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Engaging Learners Online in COVID-19: An Actionable Framework

Dr. Michael J. Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College, spoke to the importance of centering on learners in this new era of higher ed.


A year ago, the Lab had just released The Learner Revolution, a whitepaper sharing learnings from five years of work with 125+ institutions on how higher ed leaders must position their institutions to improve learner outcomes, support learners’ economic mobility, and ultimately thrive in a rapidly changing landscape of learning options. Fast forward, and today COVID-19 has accelerated the forces necessitating these changes, most acutely impacting those students—like low-income learners, parent learners, first gen students, and others from historically underserved and underrepresented groups—who were already in need of a redesign of higher ed to enable their success.

This spring, educators quickly pivoted to deliver online learning, and now with semesters wrapping up, they are turning their attention to the summer and fall terms. As schools face potential plunges in enrollment and major decisions about operations, budgets, and student experience, they confront a crucial question: how can they keep learners engaged? Drawing on insights from the Lab’s work, as well as our team’s experience building learner engagement in online environments, we created an actionable framework to help schools retain and support learners through this crisis.

Regardless of the platforms and tools, what matters most for helping learners continue to make progress is how well their needs are met. Learning environments that are growth-focused, learner-driven, and belonging-oriented can support improved retention, academic performance, course engagement, and overall learner well-being.

Guided by a few simple best practices, you can help learners feel more capable of growth and success, experience greater ownership over their educational journeys, and build connection to their learning communities—all of which can motivate them to stick with their learning.

To help you get started, we’ve put together a list of actionable best practices, which we have seen applied to learners of all different kinds—single mother learners, transfer students, incumbent retail workers upskilling towards new career opportunities, and more. Download the framework here.


Change for a Stronger Future

With the prospect of all-online instruction continuing at many schools for at least a few more months, if not through the fall, higher ed must reimagine what effective learning can look like in this new era. Applying the best practices outlined above can help schools center today’s learners in the redesign of learning environments and systems, leading to deeper engagement in learning and, ultimately, stronger foundations for success. This work is not all or nothing; applying even just a few of the ideas described here will help nurture learners and propel them forward. The more comprehensively you invest in these practices, the more learners will learn, grow, and position themselves to succeed.

Want to dig deeper into how you can foster high-quality motivation within your learners? Reach out to the Lab!

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