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Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction

By Rita-Marie Conrad and J. Ana Donaldson
Jossey Bass
144 pages
ISBN: 0-7879-6667-3
$20.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by

Paivi Hoikkala

Department of History
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona


Over the last decade or so, American higher education has gone through a paradigm shift that emphasizes a learner-centered approach to education. We now ask questions about how students learn and how we can engage them in the process of learning, instead of focusing on how we can teach our students. Another paradigm shift is obviously taking place in the media that we use in teaching and learning. Technology, and more specifically online learning, is changing the way that we deliver our strategies to help our students learn. As we become more sophisticated in our use of technology, the more we also need to think about how our students learn within the realm of technology and how we can engage them in the process. Engaging the Online Learner, by long-time professionals of online learning Rita-Marie Conrad and J. Ana Donaldson, addresses these issues, focusing specifically on student engagement in the online learning process.

Online learning presents new challenges to both learners and instructors. Conrad and Donaldson posit that the major challenge that online educators face involves two questions. First, how can we become better facilitators of knowledge acquisition? Second, how can we help learners become more self-directed and collaborative with their peers--in other words, how do we help students take responsibility for their own learning? The answer lies in engaged learning, defined by the authors as "a collaborative learning process in which the instructor and learner are partners in building the knowledge base" (p. ix). Furthermore, the authors point out, as online instructors we cannot--and should not--assume that students intuitively know how to interact online and how to take responsibility for their own learning. Engaging the Online Learner presents an alternative framework for approaching these challenges of online education. Conrad and Donaldson call this framework the Phases of Engagement.

The book consists of two parts. Part One provides a basic framework for organizing activities along a continuum of engagement. Chapter One offers a brief theoretical background to engaged learning, providing a helpful checklist of its key elements in an online environment. In this chapter, the authors also define the four phases of engagement and the learner and instructor roles in each phase. As the learner moves along a continuum of roles from newcomer to cooperator to collaborator to initiator/partner, so does the instructor, starting as social negotiator, moving on to structural engineer to facilitator, and finally to community member/challenger. This framework provides a means for online instructors to develop activities appropriate to each phase and thus help learners, with time, take responsibility for their learning. As the authors emphasize, "engaged learning does not simply happen. It requires 'architectural engineering' by the instructor" (p. 13).

Chapter Two deals with the general design of online engagement. Questions addressed in this chapter include how to convert classroom-based activities to an online environment as well as how to choose the most effective online communication tool for various activities. Chapter Three discusses assessment of online learning. The authors emphasize the need for alternative means of assessment throughout the course, in addition to the use of more traditional evaluation tools such as exams. Extremely helpful are the sample rubrics and self-reflective assessment tools included in this chapter.

The greatest strength of this volume lies not in its theoretical approach but in the very practical Part Two: "Activities to Engage Online Learners." The seven chapters in this section describe specific types of activities that are keyed to the four phases of engagement described by the authors. Each chapter provides several examples of each type of activity. In addition, each activity includes the name and contact information of the instructor who has tested it in an online course and submitted it to be included in the book. The authors encourage readers to try these activities as they are or to adapt them to their specific online needs. Included are also helpful checklists for effective activities in each category.

Engaging the Online Learner is the first title in the Jossey-Bass Guides to Online Teaching, a series designed to help higher education professionals improve their online practice by providing concise, practical resources. This volume fulfills the promise. It is concise; it is practical; it is accessible even to the novice in online learning--a refreshing alternative to the volumes laden with theory. This reader will definitely use the Phases of Engagement framework to help design effective online activities.

Posted December 8, 2004.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2004 by Paivi Hoikkala.

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