Lessons on Student Engagement from a Professional Learning Showcase

Not even the current crisis could stop 120 staff congregating in the same room – a virtual room, that is. Staged on Microsoft Teams, the School of Science Showcase saw nine academics from across multiple disciplines present course-related changes to accommodate a fully-online mode of delivery. Going by the quality of innovations showcased, it was apparent academics were not just supporting students through a crisis, they were engaging them with highly innovative learning and teaching solutions. Indeed, Dr Jessica Danaher, A/Prof Taghrid Istivan, Dr Lathe Jones, Dr Simon Johnstone-Robertson, A/Prof Nicolas Menicucci, A/Prof Jeff Shimeta, Dr Jackson Smith, A/Prof Donald Wlodkowic and A/Prof Fabio Zambetta put on display a lesson on transforming adversity to opportunity.

Leveraging an interaction perspective on student engagement, this article distils key highlights from the nine presentations. According to an interaction perspective, engagement in online learning is dependent on the extent and quality of interactions students encounter (Kennedy, 2020). In an editorial for the American Journal of Distance Education, Moore (1989) offers a tripartite lens through which interaction can be examined:

  • Learner and Content
  • Learner and Instructor
  • Learner and Learner

Learner-Content Interaction

When learners interact with content, they engage in an internal dialogue seeking to explore, experiment and assimilate concepts, theories and ideas of the discipline.

Without access to a physical laboratory, students in Donald’s classes conduct ‘experiments’ using Labster, a fully-interactive virtual laboratory simulation tool. Research suggests virtual labs are motivating and lead to increased levels of confidence at actual practical classes (Coleman & Smith, 2019). Additionally, students’ interaction with quizzes weaved through the simulations offer valuable feedback to both learners and instructors. Relatedly, students in Lathe’s classes watch videos of teaching staff conducting lab experiments and scrutinise real data to develop scientific investigation skills. Time lapse footage enable students to observe changes in ways that can never be replicated in a time-bound session. To inspire in students an appreciation for the intrinsic value of tasks, Taghrid emphasized the importance of situating lab-based activities and resources in the context of authentic scenarios.

For sustained and scaffolded student engagement, the resounding advice across the presentations was to keep video-based content short, have learner-centered activities strewn in between, and to state clearly what students should be getting out of each activity.

Learner-Instructor Interaction

Instructors interact with learners by motivating them to learn the content, making presentations, organising students’ application of learning and providing feedback.

“Little things go a long way,” reminded Jessica who sends out friendly messages to provide feedback on students’ progress – congratulating them if they have done well or checking in on them if they hadn’t. Both Jessica and Jeff schedule informal weekly catch-ups with their students to “chat about anything”. The strong turnout is evidence on the value of these regular interactions and their impact on students.

In organising learning, Simon and Fabio skilfully use synchronous communication tools to offer personalised and targeted support. On Collaborate Ultra for example, Simon sets up virtual rooms based on tutorial questions. Students having difficulty with a specific question would ‘visit’ the respective room for additional help from a tutor. Leveraging Flipped Learning, Fabio records short snippets for students to view content before coming to class. Time freed up during class would be set aside for students’ questions curated pre-class with the help of a form embedded in lecture recordings.

Because a significant portion of communication is non-verbal, Jackson highlighted the importance of maximising screen real estate. Efficient use of screen space has helped his students track along better thanks to greater visibility of hand gestures and proper positioning of presentation material. The most ingenious device on show was Nicolas’ make-shift projection device – assembled using a mobile phone, a cardboard box, a torch and blue tac. Nicolas’ novel innovation offers affordances that a stylus on iPad doesn’t: “Students can see your actual writing and gesturing. So I can point to things. They can see the ink on the page. They can see me move from page to page. And so they can get a sense of how I organize things on the page, which is also a skill that you don’t realize as a student.”

Learner-Learner Interaction

Interaction between and among learners within group settings encourages students to leverage the collective wisdom of the crowd to advance their understanding and develop valuable social learning skills.

It was evident presenters valued team-based activities and assessments. The two most common platforms for collaboration were virtual rooms for in-class group discussions and discussion forums for before-class and after-class interactions.  Admitting that participating in discussion forums does not come naturally for students, Jessica offered this piece of advice: “You may need to train students initially but persist. It is worth it. It will also save you time and free up your inbox as you should only have to answer queries once, not a zillion times. For your students it will benefit them by providing at community vibe to the course.”

The Showcase itself was an exemplar on student engagement. Guided by a one-slide three-minute limit, presenters kept their speeches short, sharp and punchy. Leading by example, Acting Deputy Dean for Learning and Teaching, Professor James Harland was an outstanding facilitator – keeping a close tab on time, sieving through the chat for comments and inviting questions from the floor. With much humour, James kept the session humming along. Finally, the chat box was a hive of activity as attendees and presenters ‘annotated’ presentations, posed questions, shared additional resources and heartily applauded every presentation – virtually, that is.

Links to Presentations and Related Resources [RMIT Login required]:

Dr Jessica Danaher: Enhancing the student experience online

A/Prof Taghrid Istivan Reality Bites: A Virtual Microbiology Practical Assessment

Dr Lathe Jones: Conversion of chemistry labs to a virtual format: which approaches were most successful?

Dr Simon Johnstone-Robertson: A pragmatic approach: one Collaborate Ultra breakout group per tutorial question

A/Prof Nicolas Menicucci: Need a quick and easy document camera? Here is a simple one made out of an iPhone and a cardboard box. [Also see this article]

A/Prof Jeff Shimeta: Converting traditional lectures, lectorials, and tutorials to online format

Dr Jackson Smith: Just do it: The power of the green screen in online teaching

A/Prof Donald Wlodkowic: Labster – next generation interactive laboratory simulations

A/Prof Fabio Zambetta: Flip & Twist: A great ‘lecture’ experience online


Coleman, S. K., & Smith, C. L. (2019). Evaluating the benefits of virtual training for bioscience students. Higher Education Pedagogies, 4(1), 287-299.

Kennedy, G. (2020). What is student engagement in online learning…and how do I know when it is there? Melbourne CSHE Discussion Paper. Retrieved from https://melbourne-cshe.unimelb.edu.au/

Moore, M. G. (1989). Editorial: Three types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3 (2), 1-7.