Engagement and Interactivity in Online Synchronous Learning

Engagement and Interactivity in Online Synchronous Learning

By Amelia Gentile-Mathew, Instructional Designer

In this blog, we continue our OTL Winter Engagement Series by exploring various approaches that you can incorporate into your courses to enhance interactivity during your live online sessions.

What exactly is interactivity? (Croxton, 2014) And how can it help us to unlock the full potential of our online classrooms to cultivate robust and sustainable engagement from students? (Beauchamp & Kennewell, 2010)

While we cannot control for many of the external factors that might influence or impact a student’s performance in our online course, we can implement a variety of strategies to, bolster internal factors including motivation, self-efficacy, and belonging. (Croxton, 2014)

Interactivity, or the opportunities available for students to engage various access points for student-student, student-content, and student-instructor interactions, is a key component of these efforts to successfully ignite students’ own internal motivations to learn and support them in further exploring relationships across these three domains.  

In online synchronous learning, the creative leveraging of both ed-tech tools and instructor presence can go a long way towards establishing a learning environment where students feel a sense of community, and find themselves motivated to participate in ways that pique their own learning interests, too. 

The dropdown menu below explores several inventive approaches to enhancing interactivity in the online learning environment during synchronous class time.  

Focusing on expanding opportunities for connection that students are able to make with one another in your course can not only enhance retention of skills in the long-term, but also help to shift your own energy as instructor from passive delivery to the facilitation of active learning. 


Zoom is a wonderful, and now virtually ubiquitous, tool for distance and online learning. Using the medium’s broad functionality to your advantage can be easy once you’ve established a basic comfort with the tool.  

  • Multi-Modal Contributions: Encourage students to interact with one another via multiple modalities during class time, opening up opportunities to utilize whichever approach feels most comfortable to their learning style! Give them permission to communicate ideas, offer feedback, and display reactions during class using the many different options available including unmute/speak, reactions, and the chat box, which supports an expanded suite of participation options for learners.  
  • Breakout Rooms: Have gotten a big upgrade! Now, you can manually assign them live or in advance, have them automatically assigned at random, or allow for students to choose their own rooms and move between them. 
    • Try this: Instead of icebreakers, try placing students in small groups with a puzzle or challenge to complete during the first 5 minutes of class together. Or, establish teams that students retain throughout the term, and guide these multi-session groups to complete activities that synthesize and apply asynchronous course content.  You can also create and name discussion rooms based on a topic or resource, and allow students to engage materials in a virtual gallery walk activity before composing an in-class reflection with a partner.  


Active learning is a major benefit of enhanced learner-learner engagement. Many examples of active learning activities can be found in the Zoom Breakout Rooms drop-down menu above. Read-on for some additional creative applications of in-person exercises which can also be adapted for synchronous online learning.  

  • Simulations: A simulation is any instructional technique where an instructor guides the students into an imagined scenario that is NOT a literal or actual occurrence in the classroom as it normally exists. This ranges from activities like the use of role plays (where a student temporarily steps into a prescribed role to practice applied course skills) to immersive simulations (like play-acting as a historical figure.)  
    • Try This:  
      • Role Plays: For role plays, try putting students into groups of 3, assigning roles of Speaker, Responder, and Listener. Generally, the Speaker will practice skills with the Responder, and then the Listener can offer feedback most relevant to your course content. The group will rotate until everyone has completed a turn in each role. 
      • React to the Past and Structured Debates: You can explore these and other great ideas for immersive active learning online in this lesson planning resource from the Journal of Faculty Development. 
  • Thinking Routines: Project Zero offers a robust collection of active learning activities and examples in their Thinking Routines Toolbox (available in English and Spanish). Thinking Routines are mini-strategies that educators can utilize regularly in the classroom to help cultivate the practices of critical-thinking and integrated learning.  


  • Flipped Classrooms: When teaching a synchronous online class, instructors may find that students are experiencing content fatigue or becoming overwhelmed by busy work. One solution can be to shift our in-class priorities, utilizing the Flipped Classroom Approach. In this approach, instructors leverage the synchronous class space to center relationships between learners and application of content, while the initial introduction to content and materials occurs asynchronously outside of that valuable class time. This can be particularly effective in the online learning arena. 

What is a flipped class? from Faculty Innovation Center on Vimeo.

    • Try This:  

Reinforcing expectations around learner-instructor interaction goes a long way towards establishing clarity for students navigating the course, and establishes professional boundaries for the types of support that will be extending in the learning environment.  Additionally, two key components of learner-instructor engagement that are crucial in online learning environments are the frequency and quality of feedback, and the instructor’s ability to facilitate productive discourse (Ladyshewsky, 2013).  


  • Establishing expectations for conduct among class members is often a critical exercise to communicate not only standards of appropriate conduct, but also to let students know what behaviors the instructor will be monitoring and moderating during synchronous class sessions.   


  • As part of the expectation-setting process, we should also strive to be clear about how students can access or solicit support from the instructor (both inside and outside of class time) as a means of enhancing the accessibility of learner-instructor engagement. Reflecting on our own instructor presence in the online classroom can also help us to explore the types of facilitation we are (and are not) equipped to offer. 
    •  Try This: During a synchronous Zoom class, can participants privately message you for support mid-session? Will you be available asynchronously for support around course content via email throughout the week, during set office hours, or only on synchronous teaching days? Is there a module in your Canvas course dedicated to student-support resources? 


  •  Dr. Virginia Pitts, OTL Director of University Teaching, explores the notorious Zoom camera problem in this helpful article, Teaching Into the Abyss 
    • Try This: How should students let you and/or the class know if they are unable to keep their camera on during a session due to bandwidth or background distractions? Can you communicate the expectations clearly and early on in the course? 

Learner-content engagement tends to be a space where our instructors thrive! The energy put towards this domain consistently shows in the creative and technologically-adept courses on offer each term. For fun applications of some online tools (many of which integrate directly into Canvas and Zoom), open the tabs below!  



  •  Zoom polls offer opportunities for knowledge quick-checks and instant student feedback as they engage in new course content.  


  •  Already utilizing Kaltura for multi-media content delivery? 

Beauchamp, G., & Kennewell, S. (2010). Interactivity in the classroom and its impact on learning. Computers and Education, 54(3), 759-766. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.09.033

Croxton, R. (2014). The Role of Interactivity in Student Satisfaction and Persistence in Online Learning. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(2). doi:https://jolt.merlot.org/vol10no2/croxton_0614.pdf