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University students' (dis)engagement experiences in synchronous sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic



In the past two years, student engagement in online learning situations has become a mutual concern for educators all over the world. The impact of working in online environments and using video and other communication channels on students’ learning experiences is still not fully understood. The present study addresses this question by drawing on students’ written reflections and interviews from the Finnish higher education context collected during the COVID-19 pandemic. It uses the qualitative method of thematic analysis to investigate students’ experiences of interacting in synchronous sessions and their perceptions on (dis)engagement. The analysis shows the importance of versatile teaching methods and enhanced participation, the use of web cameras and anti-distraction strategies for engagement. In contrast, some aspects, such as communication issues, camera-induced self-awareness, and distractions from one’s physical and digital surroundings, pertain to disengagement. The study contributes to a better understanding of the common challenges and affordances of distributed learning environments on student engagement, but also shows individual differences in how these are perceived. The findings have implications for online teaching pedagogy and course design in general and higher education in particular.
Photo by Onur Binary on Unsplash
University students’ (dis)engagement experiences in
synchronous sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic
Tuire Oittinen, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland
Judit Háhn, University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland
Tiina Räisänen, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland
Corresponding author: Tuire Oittinen,
Online Publication Date: 6 June 2022
To cite this Article: Oittinen, T., Háhn, J. and Räisänen, T. (2022) ‘University students’
(dis)engagement experiences in synchronous sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic’.
Digital Culture & Education, 14(3), 16–34
Digital Culture & Education
Volume 14(3), 2022
University students’ (dis)engagement experiences in synchronous sessions
during the COVID-19 pandemic
Digital Culture & Education (2022) Volume 14: Issue 3
Tuire Oittinen1, J. Háhn2, & T. Räisänen3
1University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland
2University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland
3University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland
Abstract: In the past two years, student engagement in online learning situations has become a
mutual concern for educators all over the world. The impact of working in online environments and
using video and other communication channels on students’ learning experiences is still not fully
understood. The present study addresses this question by drawing on students’ written reflections and
interviews from the Finnish higher education context collected during the COVID-19 pandemic. It
uses the qualitative method of thematic analysis to investigate students’ experiences of interacting in
synchronous sessions and their perceptions on (dis)engagement. The analysis shows the importance of
versatile teaching methods and enhanced participation, the use of web cameras and anti-distraction
strategies for engagement. In contrast, some aspects, such as communication issues, camera-induced
self-awareness, and distractions from one’s physical and digital surroundings, pertain to disengagement.
The study contributes to a better understanding of the common challenges and affordances of distributed
learning environments on student engagement, but also shows individual differences in how these are
perceived. The findings have implications for online teaching pedagogy and course design in general and
higher education in particular.
Keywords: student engagement, emergency remote teaching (ERT), synchronous sessions,
distributed learning environments, interview, thematic analysis
Oittinen, T., Háhn, J. & Räisänen, T.
Digital Culture & Education (2022) Volume 14: Issue 3
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the development of remote teaching more
important than ever. It has raised many serious concerns, ranging from the limited resources
teachers have to effectively organize their teaching to student wellbeing. How to support active
and interactional learning processes and facilitate student engagement in online learning situations
has become a practical problem for educators to solve. Earlier research has also highlighted the
need to understand the factors that contribute to student (dis)engagement experiences more in
depth (e.g., Kahu, 2013; Kahu & Nelson, 2018). This study examines the situated nature of student
engagement in synchronous sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also become
known as the era of “emergency remote teaching” (“ERT”, Bozkurt & Sharma, 2020; see also
Hodges et al., 2020). We focus on the context of Finnish higher education and the experiences of
university students who participated in courses conducted using Zoom sessions in spring 2021.
Our aim is to analyze the students’ perceptions of the aspects of their Zoom sessions that pertain
to situated engagement or disengagement. The study answers the following research question:
What themes are central to student (dis)engagement experiences relating to synchronous sessions during the COVID-
19 pandemic?
Drawing on written reflections and interview data from a collaborative project between two
universities in Finland, we used the qualitative method of thematic analysis to investigate university
students’ reported experiences in synchronous sessions. Our analysis shows that the students’
perceptions of online engagement are highly complex and, to some extent, even contradictory. By
identifying some of the aspects of student engagement in synchronous sessions in the Finnish
context, our study contributes to the growing literature on online learning and teaching and offers
suggestions for further research in the area. The findings can be used to develop remote teaching
practices, for which there is a continuous need (Bozkurt & Sharma, 2020; Nworie, 2021).
Background literature
Student engagement has been investigated from different perspectives in educational research and
is variously defined. In general, it is perceived as “a student’s emotional, behavioral and cognitive
connection to their learning” (Kahu et al., 2019, p. 658) and thereby one of the most important
factors in the learning process (e.g., Kahu, 2013; Kahu & Nelson, 2018). Student engagement in
higher education in particular is connected to retention and development of critical thinking skills,
and it has been characterized as the “active involvement in course activities with continuous efforts
to attain desired learning outcomes” (Kucuk & Richardson, 2019, p. 119). It can also be
understood at the situated level of learning and as one’s mental involvement, i.e., interest and
participation in an ongoing learning activity (Philp & Duchesne, 2016), and something that is
manifested through one’s actions of “thinking, talking, and interacting with the content of a course,
the other students in the course, and the instructor” (Dixson, 2015, p. 2). In this paper, we draw
on earlier work in the fields of online education, educational psychology, and social constructivism
and contribute to a better understanding of how the different levels of engagement manifest in
students’ reported experiences.
Engagement and online student engagement
Student engagement has been extensively studied during the past decades, and the investigations
have built around its three key dimensions: behavioral, cognitive and emotional (e.g., Kahu, 2013;
Nkomo et al., 2021; Stone & O’Shea, 2018). Research on student engagement in online learning
environments (online student engagement) has found many factors peculiar to these settings.
According to a conceptual student engagement framework (Kahu, 2013; Kahu & Nelson, 2018),
University students’ (dis)engagement experiences in synchronous sessions
during the COVID-19 pandemic
Digital Culture & Education (2022) Volume 14: Issue 3
there are structural, socio-cultural, and psychosocial factors, deriving partly from one’s background
and life situation, which influence student engagement and become manifested at different levels
of interaction. However, these manifestations vary depending on the context and the individual
learner’s needs. For instance, O’Shea et al. (2015) illustrate how the lack of support from the
teacher and university, insufficient digital skills, and poor routines experienced by adult online
students can result in feeling isolated, lonely, and disengaged. In contrast, factors that have been
found crucial for successful student engagement include peer community and feeling of belonging
(e.g., Delahunty et al., 2014), self-efficacy (Filsecker & Kerres, 2014), good time management skills,
and teacher support (see Farrell & Brunton, 2020).
Earlier studies have also identified other aspects that support behavioral, cognitive, and emotional
engagement in online learning environments. For instance, versatile use of working methods and
materials that activate student participation have been found particularly important (Garrison,
2017; Martin & Bolliger, 2018). Creating opportunities for involvement either in writing or
speaking and via synchronous and asynchronous methods is key in supporting skills development
and emotional connectedness (Dixson, 2015; Farrell & Brunton, 2020; Stone & O’Shea, 2019). By
using questionnaires and students’ self-reports as data, Dixson (2015) highlights that interactive,
application-learning behaviors, such as responding to discussion forums, can significantly correlate
with students’ engagement in online courses. When students interact and collaborate with others,
they feel more involved in the course and thus more engaged.
Prior literature has underlined the importance of real-time interaction with peers and the teacher
as well as participation in learning activities as key factors in generating student engagement and
success in online learning (Dixson, 2015; Philp & Duchesne, 2016). However, the practices
affecting the situated nature of (dis)engagement and findings from students’ in-depth experiences
are currently underrepresented but necessary to develop solutions that support active learning
The community of inquiry model and engagement in online learning
The Community of Inquiry framework (see Figure 1 below) serves as a useful model for describing
and understanding the factors that influence students’ engagement in online learning environments
(Kucuk & Richardson, 2019). The Community of Inquiry framework provides a model for the
collaborative construction of critical inquiry and shared understanding that represents deep and
meaningful online learning experiences (Garrison et al. 2000; Garrison, 2017). The Community of
Inquiry model is grounded in the constructivist theory of learning (Swan et al., 2009), which draws
on Dewey’s inquiry-centered approach to learning (Dewey, 1959 as cited in Swan et al., 2009, p.
44) and implies that all learning is social and situated.
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Digital Culture & Education (2022) Volume 14: Issue 3
Figure 1. Community of Inquiry Framework (Garrison et al., 2000, p. 88)
Based on the model, three types of ‘presence’ shape the overall educational experience: social
presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence. Optimal and engaging learning experiences
develop at the intersection of the three presences and from the maximization of each. Social
presence refers to participants’ ability to present themselves in the online learning environment,
to identify with a group, and to communicate openly (Garrison et al., 2000; Garrison, 2017). Social
presence is thus not only a form of self-projection and representation but also the development
of interpersonal relationships in a group of learners. Teaching presence integrates two main
functions: the design and the facilitation of the educational experience (Garrison et al., 2000).
Cognitive presence is “the extent to which the participants are able to construct meaning
through sustained communication” (Garrison et al., 2000, p. 89). Cognitive presence is built on
critical thinking, reflection, sustained communication practices, and purposeful, collaborative
The Community of Inquiry model, as developed by Garrison et al. (2000), has also been applied
to investigate students’ engagement in online learning situations. Kucuk and Richardson (2019)
studied structural relationships between engagement, satisfaction, and the three types of presence.
They collected survey data from participants in graduate-level online courses and found that
cognitive presence was the main determinant of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral engagement.
Cognitive presence also had an indirect impact on students’ agentic engagement (Kucuk &
Richardson, 2019). In addition, an association was identified between teaching presence and the
emotional and agentic aspects of engagement. Drawing on survey data, Jackson (2020) also found
that cognitive presence had a positive predictive relationship with cognitive engagement and social
and teaching presence with behavioral engagement.
University students’ (dis)engagement experiences in synchronous sessions
during the COVID-19 pandemic
Digital Culture & Education (2022) Volume 14: Issue 3
Synchronous sessions and the situated nature of engagement
Some studies have focused in greater depth on students’ experiences and feelings pertaining to
synchronous learning situations, using interview data (e.g., Aagaard, 2021; Philp & Duchesne,
2016). These analyses have shown that there are social and organizational factors that impact on
students’ situated cognitive engagement, such as a good class design that includes established
routines for communication and participation (Jacobi, 2018). Behavioral and emotional
engagement in turn can be facilitated by the use of web cameras, since it helps maintain mutual
focus on the topic and ongoing activities (Cserző, 2021; Philp & Duchesne, 2016) and build a
positive image of others (Castelli & Sarvary, 2021). Furthermore, kinesthetic movements and doing
crafts, e.g., knitting, can facilitate active listening, help reduce stress and make one feel more
productive and engaged (Corkhill et al., 2014; Massner, 2021).
There are also aspects that have been found to contribute to situated disengagement in online
teaching. For instance, Sitzmann et al. (2010) show that interruptions caused by technical issues
divert attention from the main task and can lead to cognitive interference and increased
information processing demand. Others have found that the use and presence of smartphones
may become habitual or non-habitual “digital distractions” that students must learn to minimize
(Aagaard, 2021; Swar & Hameed, 2018). Furthermore, some studies have pointed out how, despite
its positive effects, the use of web cameras can add to one’s cognitive load and contribute to the
development of different forms of social anxiety, such as mirror anxiety, owing to increased self-
focus (e.g., Castelli & Sarvary, 2021; Fauville et al., 2021). All in all, more work is needed to gain
an in-depth understanding of the different sides of (dis)engagement and the factors that contribute
to students’ positive and negative feelings, attitudes, and experiences in online learning
Our study builds on the different notions of engagement and takes an empirical approach to the
reported (dis)engagement experiences of students. Overall, we contribute to the pressing need to
gain more understanding on the topic in diverse higher education systems, focusing on the Finnish
context which has not been studied much compared to other countries, such as Ireland (e.g.,
Farrell & Brunton, 2020) and Australia (e.g., Kahu et al., 2019). The findings of the study can be
used to inform the planning and execution of online and hybrid learning models in the future both
in and outside Finland.
Data and methods
The present data were collected in the context of higher education and as part of a collaborative
project conducted by researchers from two universities in Finland. The research participants were
first- to sixth-year degree students from both sites, including two exchange students who were
resident in Finland during the academic year 2020-21. The data collection comprised a two-stage
process including written reflections and audio-recorded interviews collected in both universities
during the spring term of 2021. The students were recruited during their attendance at university
courses, and participation in the research was voluntary. In both stages of the study, we used
thematic analysis to identify emerging themes in the data in a systematic manner (see Braun &
Clarke, 2006). This methodological procedure was motivated by our research aims: first, we wanted
to find out the students’ general thoughts and experiences regarding online interaction with peers
and teachers in Zoom sessions during the third semester of emergency remote teaching, and
second, to delve deeper into the individual experiences of selected students.
In the first stage, we developed a written task based on Oittinen’s (2020) framework on
interactional spaces in technology-mediated environments, with which our aim was to prompt the
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Digital Culture & Education (2022) Volume 14: Issue 3
students to think about their behavior in synchronous sessions (see Appendix). The task
comprised a template in which the students were asked to reflect on their experiences of interacting
and participating in a selected remote session during the COVID-19 pandemic. They were to
describe their experiences in relation to the three interactional spaces presented in the framework:
the overall meeting space, the local space, and the adjoining spaces, in which their involvement in
different interactional dimensions and communication channels is manifested via actions, i.e., talk,
text, and bodily-visual displays, produced in and across physical and digital spaces. They were also
encouraged to change the size of the spaces to indicate which of them they had felt most engaged
with during the selected session. In addition to the framework, supportive questions were
provided, and the students were asked to freely write about their experiences and use visualizations
(e.g., pictures and drawings) if they so wished. A total of 29 students participated in the first phase
during early spring 2021. All the students signed an informed consent and were assured that all
personal data would be treated according to the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR).
After the first-stage data collection, we familiarized ourselves with the written data and worked
collaboratively to generate codes and identify frequently occurring themes around the topic of
interaction. We then grouped the data, along with excerpts from the written tasks, under the
different themes (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 87). This procedure enabled us to refine and name the
related topics that we had identified and also guided us, after this first stage, to focus specifically
on student (dis)engagement. Next, we selected a total of eight students for the interviews, four
from each participating university. For the purposes of our study, which we find preliminary in
the Finnish context, this data set was sufficient, considering the richness of interviews as qualitative
data. The interviews were semi-structured, including a set of questions that allowed room for
spontaneous elaboration of the topics. All the interviews were held via Zoom in March-April 2021
either in English or Finnish and lasted approximately 30-60 minutes each. We used the first-stage
analysis of the written submissions as the basis for the second stage and for finalizing the interview
The interview questions were framed to explore each student’s overall experience of attending
remote sessions during the pandemic and elicit detailed descriptions of their practices, feelings,
attitudes, and behaviors. The questions ranged from the perceived challenges and affordances of
real-time remote sessions (e.g., ‘What are the aspects that make you lose focus?’) to potential
solutions and good practices (e.g., ‘What do you feel constitutes good or successful interaction in
remote teaching?’). During the interviews, the students were also asked to reflect on their
experience from a practical perspective based on the written task submitted in the first stage. The
interviews resulted in versatile data that allowed answering the research question and exploring
students’ (dis)engagement experiences. After the interviews, we compiled extracts from the data
for an informed identification of engagement-related themes and categorizations. This paper
presents our findings based on the themes that emerged from the interview data, which are
complemented by our observations about the written reflections. The purpose of this approach is
to both shed light on the in-depth experiences of student engagement but also show how they
may be connected to specific situations and themes related to interaction and participation in
remote sessions.
The data show that the students’ reported experiences can be associated with different themes
related to engagement and disengagement. In the analysis, we focus on perceptions of both, as
aspects generally connected to these (e.g., engagement manifested through meaningful interaction
in which one is socially and emotionally invested; see e.g., Dixson, 2015) emerged consistently in
University students’ (dis)engagement experiences in synchronous sessions
during the COVID-19 pandemic
Digital Culture & Education (2022) Volume 14: Issue 3
the interviews. The themes related to engagement include versatility during sessions and enhanced
participation, web camera use, and students’ anti-distraction strategies, whereas those concerning
disengagement include communication issues, camera-induced self-awareness, and distractions in
one’s physical and digital environment. Overall, the findings indicate variation in the ways
individual students may feel about the tools, strategies, and procedures employed in synchronous
remote teaching.
Student engagement in synchronous sessions
Versatility during sessions and enhanced participation
Our analysis of the written assignments already showed that students tend to consider merely
listening during synchronous sessions a difficult task. Nearly all the interviewed students also
talked about the importance of course design in remote teaching, including the use of interactive
tasks, and having a certain degree of versatility in teaching methods. These factors made them feel
included and helped them to remain focused in class (see also Martin & Bolliger, 2018). In general,
activities, such as having small-group discussions in breakout rooms, were positively perceived as
not only promoting active listening but also enhancing opportunities to take part. Furthermore,
diverse techniques, such as using polls, queries, online functions, and digital whiteboards, were
considered good ways to keep students socially and cognitively engaged:
“If the teacher, like, activates us, for instance in some lectures we’ve had like
quizzes. In Zoom you can do this kind of a quiz which appears on the screen and
then you can easily and anonymously respond, so something like this activates you
more than just listening. (…) The kind (of a session) where you have to participate
feels beneficial because then you don’t drift off to do something else.” (Student 2)
The student points out that having to participate “feels beneficial” during remote sessions because
it can help keep one’s focus from shifting off topic. Furthermore, if learning activities require
collaboration and dialogue, the participants are kept occupied in the co-construction of the
learning experience. This can ensure an inquiry-based approach and the sharing of the
responsibility for teaching presence (Garrison, 2017). This finding is in line with social
constructivist approaches to learning, such as that taken by Dixson (2015), who showed the
importance of interactive, application-learning behaviors. Activities that support the development
of a good social-emotional atmosphere can also decrease anxieties and enhance interaction in the
online learning environment (cf. Háhn, 2020).
The data also show how diverse uses of one specific tool, i.e., chat, was valued by the students, as
it can support equal participation and interaction without the audible production of turns that can
potentially interrupt a speaker. This is described by Student 5:
“I think it’s for some people it might be even easier to just write it down than
switch on the microphone and speak because the– well for me it would be easier
because I like writing more than I do speaking. So somehow interrupting the whole
lecture for me to ask a question, it’s a really big step for me, whereas writing the
question in the chat it’s easier because I don’t have to interrupt anything.”
(Student 5)
The same student described themself as someone who is typically shy in classes and for whom
chat is an additional resource that makes it easier to take part in discussions. This student explicitly
referred to its importance for engagement also generally:
“I think it’s a good idea to have the chat function because it does bring about more
engagement.” (Student 5)
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Digital Culture & Education (2022) Volume 14: Issue 3
As illustrated by our data, the use of versatile teaching methods and interactive tasks (e.g., learner-
to-learner and/or learner-to-instructor interaction) can generate higher student engagement in
online courses. However, in order to invoke involvement and participation during a remote lecture,
i.e., either in an audible or written form, course design and lesson planning merit special attention.
One student pointed out that “chat is an underused resource”, by which they meant that its use
could be better supported and instructed by the teacher. This highlights the importance of
teachers’ ability to integrate the appropriate use of communication tools into the lesson plan and
ensure that students understand how they can and should be applied.
Camera use and bodily-visual cues
The students experienced web camera use as a good way to facilitate engagement in interaction
and with each other. According to the interviewees, the way in which sessions unfold affects their
engagement in learning. The majority reported that especially during small-group discussions in
breakout rooms, in which one was expected to participate orally, it was important to be able to see
their peers’ bodily-visual cues, such as facial expressions and gestures. As shown by the next
extract, web cameras were considered helpful in keeping conversations going.
“When we’re in small groups you can just easily talk over someone if you can’t see
each other, but when you can see your peer’s faces and expressions, you know
when someone is about to say something. And then it might actually even help
move the conversation forward when the cameras are on.” (Student 2)
When the cameras were on, several students also reported feeling morally obliged to pay attention
to the video call at all times; they oriented to the maxim “focus your attention on the VC
interaction” (Cserző, 2021). This was perceived as a “positive pressure” that helps maintain focus
on the topics of the class, as described by one student:
“When the webcams are on it feels like there is a kind of a connection and you feel
that you are more present. And because the others can see you, it feels like no- (or)
you have to be more active.” (Student 3)
The above extract describes how the use of cameras can also have a positive effect on students’
emotional engagement with the group, as they induce an elevated sense of social presence and
connectedness (cf. Garrison, 2017). This, in turn, makes building trust and rapport with others
and getting to know them easier than is possible via text-based or audio interaction alone (Castelli
& Sarvary, 2021). Another student highlighted how the ability to see each other makes for a more
collective experience in the sense of “shared presence”, saying that having the cameras on makes
one feel that “there is a connection and more people are actually present” (Student 5). This implies
that the learning experience may become less solitary if cameras are used during remote sessions.
However, the next extract shows how the camera use can also arouse mixed feelings and induce
interaction engagement and emotional and cognitive disengagement in the same student.
“Without the cameras discussion stops easily and people might just stop talking.
But I think it’s more comfortable to not have the camera on. Cameras make
discussions awkward [...] because people start to think more about what they look
like.” (Student 6)
Overall, our findings show how cameras can enhance the building of relationships and overcome
the loneliness generated by distance learning (see also Stone & O’Shea, 2019). This topic emerged
frequently in the data, and it also describes the more general feelings of anxiety and the need for
social contacts during the time students were discouraged from visiting their peers or meeting on
University students’ (dis)engagement experiences in synchronous sessions
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Digital Culture & Education (2022) Volume 14: Issue 3
Actions in the physical space as anti-distraction strategies
Some students pointed out that actions in their local, physical space contributed positively to their
engagement in the remote sessions. During the months of remote studying, they had developed
both pre-emptive and ad-hoc anti-distraction strategies that helped them anticipate and deal with
potential perturbations. In relation to the former, proper preparations, including getting dressed,
assembling everything needed in class, such as documents, tabs, pens, and bottles of water, and
making sure the internet was working, were seen as key in getting into the “mood to study”. Many
students also reported on the beneficial aspects of clearing their workspace (e.g., their physical
desk) before the start of an online session, thereby eliminating potential distractions and
maximizing their ability to engage. Desk location was also considered important from the
viewpoint of mental well-being: when seated next to a window, one feels more connected to the
outside world:
“I usually keep my like my workspace my physical desk clear of any distractions
[...] It’s nice because it’s right in front of the window so I can see outside [...] that
there is a world outside of studying.” (Student 5)
Figure 2. Picture from Student 5's written reflection, depicting one’s home workspace.
The extract refers not only to the general feeling of loneliness experienced by many students in
spring 2021 but also how their everyday lives revolved around their homes and studies. However,
the same student (see below) also mentioned other strategies that helped maintain focus in class,
such as the ability to move around in the physical space and/or to perform manual activities, for
example, knitting:
“I have the wireless headphones [...] and I can just listen then it’s easy for me to
stretch or walk around the apartment and sometimes I might do some knitting to
help me focus (it’s with the)- when I do something with my hands.” (Student 5)
Doing other things with one’s hands, such as note-taking on paper or in a notebook, were also
reported as good ways to remain engaged. Some students found paper more efficient than
electronic documents for notetaking in that it better facilitated remembering class contents. As the
extract below shows, using Word-documents for this purpose proved distracting:
“Erh in general if I- I have like some paper document there next to me, or a
notebook or something, or then a Word document on the computer, I notice that
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I might start typing at the same time, and then realize I’m missing things because I
somehow just focus on the typing.” (Student 2)
The above examples illustrate how developing routines, arranging one’s physical space and
performing activities in it may become important strategies for maintaining focus and engagement
during synchronous sessions. Others have reported similar findings on the role of environmental
factors such as the physical location and arrangement of the working space (Corkhill et al., 2014;
Massner, 2021). Importantly, our analysis also highlights that in online environments, the actions
that teachers cannot see but might easily interpret as multitasking or disengagement (i.e., not paying
attention) can in fact have a positive impact on students’ behavior, motivation and learning
experience. These findings underline how anti-distraction strategies manifest both behavioral and
emotional engagement (i.e., a desire to learn the course material and find ways to make it relevant
and interesting; see Dixson, 2015).
Student disengagement in synchronous sessions
Communication issues and problems with reciprocity
Communication issues, such as ambiguities relating to silences and the difficulties in smoothly
upholding a conversation, were frequently mentioned in the interviews. Technical problems, such
as a poor internet connection or malfunctioning devices, often prevented the students from full
participation and were thus perceived as distracting factors, as described by one student:
“When the internet connection is bad from uh the teacher’s internet collection- eh
connection is bad and you can’t understand then and um I ( ) really want to listen
to them but I can’t because the connection is too bad and ( )... It’s been frustrating
and yeah it’s just annoying mm.” (Student 8)
If students are unable to fully participate in the class interaction, they may feel excluded, frustrated
and less engaged. Having limited or no access to the affordances of the platform is a structural
issue (cf. Kahu, 2013), and it can challenge the creation of social presence. As illustrated by the
extract above, interruptions owing to technical issues divert attention from the main task and can
lead to cognitive interference and increased information processing demand.
The students felt that online, especially in the absence of a video connection, it was more
challenging to interpret reciprocity and advance discussions collaboratively. Not being able to
recognize peers’ voices or take turns without overlapping talk was mentioned as something that
can unfavorably affect the overall progression of sessions and one’s participation in it, as shown
“It feels a little strange at times, and very often you end up talking at the same time
with someone. You don’t really know who is talking, especially if there are people
with similar voices, so you don’t really know who is about to say what, so it’s really
difficult to take part. If the cameras were on, you’d see who is about talk and there
would be at least- at least a kind of a right kind of contact, if that’s something you
can say.” (Student 2)
Another aspect that seemed to result in situated disengagement was varying and unspoken
practices for participation and using the microphone. This was seen to hinder opportunities to
build a connection with the other group members and perform well in the assigned group tasks.
Some students reported feelings of confusion, frustration and even exclusion, as illustrated by the
following excerpts.
It’s very frustrating that some of the time (in breakout rooms) will go to those like
silences that people don’t- they just don’t say anything and they might not even
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during the COVID-19 pandemic
Digital Culture & Education (2022) Volume 14: Issue 3
open their mic at all [like] they might have it on mute for the entire conversation.”
(Student 5)
“That’s sometimes ( ) a bit yeah um just frustrating when you’re doing group work
with three or four people and one of them just doesn’t engage in the group work (
) it’s a bit yeah (yeah then) it’s annoying or yeah frustrating because you don’t know
why they don’t engage with you.” (Student 8)
The latter extract, especially, shows how the feeling of frustration may be connected not only to
the perceived inequality in the distribution of labor but also to not knowing the reasons for situated
non-participation and disengagement. This could indicate that students perceive interaction
engagement as a prerequisite for the development of other forms engagement, such as those
related to task performance, collaboration, and learning. However, more research is needed to
substantiate this view.
Camera-induced self-awareness
The use of web cameras can lead to an increased level of public self-awareness, which means that
students who have their cameras on are more aware of being seen and watched by others (Castelli
& Sarvary, 2021). In the data, this generated social anxiety about personal appearance, which
influenced some students’ behavior and attention in the remote sessions. The two extracts below
illustrate the compulsion felt to watch oneself and control one’s’ behavior when the camera is on:
“I have had some lectures where cameras are mandatory and then I might borrow
one uh borrow a laptop so that I can have a camera and but having the camera on
makes me feel a little uncomfortable like I constantly look at myself in the Zoom
meeting to see what other people see. And I constantly try to sit up straight and
like be on my best behavior so that I’m not doing whatever.” (Student 5)
Many students pointed out that camera use should be agreed or at least a prewarning issued prior
to sessions. In some cases, the absence of such an agreement led to disappointment and feelings
of deception. The next extract shows how this may relate to embarrassment about displaying
oneself to others who remain unseen:
“If in a clas- class many people don’t have their cameras on and you do, and also a
couple of others do, I feel kind of anxious because I feel like everyone’s watching
me. But I can’t see them like people, so—“ (Student 1)
Discomfort regarding camera use was also connected to privacy issues and self-disclosure, such as
unwillingness to reveal too much about identity at home. This was perceived as something separate
from one’s study or work identity, as described by Student 2:
“Every now and then it feels like it’s a little stressful, since you try to look as good
as possible and it sometimes feel stressful because the “home me” is so different,
and I’ve had some difficulties with separating free time.” (Student 2)
While the use of cameras can enhance the participants’ social presence, as shown in the previous
section, it is not a straightforward matter. Changing the focus from building a positive image of
others (Castelli & Sarvary, 2021) to focusing on the image of oneself and one’s portrayal through
webcams can be harmful for engagement. As the two students cited above state, the constant self-
monitoring “you try to look as good as possible” and showing one’s “best behavior” can generate
feelings of discomfort, or mirror anxiety, caused by increased self-focus (Fauville et al., 2021). The
production and interpretation of nonverbal cues can also add to the cognitive load that one has to
deal with during an online meeting, which was commented in the written reflections by many.
“Having your webcam on only when you speak is less distracting to me; not so
many faces to look at.” (Student 6)
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Coping with such cognitive load and simultaneously experiencing anxiety or stress can raise the
threshold to speak (cf. Räisänen, 2019) and impair engagement.
Distractions from the physical and digital environment
Many of the students in the first-stage data and all the interviewed students experienced
distractions during the remote sessions emanating from their physical (e.g., home) and digital (e.g.,
computer screen) environments. As the extracts below indicate, everything surrounding the
student can feel disturbing, especially noises, the presence of family members, or having one’s
smartphone nearby.
Of course everything that’s around you irrelevant to the session is usually quite
distracting. All the sounds you hear, like those from the neighbour’s, or if your
boyfriend is home. So all such things disturb you easily, like if you have your phone
next to you and you get a message, you easily focus on the things outside the class.”
(Student 2)
The distraction caused by the presence of smartphones can be explained by their habitual or non-
habitual use (Aagaard, 2021) or “fear of missing out”, i.e., the desire/need to stay connected or
updated with messages and social media posts (Swar & Hameed, 2017). In our data, many students
described the non-habitual use related to the preference to have their phones at hand to check in-
coming messages and browse social media platforms. They also mentioned that when a remote
lecture is not sufficiently interesting, the phone can offer an opportunity to multitask or to seek
more engaging content. The next extract, in turn, describes the habitual distraction of smartphones
as automatic, unplanned, and impulsive processes (see Aagaard, 2021, p. 2) and as an unwanted
“It’s just the checking of the phone that constantly interrupts my like focus.”
(Student 5)
As a result, some students reported on consciously choosing to leave their smartphone in another
room or locate it further away from them during classes. However, those who did not resort to
this option also pointed out that not all uses of a smartphone should be condemned. As stated by
one of the students, instant messaging may be used as a resource to compensate for the lack of
opportunities to talk about class contents with a neighboring peer and to keep up:
“Sometimes I chat with my friend on WhatsApp like we might send each other
jokes about something or then we actually discuss the topics of the lecture. And
um I don’t usually use the chat function during lectures so if I have questions I
might ask my friend on WhatsApp like hey what did this mean [like].” (Student 5)
In addition to smartphones, a desk, or a computer screen with “visual clutter” (assignment,
documents, and open tabs) can be distracting.
“I think I lose focus ... when I have maybe some some other assignments lying
around on my desk or when I have a lot of uh tabs open on my screen. So um
maybe when I uh did some work before the lecture and then I still have the Word
document and the (folder) everything open then I need to change um tabs during
the lecture (but then) the other tabs distract me so um yeah that’s distracting.
(Student 8)
These findings indicate that the messiness of these situations is oftentimes problematic, to which
good organizational skills could be the solution. They also point to the need for students to develop
study skills and strategies that help them make conscious decisions to organize their behavior and
learning spaces not only pre-emptively but also in situ.
As many students pointed out, they may also easily turn to non-habitual distractions (i.e., the kinds
University students’ (dis)engagement experiences in synchronous sessions
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Digital Culture & Education (2022) Volume 14: Issue 3
that are planned) if the topic of the remote lecture is not interesting or engaging in itself:
“If I get distracted also depends on whether I want to be distracted or if I’m
interested in the topic so um when I I’m in a lecture that’s just not interesting I- I
tend to get distracted more easily.” (Student 8)
An interesting topic can increase the ability to focus, which confirms the importance of cognitive
presence in creating an engaging learning experience (Kucuk & Richardson, 2019). In contrast, if
the lecture is not interesting and does not generate critical thinking and sustained communication
among the learners, they will feel less engaged. In the above quote, by framing the distraction as
dependent on one’s will, this student also highlights the role of agency. Thus, engagement can be
a personal choice, motivated by one’s interest in the topic (see Filsecker & Kerres, 2014). In
addition to the interviews, the data from the written reflections showed that if a task is boring or
frustrating, the learner may develop negative feelings towards it, be unwilling to contribute and
rather do something else, such as use their smartphone. One student, for example, wrote that
“I hate to admit, but I am guilty of checking my phone a few times during class.
The class was in big part based on students talking their situations, so when it did
not concern me, my focus became distracted.” (Student 4)
Emotional disengagement is therefore connected to a lack of effort in concentrating and
developing anti-distraction strategies.
Discussion and conclusion
This study investigated the experiences of university students attending remote teaching during
the COVID-19 pandemic in the Finnish higher education context. Our focus was on student
engagement and disengagement in synchronous sessions and, in particular, how the students
themselves perceived their situated learning experiences. Taking an empirical, social constructivist
approach, we used thematic analysis of written data and interviews to identify related themes. This
paper was built around the themes found in the interview data, but the analyses were
complemented by the written reflections in order to highlight how the in-depth engagement
experiences can manifest in specific learning situations. Overall, the findings of this study illustrate
how aspects of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral engagement were manifested in specific ways
in the students’ experiences of emergency remote teaching.
Several themes relating to student engagement in remote sessions were identified. First, there was
a connection between successful student engagement and versatility in task design during sessions.
It was seen to both facilitate and enhance participation, which is mainly connected to teaching
presence (Garrison et al., 2000; Garrison, 2017). This encompasses specific pedagogical solutions,
such as teaching arrangements, class design and varying teaching methods, that help one remain
focused on class topics, interaction, and activities. Second, our findings show that the use of web
cameras is important, since being able to see bodily-visual cues helps students see each other’s
emotions, feel more connected and engage in meaningful ways. Third, actions in the physical space
allowed students to rearrange their learning environment to minimize distractions, or engage in
activities, such as knitting, that improved their focus. These practices were seen as demonstrating
the students’ prospective and in situ aspirations to create and sustain behavioral and emotional
engagement but also good study routines, which are a significant part of organizational skills
needed to succeed in online learning environments.
In contrast, disengagement was reported to result from different aspects. The first theme involved
communication issues, including technical difficulties and the malfunctioning internet
connections, that were understandably distracting and created inequality between the students (i.e.,
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Digital Culture & Education (2022) Volume 14: Issue 3
some were prevented from full participation). Second, camera-induced self-awareness contributed
to disengagement due to the negative feelings of discomfort and self-exposure it engendered.
Third, there were other cognitive factors, such as lack of interest in a topic, that rendered students
more receptive to distractions in their physical and digital environment.
On the basis of our findings, we argue that teacherssolutions for interactive and collaborative
class design, motivating class activities, and properly functioning technical solutions are crucial for
building and maintaining student engagement in synchronous online classes. The use of web
cameras, however, is problematic as it aroused both positive and negative perceptions of
engagement. While for some students and in some situations, it facilitated engagement in the
situation, for others it presented challenges, such as mirror anxiety (cf. Fauville et al., 2021) induced
by a heightened awareness of one’s own appearance. This conflicts somewhat with the wish to be
visible (and thereby socially “maximally” present and connected), and emotionally engaged. This
discrepancy may be explained by the change of one’s focus from building a positive image of
others that camera use can foster (Castelli & Sarvary, 2021) to focusing on the image of oneself
and one’s portrayal through webcams. While the former enhances engagement, the latter may
impact it negatively. This creates a challenge for teachers in deciding when and how to use web
cameras. For example, students can be informed about camera use beforehand and they can be
asked to turn on their camera only at certain points (e.g., at the start and end of a session to greet
one another and to say good-bye). We propose that the use of cameras as well as other online
applications should have a function that is communicated to the students in order to maximize
their positive effects. This is also important in our shift back to contact teaching. Whether students
continue to feel similar thresholds to speak, cognitive load or anxiety is yet to be seen; however,
what teachers can do is to consider the benefits of digital tools and parallel communication
channels to improve engagement in sessions, for example, the use of chat or applications with
which one can take part in discussion without speaking and putting oneself at focus. The chat
function, or some equivalent, has potential to add something to face-to-face teaching and foster
cognitive, emotional, and behavioral engagement in new ways.
On the basis of the findings, we also argue that student engagement in online settings should be
seen as socially and actively constructed by the students. The students’ experiences discussed in
this paper are illustrative of the well-known effects of COVID-19 times to students’ feelings of
loneliness and isolation. However, their experiences also illustrate the resilient and creative
strategies students used to overcome the challenges to their interactions with peers and teachers
presented by the learning environment. This points to students’ organizational skills and agency in
making continuous efforts in investing in their own learning process (see also Kucuk &
Richardson, 2019). It is also important to note that students’ behavioral engagement was a
prerequisite for the occurrence of other types of engagement, i.e., task and performance
engagement. Thus, while supporting earlier survey findings on active learning models for online
teaching and learning (e.g., Dixson, 2015; Garrison, 2017; Kucuk & Richardson 2019), our
qualitative study also contributes to a more in-depth understanding of online student engagement
as something that is actively pursued and construed by the students themselves (cf. Philp &
Duchesne, 2016).
This study has its limitations. Owing to its focus on a small data set of one-time interviews rather
than longitudinal data, the findings cannot reveal change in students’ engagement over time nor
compare the same students’ engagement between co-present and online settings. In addition, due
to being a preliminary study in the Finnish context, conclusions cannot be drawn in a
straightforward or a generalizable manner. The study could be continued in the post-pandemic
times by conducting interviews with students who have been involved in synchronous online or
hybrid teaching in order to explore their perceptions of engagement. It would also be interesting
University students’ (dis)engagement experiences in synchronous sessions
during the COVID-19 pandemic
Digital Culture & Education (2022) Volume 14: Issue 3
to study teachers’ perspective of student engagement in both online and hybrid settings.
Comparisons could be made between our present data set and the students’/teachers’ experiences
and perceptions of engagement in the post-pandemic synchronous sessions. This way we could
gain a better understanding of how these issues manifest after the pandemic.
Despite the limitations of our study, with its in-depth exploration of self-reports of engagement
using different types of data, it provides rich insights into the complexity of engagement that
cannot be neatly grouped into specific categories, but which rather have to be considered in a
holistic manner. We have thus been able to offer an emic perspective on the behaviors, attitudes
and feelings that are considered key in constructing online learning communities and meaningful
learning experiences, looking beyond what is said to why it is said. This approach is important for
understanding the overall online learning conditions of students in the COVID-19 situation, as
these are pressing issues that have not been fully explored. Moreover, research based on the
findings and implications of this study is called for, since it can help improve developing solutions
for teaching in the post-pandemic world. With this study, we hope to invite more discussion on
the topic and call for initiatives that look at student engagement as part of the new and emerging
formats, including methods of hybrid teaching. Students’ perceptions can help educators and
decision-making bodies better understand both the short and long-term repercussions of
emergency remote teaching.
Since there continues to be a global demand for flexible solutions to online learning, including in
Finland (see Digivisio, 2030), resources that support student/teacher collaboration in these
environments need to be developed and studied further. We encourage more qualitative research
on the topic of video-mediated teaching and its potential impacts on engagement and learning
We wish to thank Michael Freeman for proofreading the final version of the article manuscript
and Laura Minkkinen for her valuable work on transcribing the audio recorded materials. Thank
you also to the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on the earlier version of
the manuscript.
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Appendix. Interactional spaces framework (Oittinen, 2020, p. 23)
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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Restrictions on physical gathering due to COVID-19 has compelled higher education institutions to rapidly embrace digital technologies to support teaching and learning. While logistically, the use of digital technologies offers an obvious solution, attention must be given to these methods' pedagogical appropriateness, mainly how students engage and learn in the spaces supported by these technologies. In this context, we explored the degree to which digital technologies have contributed to teaching and learning practices over the past decade. The study employed a systematic review using a newly developed tripartite model for conducting and presenting literature review reports. The model approaches the literature review process systematically and employs three phases for the critical examination of literature: description, synthesis, and critique. The current review focused on student engagement across technologies that encompass social media, video, and collaborative learning technologies. Relevant articles were obtained from the Scopus and Web of Science databases. Three core themes were identified: there was no shared understanding of what constitutes student engagement with learning technologies, there was a lack of explanation concerning the contextual variation and modalities of student engagement across the digital technologies, and self-reporting was the primary method of measuring student engagement, rendering results as perceptual rather than behavioural. We argue that using multiple datasets and different methodological approaches can provide further insights into student engagement with digital technologies. This approach to measuring engagement can substantiate findings and most likely provide additional insights into students' engagement with digital technologies.
This paper examines the use of video chat (VC) with a focus on expectations and construction of attention. It is based on micro analyses of recorded VC sessions (gathered between 2013 and 2015) and thematic analysis of 29 semi-structured interviews about VC practices (conducted in 2014 and 2015). Building on multimodal (inter)action analysis (Norris, S. (2004). Analysing multimodal interaction: a methdological framework. Routledge, Norris, S. (2016). Concepts in multimodal discourse analysis with examples from video conferencing. Yearbook of the Poznan Linguistic Meeting 2: 141–165) and key concepts from nexus analysis (Scollon, R. and Scollon, S.W. (2004). Nexus Analysis: Discourse and the emerging internet. Routledge), I examine how focused attention is constructed in VCs and how these practices are shaped by experiences with other forms of communication. I demonstrate that unlike other forms of distance communication, typical VC encounters require a full investment of attention. This can be formulated as an interactional maxim: focus your attention on the VC interaction . I discuss how other activities can be interwoven with a VC and examine the exceptional practice of lapsed VC encounters (previously open connections or always-on video). I argue that participants display an orientation towards the maxim when pursuing other courses of action, and that lapsed encounters operate under a different value system than typical focused VC encounters. Finally, I reason that VC is reserved for close relationships because of the required investment of attention.
Studies show that students often use digital devices for off-task purposes, but little is known about the psychological dynamics involved in this activity. The present article therefore offers a phenomenological study of how students experience and cope with digital distraction. Drawing on qualitative interviews, it is demonstrated that one of the major challenges with digital distraction is that it often occurs habitually: Students often ‘find’ or ‘catch’ themselves being distracted. To cope with this lag between initiating and becoming aware of distraction, they set up stumbling blocks that prevent distraction from unfolding on this prereflective level. Closing the laptop, for instance, transforms distraction from being a ‘small click’ that occurs habitually to becoming an ‘entire action’ that requires active decision-making. Sometimes, students employ digital tools that block the possibility of distraction altogether. These findings suggest that self-control is a matter of intelligently restructuring one’s surroundings to avoid succumbing to temptation.