P. Kahn1, L. Everington1, K. Kelm2, I. Reid1, F. Watkins1

1University of Liverpool (UNITED KINGDOM)
2Laureate Online Education (UNITED STATES)
It is particularly challenging to engage students in learning that is supported entirely online, as evident in the relatively low levels of student retention on such courses. A substantial body of research from the National Survey of Student Engagement in the United States has identified certain educational practices with a ‘high impact’ on student engagement, but our understanding of why these practices result in such impact remains limited. One important avenue to follow, then, in enhancing student engagement in online learning is to develop our understanding of the linkages involved.

This study sought to account for patterns of student engagement on online masters degrees in the domains of Public Health, Management and Computer Science. The degrees are offered by the University of Liverpool, working in partnership with Laureate Online Education. We employed an interpretive two-part research design framed in part around the realist social theory of Margaret Archer, enabling as this did a focus on the student’s own reflexivity. Reflexivity here is understood as the ordinary mental capacity to consider oneself in relation to one’s social contexts. We initially analysed the overall pattern of engagement for 22 learners on each of two contrasting modules, considering also their postings to an asynchronous discussion board. The choice of modules enabled us to explore the student experience in relation to a relatively standard learning design and to a design incorporating a given high-impact practice (dissertation, simulation work or group project). The second phase involved semi-structured interviews with a sub-group of eight students, with interview questions based in part upon specific postings made by a student. Data analysis was undertaken using the qualitative software Nvivo to explore patterns in factors linked to their engagement.

The results indicate that engagement for the given learners was underpinned by varied modes of reflexivity, enabling a student to progress both individual concerns and those concerns common to a group of learners. Both required tasks and associated social relations involved students in taking responsibility in the face of uncertainty. It was, though, also possible for students to respond to the uncertainties entailed either with fractured responses that did not result in purposive action or with formulaic responses. At the same time, beliefs and dispositions manifested by the students were seen to mutually interact with the identified reflexivity. We thus see the relevance of more static elements such as one’s view of knowledge, task-related habits or habitual forms social presence in the classroom in relation to the more dynamic expression of reflexivity.

In this paper we particularly focus on the practical implications as to how learning is best supported online in light of these findings. We offer a range of strategies to enable students to take on responsibility for their learning in the presence of uncertainty, something important also in a shift away from industrial models of online learning whereby content is produced for the learner by a process of production. There are implications for the way that course development can be supported through a more a more explicit focus on underpinning social relations. Finally, there is potential for further strategies to support students in shaping their own reflexivity and dispositions as learners, as in relation to highly-paced technological change.