It was a great start to our PBL group discussion this week on online participation and digital literacies. The sharing of our individual experiences teaching online spurred an interest in me to reflect on how a supportive environment can be created to engage students in an online teaching and learning experience.

May tutors lament that the time simply passes by when we teach online. The hours are never enough to cover every instructional activity that we had planned. Somehow, tutors can perform “better” in face-to-face lessons, compared to when they need to teach online. The lack of a physical presence in a tutorial room/lecture seems to be one of the main reasons for the disadvantage.

Check-in activity at the start of my online class

I reflected on my experiences this past year teaching online. I thoroughly enjoyed it! And from my students’ feedback and evaluation reports, they seemed to have enjoyed my online teaching too! For me, I thought I performed just as well if not slightly better. I thought the following are some of the factors and reasons that contributed to this.

First, I start the semester not so much with expectations but rather assurance. I shared with my students that no matter what the learning outcomes for the course are, I am keen to know their personal aims and motivations for taking my course. And if they can share them with me, I’ll be happy to guide them to achieve them. I also emphasized the importance of them to communicate openly with me. If they needed me to recap a past task/lecture or if they needed me to re-order or move quickly with the tasks, they could always request for that. I do believe that respectful and supportive relationships are especially crucial when engaging students online (Pittaway, 2012). Thus, I also affirm my commitment to ensure that my students get the best out of their online experience with me and that I would do all I can to cater to their learning needs. This means that I am flexible and adaptable with the (ungraded) tasks to be completed and when they are needed to be completed. In fact, Kearsley and Shneiderman (1999), emphasise group relationships, the interactions and negotiations are necessary to establish rapport between the participants in a class.

Next, I would always project an authentic, real self of me to my students. This means that I have no virtual backgrounds, I do not hide what/who may be in my room/space as long as they are not disruptive/distracting to the online class. I thought that this will ensure that students themselves feel that they too can be their authentic/true self without fearing of being judged. This consequently, allows my students to warm up to my lessons almost from the start and let their cameras stay switched on throughout the lesson. And as Pittaway (2012) proposes in her engagement framework, an engaged academic staff is a prerequisite for engaging students. Hence, I also project an enthusiastic and high-energy disposition while engaging students in my online class. It helps that I start every online session with a “check-in” (ice-breaker) activity! To respond to a prompt, students will each have 20secs to speak or share screens. Examples of prompts: (i) What’s your animal personality? Why?; (ii) What was your last photo/video in your mobile phone? Why?; (iii) What food are you craving for now? Why?

When engaging students online, I prioritise collaborative construction of knowledge and deepening of understanding than the actual completion of tutorial tasks. This seems to be in line with the engagement theory developed by Kearsley and Shneiderman (1999), intended as a conceptual framework for technology-based learning and teaching, which has the fundamental premise that “that students must be meaningfully engaged in learning activities through interaction with others and worthwhile tasks” (p. 1). This means that I engage students in a dialogic scaffolding experience of the concepts and materials. They will have many opportunities to engage in high-level interaction with myself or with their peers in the groups. I provide opportunities for students to catch up with their e-learning (asynchronous) tasks/reading by designing bite-sized instructional activities that require students to apply the concepts.

Finally, I welcome out-of-class zoom consultations with students separately – in a prearranged day/time of their choosing. My main aim is to show my students that I will make myself available and assessible to them any time they need me. This allowed students to trust my support and value the additional scaffolding they get. Moreover, this increases the students’ motivation to want to give their best for the course since I am doing all I can to support them.

All in all, I feel that the physical presence that is lost in teaching online can very well be replaced with a deliberate and meaningful online presence! I would say that a consideration of the 3Vs are crucial for me to provide a supportive environment as I engage my students online. They are (i) Verbal: the dialogic interactions between myself and students and among students themselves matter; (ii) Vocal: letting my voice be free, varying my use of vocal for higher engagement; (iii) Visual: the multimodal visual aids that I use to complement my instruction and how I carry myself as their enthusiastic, positive and smiling tutor.


Kearsley, G., & Shneiderman, B. (1999). Engagement theory: A framework for technology-based teaching and learning.

Pittaway, S. M. (2012). Student and staff engagement: Developing an engagement framework in a faculty of education. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 37, 37–45.

Sarah O’ Shea, Cathy Stone & Janine Delahunty (2015) “I ‘feel’ like I am at university even though I am online.” Exploring how students narrate their engagement with higher education institutions in an online learning environment, Distance Education, 36:1, 41-58

Online participation and Digital Literacies: Creating a supportive environment for an engaging online teaching and learning experience