, H., & Selim, H. (2016). Isolation and distinctiveness in the design of e-learning systems influence user preference.  Interactive Learning Environment, 25(4), 452-466.
  • Guri, S. (2011). E-learning: confusing terminology, research gaps and inherent challenges. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education, 25 (1). 
  • Kebritchi, M. (2017). Issues and challenges for teaching successful online courses in higher education: A literature review. Journal of Educational Technology, 46, 4-29.
  • Li, Q., & Akin, M. (2011). Sixteen Myths about online teaching and learning in higher education: Don’t believe everything you hear. Tech Trends, 49(4), 51-60.
  • Lundberg, C. (2015). Benefits of engagement with peers, faculty and diversity for online learners. College Teaching ,63, 8-15.
  • Morris, L., & Finnegan, C. (2005). Tracking student behavior, persistence and achievement in online course. The Internet and Higher Education, 8, 221-231.
  • Protopsalti, S., & Baum, S. (2019, January). Does online education lives up to its promise? A look at the evidence and the implications for federal policy. (unpublished paper). USA.
  • Stott, P. (2016). The perils of a lack of student engagement: Reflections of a lonely, brave, and rather exposed online instructor. British Journal of Educational Technology, 47(1), 51-64.
  • The Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (2018).Online survey. Retrieved from https://www.tonybates.ca/2018/12/20/summary-of-the-2018-survey-of-online-learning-in-canadian-colleges-and-universities/
  • Trumbore, A. (2014). Rules of engagement: Strategies to increase online engagement at scale. Change Mag, 38-45.


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