Reader Question: How Do I Engage a Group of Online Learners That Isn’t Participating?

We have an online course that consists mainly of students who know each other. The rest participate minimally and do not seem engaged. How do I level the playing field and make the new students feel welcomed?


It’s always tough to be the new kid, whether it’s your first day at an elementary school or an online course. It’s understandable that a smaller group of people is finding it difficult to relate to a bigger group that already knows one another.

Engaging learners is always a challenge, but it’s critically important in an online training format. Here are a couple strategies that will help learners join the group and get to know the other participants.

Have learners introduce themselves

The first step is to make sure you’re having introducing students to one another. I often make the first exercise in an online course a personal introduction, where people have to answer a few questions about themselves, where they come from, their goals for the course, and usually something irreverent like where they’d like to go on vacation, which can spark conversation.

I’ll often make this a two-part exercise, in which students have to respond to one or more other student’s postings, which helps get them talking with each other.

It also helps to have learners post pictures of themselves, write a bio, or share social media, so the others can start to make a connection with them outside of the class structure.

Create opportunities for partnering

Creating groups is a helpful tactic to have students talk throughout the course. Think about pairing the way you would seating at a dinner party: match up the quiet folks with the chatty ones.

Also structure partner exercises, like role-plays, where you pair up the new people with the others.
This overview of creating and facilitating online role-plays from Australian Flexible Learning Framework provides a good overview. Here’s how role-plays work, according to them:

  • participants are allocated roles to act out within a scenario
  • participants solve problems that are introduced within the course of the roleplay
  • participants and facilitators take part in a debriefing stage, either online or in a face-to-face situation.

The site gives sample exercises targeted to different groups of learners and also gives instructional design tips for integrating role-plays into your courses.

Have a look at this discussion that carefully breaks down a role-play in an online course from the Articulate forums. In this situation, a participant is asked to do a role-play with someone in their office,
but the idea can be adapted to a purely online format.

Check out more articles on making your online course better.

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