The CSU Online Learning Model

Version 2


The Online Learning Model consists of a set of elements designed to increase student engagement, retention and overall satisfaction. The model builds on Moore’s (1989) model which incorporates learner-teacher, learner-learner and learner-content interaction. The model broadens Moore’s notion of interactivity to one of engagement and adds learner-community engagement as a key component of professional courses, as well as learner-institution engagement to ensure a connected student experience.

This then leads to five categories of student engagement:

Each of the seven elements of the Online Learning Model are designed to increase one or more types of engagement. The elements, which are outlined in the following sections, are designed to be combined together in varying degrees of intensity within the subjects making up a course.

The following video provides an overview of the model and each of the elements.

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A central element of Moore’s transactional distance theory was the conception of the three categories of interaction in distance education:

Moore’s notion of interaction has been argued to be central to student engagement in a distance or online learning context (Wallace, 2003; Yates, 2014). Consistent with this connection between interaction and engagement, in developing the Online Learning Model, Moore’s focus on interaction has been extended to a focus on engagement, with each of the seven elements of the model aiming to increase one or more of the five identified categories of student engagement. The term engagement has been used in a number of different ways in the research literature, including a focus on students’ psychological investment in the learning process (Axelson & Flick, 2010; F. Newmann et al., 1992) or a greater focus on student behaviour (Collins & O’Brien, 2011; Dykstra Steinbrenner & Watson, 2015; Zepke, 2014).

In defining the notion of engagement that underpins the Online Learning Model, we, like Tinto (2006), see a close relationship to the earlier notion of involvement, defined by Astin (1984, p.518) as “the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience”. However, as alluded to by Carini, Kuh and Klein (2006), we see in the more recent notion of engagement, a greater emphasis on the kinds of learning tasks that students involve themselves in, leading to definitions like “the time and energy students devote to educationally sound activities” (Kuh, 2003, p.25). This definition of engagement as encompassing not just involvement of any kind but involvement in particular kinds of learning activities, is important in linking engagement to learning achievement rather than just to resilience or persistence. Obviously such a definition leaves unexplained what the nature of educationally sound activities might be, however we believe that it is helpful in clarifying what we mean by the various kinds of engagement that underpin the Online Learning Model. For example learner-learner engagement can be understood to be the time and energy students devote to interaction with their peers as part of educationally sound learning activities, and similarly for learner-teacher engagement, learner-content engagement and so on.

The association of engagement with increased persistence, improved student learning outcomes and achievement (Hoskins, 2012; Leach & Zepke, 2011; Sinatra, Heddy, & Lombardi, 2015), reduced drop out (Sinatra et al., 2015), and increased retention rates (Hoskins, 2012; Leach & Zepke, 2011; Tinto, 2006) have led to the claim that it is the “holy grail of learning” (Sinatra et al., 2015, p. 1). While some researchers have suggested that the relationship between engagement and learning outcomes is still unclear (Axelson & Flick, 2010, p. 42) and some others have found that the strength of the relationship varies with student ability levels and stages of study (Carini, Kuh & Klein, 2006), many researchers have argued that there are unequivocal links between engagement and student success, learning and achievement (Kahn, 2014; F. Newmann, Wehlage, & Lamborn, 1992; F. M. Newmann, 1992; Zepke, 2014). The link between engagement and student retention is particularly important in a distance education or online learning context where high attrition has been a consistent problem (Carr, 2000; Tresman, 2002). In Australia a focus on engagement as part of broader strategies to enhance student transition into university and retention within their course has been a key element of a number of national projects and commissioned reviews (see, for example, Scott, 2008; Kift, 2009).

The definition of engagement that we have adopted here, which encompases the time and energy devoted by students to a range of different kinds of educationally sound activities, is consistent with the implicit definition which underpins major survey instruments such as the United States’ National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) (Axelson & Flick, 2010; Kahu, 2013). In Australia, the national Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE), University Experience Survey (UES) and the more recent Student Experience Survey all have similar conceptual underpinnings to the NSSE instrument. Due to this alignment between the notion of engagement as measured by the UES and the notion which underpins the Online Learning Model, we are expecting that the implementation of the model across CSU’s online/distance courses will lead to improved institutional performance on the UES instrument.


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