Help! My students have disappeared

This post is for those colleagues who are perhaps teaching online for the first time. There are plenty of good resources available for how you can quickly transition from face-to-face to online teaching.

Have a look at Griffith’s video series or the principles of online teaching from a national award winning online educator.

There are many quality resources available that talk about student engagement in these online environments. This is great advice and it is worth your time to search around for hints and tips that you can quickly enact with your own online class. However, I would like to draw your attention to a specific part of teaching online and student engagement that is often easily overlooked when you are cognitively overloaded by current events.

Student Sleeping in library and a book by Mandala

“Student Sleeping in library and a book by Mandala” by hasnainyaseen6 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

With your face-to-face classes, you have the class in front of you and you intuitively know whether or not they are paying attention. Are they looking at you intently or are they starting off into space, are they taking notes or are they doodling in their notebooks and so on and so forth. In response to your ongoing sensing of their attentiveness, you adapt what you are doing and how you are doing it right?


In the online environment, your class becomes invisible to you. You can no longer see the glint in their eye or their vacant wish-I-was-somewhere-else expressions. If you are only using synchronous methods, such as video conferencing, chances are you can still sense their attentiveness as you could before. But now you have uploaded all of these files and videos that the students can visit in their own time, how do you tell if they are being accessed, and how do you who has accessed them?

vandevermooreandrea_99165_5786729_AVM 11

“vandevermooreandrea_99165_5786729_AVM 11” by KSRE Photo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This is where it gets a little tricky. Many universities will have sophisticated systems for monitoring student engagement in their online environments, systems that will tell them who has been active and who hasn’t (search Google Scholar for Learning Analytics if you want to know more). Most schools and small institutions, however, will not have this level of sophistication. What you are able to do in this space will depend on the technology in use at your institution. Most learning management systems will allow you to closely track student accesses to your resources and will faithfully record every mouse click students make in these systems.

Important note: Mouse clicks and views of specific resources DOES NOT equal student engagement. A click on a specific resource does not mean that it was processed or internalised. However, in the absence of anything else, student activity in online environments can be used as useful indictors of student engagement when coupled with your professional judgement.

The following are just some rough thoughts on how you might monitor student engagement in your own online context. It is not exhaustive or specific but may help start you thinking about how you monitor your student engagement in this scary new online world.

  • Find out from your IT folk how you can access logs of student logins into your course or unit.
  • Find out how you see which of your students are accessing your course resources.
  • Link your specific resources to small formative tasks for your students. Given them a video or reading, then ask for a couple of sentences on what they thought about it or how it might relate to learning.
  • Small formative quizzes are useful if you are using a Learning Management System like Blackboard or Moodle. Who hasn’t attempted these quizzes is gold when it comes to figuring out which of your students need prompting.
  • Keep track of who is contributing and who is lurking in your discussion forums. If someone is neither lurking or contributing, they might need prompting. Remember that lurking is not necessarily a bad thing.

When it comes to student engagement in online environments, I remember hearing the following at some conference somewhere and it resonated with me:

Some students will pass no matter what you do. Some students will fail no matter what you do. The trick is identifying the students who will fail without your intervention.

Often with online learning environments, our systems and tools make it very easy to focus on engagement, and not necessarily disengagement. We need to be on the lookout for those invisible students who made need a little more help.

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