• Online Participation and Digital Literacies

Fear, anxiety, and lack of motivation as a mitigating factor in a distance learning course

Teachers all over the world are beginning to incorporate digital tools into their teaching approach, and parts of, and sometimes entire courses are being moved online. This creates new challenges for educators, as the strategies used to motivate learners in a face-to-face context don’t always translate well to the digital world. Here, we will consider why students might be reticent to participate in online education, and what approaches can be taken to boost their motivation.

Visitors vs. Residents

Users of the internet access the online world in different ways. While some are prolific producers of online content, and are eager to share and collaborate with others in online spaces, others are reticent to do so, and leave behind as little evidence as possible of their online acitivity.

A useful analogy for this can be made by comparing users of the internet to visitors and residents. While visitors just use the internet to accomplish tasks without leaving any evidence that they were there, residents make a concerted effort to “leave social traces” of their online activity such as blog posts, posts on social networks, or photos and videos that they have created (White, 2014a). In actuality, most people exist along a continuum between these two extremes (White, 2014a).

Apart from differentiating between “visitor and resident forms of practice”, it is also possible to distinguish between an individual’s professional and personal activities online. These two pairs form a sort of cartesian system, where a person’s online activity can be labelled and situated in one of four quadrants (visitor-social / visitor-professional / resident-social / resident-professional) (White, 2014a).

In an academic context, these four quadrants are extremely relevant. As many students are labelled as so-called digital natives, it is believed that they have an innate capacity for using technology. As a result, many educators (who likely did not have access to the internet as they were growing up) wrongly assume that their students do not need any guidance to help them navigate the digital world. However, in actuality digital natives still need to learn how to critically evaluate digital resources. Furthermore, they need support as they develop their ability to clearly formulate and express arguments online (White, 2014a). While students are comfortable using the internet for private activities, they lack the wherewithal to use it for academic and professional purposes.

Credibility and Digital Transformation

There are, however, many benefits for individuals who make an effort to reside in more professional forms of practice online. As a result of doing this, traditional perspectives on how information should be gathered are beginning to erode. Historically, published materials have been viewed as superior to those published online, but this situation is in a state of transformation. While the barriers to publishing with traditional media sources materials are relatively high, they are conversely virtually non-existent in the digital world. This allows many new authors to contribute to academic discourse, and they are able to earn credibility through complex algorithms that measure engagement and interaction, rather than through traditional qualifications that would define someone as an expert in a field (White, 2014b).

This has somewhat created a paradox for today’s students. First of all, although they are expected to learn from more traditional forms of published information such as books and academic journals, they tend to (clandestinely) favor sources which are deemed less credible such as Wikepedia. Furthermore, unlike previously when it would have been impossible to participate professionally in the academic discourse in their area of expertise until they had graduated, they can now do this during their studies by publishing materials online. Even as students, they can occupy the resident end of the spectrum to bolster and craft their professional online identity. Nevertheless, despite the fact that occupying the professional-resident quadrant of online technology might be beneficial, most students do not expect to encounter this as a part of their studies (White, 2014b).

Motivation and Digital Literacies

Apart from the credibility that professional residence online provides to students, digital literacy is also essential to the employability of today’s students. This is a key skillset that is required in many professional fields, and it is the duty of today’s teachers to prepare their students for the workforce. It is therefore important to consider how to develop our learners’ digital literacies, so that they can be proficient in using this new medium to its fullest potential.

In distance learning contexts, where digital literacies are developed while learners concurrently participate in content specific courses, engagement is a major factor that needs to be considered to mitigate attrition rates (Panigrahi, Srivastava, & Sharma, 2018). Belshaw also suggests that digital literacies are developed the most when individually are highly intrinsically motivated, as is evidenced by successful ‘remixes’ of memes that affect social change (2012). How then, can students be intrinsically motivated to participate in online activities that facilitate the development of their digital literacies?

The ARCS model

Firstly, Keller and Suzuki (2004) offer a simple framework which can be applied to distance learning contexts, which is intended to maximize learner engagement and motivation. This is known as the ARCS model, which stands for Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction. Ideally, all four of these factors should be taken into consideration when designing a distance education course, as they will help to promote engagement among the learners.

With respect to Attention, Keller and Suzuki (2004) claim that gaining the learners’ interest at the beginning of a distance learning activity is paramount to its success. This could be accomplished by paying close attention to the design elements within a course, but can also be accomplished by taking on a problem-based learning approach, which evokes curiosity and “a sense of inquiry in the learner” (p. 231). Panigrahi, Srivastava, and Sharma also suggest that “problem-centric learning with clear expositions, peer interaction, active learning, instructor accessibility and passion, and using helpful resources” are vital to promoting engagement in learners (p. 11).

The second condition, Relevance, refers to the integration of activities that are relevant to the students’ learning goals. These should be authentic tasks that the learners can connect to the past experiences (Keller & Suzuki, 2004). Belshaw also posits that activities that are found at the intersection between personal interests and important issues should be promoted, as these lead to higher engagement (2012).

Thirdly, Confidence refers to providing support as students completed digital tasks, so that they can be successful. Afterwards, however, they should be give a second similar task that they can accomplish without this support, so they can apply what they have learned and be confident in their abilities (Keller & Suzuki, 2004).

Finally, what is meant by Satisfaction is that students should be positively rewarded for their effort. This could be through positive reinforcement and recognition, or through other extrinsic motivators such as grades or recognition of completion (Keller & Suzuki, 2004).

Community Cultivation

In addition to this, Tai and Bagozzi (2014) stress the importance of “we-intentions,” which refers to language which fosters a sense of community among the learners or specific groups within the learners. According to Panigrahi, Srivastava, and Sharma, when students feel as if they belong and are welcome, they are more likely to feel engaged (they also suggest that this is more easily accomplished when learners are groups according to similar age groups) (2018, p. 11).

To accomplish this, Tai and Bagozzi (2014) suggest cultivating a community environment which is characterized by increased responsiveness among the participants. When the members of a group are responsive, it creates “feelings of obligation to reciprocate the ‘friend liness,’ which then facilitates the development of psychological bonds with communities” (Tai & Bagozzi, 2014, p. 159). Teachers should then carefully consider their communication strategy with the group. Their communication sets the tone of the course, which will be mirrored by their learners. As such, attention should be paid to aspects such as register and friendliness, frequency, length, inclusivity, and response time. Again, extrinsic rewards such as recognition and praise should be rewarded for model behavior (Tai & Bagozzi, 2014).

Finally, Panigrahi, Srivastava, and Sharma (2018) highlight the importance of collaboration in online learning. By building collaborative tasks into online activities, learners feel a sense of obligation to one another, which is ultimately conducive to increased engagement. The teacher’s role in collaborative tasks is also important. Teacher’s should be present during collaborative tasks and should facilitate their students learning, and feedback should follow.

Final Thoughts

There is a need for learners to cultivate their digital literacies, as this is a skillset that they will need to participate in the workforce, and increasingly to participate in their education as well. As educators, it is important to find ways to motivate our learners in this new space, and as discussed above, there are many approaches that can be taken to accomplish this.

With the move to these new channels for education, however, there is also a shift in responsibility. As more course content is provided online, and teachers move into more of a facilitative role, students will need to take more accountability for their own learning. Ultimately, this will have a positive impact on the learner, and will be more satisfying for the educator as well.


Belshaw, D. [@TEDx talks]. (2012, March 22). The essential elements of digital literacies: Doug Belshaw at TEDxWarwicks. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8yQPoTcZ78

Blau, I., Shamir-Inbal, T., & Avdiel, O. (2020). How does the pedagogical design of a technology-enhanced collaborative academic course promote digital literacies, self-regulation, and perceived learning of students? The Internet and Higher Education, 45, 1–11.

Keller, J. M., & Suzuki, K. (2004). Learner motivation and E-learning design: a multinationally validated process. Journal of Educational Media, 29(3), 229–239.

Panigrahi, R., Srivastava, P. R., & Sharma, D. (2018). Online learning: Adoption, continuance, and learning outcome—A review of literature. International Journal of Information Management, 43, 1–14.

Tsai, H.-T., & Bagozzi, R. P. (2014). Contribution Behavior in Virtual Communities: Cognitive, Emotional, and Social Influences. MIS Quarterly, 38(1), 143–163.

White, D. [@jiscnetskills]. (2014a, March 10). Visitors and Residents. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPOG3iThmRI

White, D. [@jiscnetskills]. (2014b, March 10). Visitors and Residents: Credibility. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kO569eknM6U

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Online Participation and Digital Literacies