Student engagement in online courses: a grounded theory case study

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University of Alabama Libraries

Due to the evolution of online learning, enrollments in online course have reached an all-time high. The concept of student engagement, a historically popular term used within higher education, has adopted many definitions and descriptions over time. As institutions have historically linked student engagement to aspects of academic achievement, retention, student satisfaction, and institutional success, research to determine student engagement as it relates to online students would be beneficial to the field of higher education. To understand how student engagement applies in distance education, it is necessary to first determine the definition of student engagement as perceived by online students. In this qualitative case study, twenty online learners were interviewed to gain student perceptions of engagement in online course required for distance education programs at a large public institution. Using a constructivist grounded theory approach, their perceptions were used to determine how online students define student engagement in online learning environments. Students involved in this study defined engagement by referencing the completion of coursework, communicating with instructor and peers, and individual engagement. In addition, participants interviewed in this study found discussion boards, video lectures, and individual structured assignments to be among the most engaging activities offered in this specific online course. The study also revealed certain motivations and challenges associated with online learning that contributes to students’ perception and reluctance to define student engagement in online learning. The experiences shared by students lead me to conclude that online learners develop individual definitions of online engagement by consideration of their own perceptions, personal feelings, and processes of engaging. The results of this study provide higher education administrators the ability to develop resources to enhance instructional design and communication with online learners to increase overall success in online programs as well as the academic success of virtual campus students. Findings can be shared with administrators across disciplines to implement practices that enhance engagement and improve student satisfaction within online degree programs.

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Higher education administration