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Online Courses

January 2021


What recent research or resources are available on virtual learning practices and student engagement, particularly resources in response to teaching efforts during COVID-19?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and literature reviews on virtual learning practices and student engagement. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to the COVID-19 pandemic or published since 2020. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Aspen Institute. (2020). State actions to support social, emotional, and academic development: Fostering connectedness in the pandemic era. Author.

From the ERIC abstract: “Social distancing and school closures forced by the COVID-19 pandemic present extraordinary challenges for education. While the nation is just beginning to understand the impact of the last few months and what the months ahead will mean for students, families, and educators, the depth of students’ connectedness to school and the quality of their relationships with adults and peers in school are critical to learning and thriving in life. State leaders can take action now and through the 2020-21 school year and legislative sessions to advance policy solutions that develop, maintain, and strengthen the crucial connections and relationships that are necessary for healing and learning. This document recommends 10 actions designed to help state education leaders maintain focus on fostering social and emotional development and school connectedness.”

Borup, J., Graham, C. R., West, R. E., Archambault, L., & Spring, K. J. (2020). Academic Communities of Engagement: An expansive lens for examining support structures in blended and online learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 68(2), 807–832.

From the ERIC abstract: “In this article we share the Academic Communities of Engagement (ACE) framework, which describes a student’s ability to engage affectively, behaviorally, and cognitively in an online or blended course independently and with support. Based on Vygotsky’s (Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978) zone of proximal development, the framework examines how a student’s ability to engage in online or blended courses increases with support from two types of communities. The course community is organized and facilitated by those associated with the course or program. The personal community is comprised of actors not officially associated with the course who have typically formed relationships with the student before the course or program began and may extend well beyond its boundaries. Actors within each community have varying skills and abilities to support student engagement, and a student is most likely to reach the necessary engagement for academic success with active support from both. The framework identifies the community actors most likely to provide specific support elements, aligning them to the different types of student engagement. The article outlines implications for practice and research, concluding with illustrative examples.”

Borup, J., Jensen, M., Archambault, L., Short, C. R., & Graham, C. R. (2020). Supporting students during COVID-19: Developing and leveraging Academic Communities of Engagement in a time of crisis. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 28(2), 161–169.

From the ERIC abstract: “As school closures require educators to transition to remote teaching, relevant models for supporting students are necessary. This article discusses Academic Communities of Engagement (ACE), a framework identifying two communities to help support student engagement: (a) the course community associated with course or school (teacher, peers, administrators, counselors) and (b) students’ personal community with long-standing relationships (parents, siblings, friends). Within the framework these communities can provide affective, behavioral, and cognitive support in online (remote) settings. Examples from two schools that had to go remote demonstrate application of the framework promoting student engagement and success.”

Cottingham, B. (2020). Improving distance education in the early grades. Policy Analysis for California Education, PACE.

From the summary: “California districts were forced to shift to distance learning models in the spring of 2020 and the transition to distance learning for students in the early grades—transitional kindergarten through third grade (TK–3)—has proved difficult for students, parents, and teachers alike. As distance learning persists, administrators and teachers can continue to adapt their practices to meet the needs of students and families. This brief identifies challenges experienced during distance learning and suggests promising practices and potential policy changes that can positively affect the current experience of students, parents, and teachers involved in TK–3 distance learning.”

Egbert, J. (2020). The new normal?: A pandemic of task engagement in language learning. Foreign Language Annals, 53(2), 314–319.

From the ERIC abstract: “This article demonstrates how, at a time when learners may be experiencing fear and chaos in other aspects of their lives, a focus on language task engagement is essential across both online and offline language learning contexts. It presents a model of language task engagement and describes why and how teachers can use it to support learner achievement during the current crisis and in the future.”

Gallagher, H. A., & Cottingham, B. (2020). Improving the quality of distance and blended learning (Brief No. 8). EdResearch for Recovery Project.

From the ERIC abstract: “This brief is one in a series aimed at providing K-12 education decision makers and advocates with an evidence base to ground discussions about how to best serve students during and following the novel coronavirus pandemic. It addresses one central question: How can schools provide high-quality distance and blended learning during the pandemic? To answer this question, the brief breaks down the issue into four points: (1) With the abrupt end of in-person schooling in the spring of 2020, learning opportunities available to students varied enormously with some students receiving almost no distance instruction and others engaging in meaningful learning; (2) Student engagement in available distance learning opportunities was uneven and inequitable in the spring, partially but not entirely due to students’ challenges in accessing online learning; (3) The move to distance learning reduces opportunities for many of the crucial social aspects of learning; and (4) Early elementary children and vulnerable student populations are most at risk from the move to a distanced setting. Based on these points, the brief provides six strategies to consider and two strategies to avoid.”

Gallardo, V. M., Finnegan, P., Ingram, A., & Martin, S. (2020). Supporting multilingual/English learners during school closures. Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

From the ERIC abstract: “The sudden closure of educational facilities due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought about many trials and struggles. For families and students, it means the loss of structure, connection, and valuable instructional time. For administrators, educators, and support staff, it means a sudden shift in the way teaching and learning happens. For everyone, the closure of school facilities presents an opportunity to connect to students in new and innovative ways to continue providing them with high-quality English language development services and meaningful access to content instruction. This publication from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public (OSPI) is intended to provide guidance and strategies for providing continuous learning to multilingual/English learners. Instruction Professional development and learning resources are included in the appendices. These resources include technology-based options and others that are not technology dependent. Developing alternative plans for continuous learning is a monumental challenge for local systems with limited resources and it is the hope that this guidance will assist those efforts.”

Garas-York, K. (2020). Exploring student engagement in an online course. Journal of Educators Online, 17(2).

From the ERIC abstract: “Student engagement in a collaborative assignment (high-impact practice) as part of an online graduate literacy course was examined. Data were gathered across three weeks of online discussions as part of a Student Assistance Team (SAT) assignment. The findings demonstrated that student engagement can be high in an online course, particularly when graduate students interact with both the course content and their classmates. In addition, it was found that student engagement in a collaborative assignment can support the transfer of course content learned to additional course assignments.”

Herburger, D. (2020). Considerations for teachers providing distance learning to students with disabilities (Crisis Response Resource). WestEd.

From the ERIC abstract: “This brief, produced by WestEd as part of a collection of Crisis Response Resources, provides guidance and resources to help educators support students with disabilities—ranging from mild to low-incidence—through distance learning prompted by the COVID-19 crisis. Many of the structures and supports for students with disabilities that were in place in the classroom will likely look different in the distance learning environment. Because students with disabilities, like all students, have a range of needs, teachers will need to consider how best to support each student’s unique situation. This brief helps teachers consider key areas that are imperative to teaching and learning for students with disabilities.”

Hill, N., & Gayle, L. (2020). How to engage parents and families to support the recovery of districts and schools? (Brief No. 12). EdResearch for Recovery Project. [385 KB PDF icon]

From the description: “This brief is one in a series aimed at providing K-12 education decision makers and advocates with an evidence base to ground discussions about how to best serve students during and following the novel coronavirus pandemic…Central Question: How can schools and districts support families in their diverse contexts and build practical trust to support student learning?”

Kumi-Yeboah, A., Kim, Y., Sallar, A. M., & Kiramba, L. K. (2020). Exploring the use of digital technologies from the perspective of diverse learners in online learning environments. Online Learning, 24(4), 42–63.

From the ERIC abstract: “This qualitative study explored digital technologies that promote educational experiences and achievements of culturally diverse learners via interviews with 46 culturally and linguistically diverse students across different academic programs. A qualitative research design using semi-structured interviews was used to collect the data for the study. The analysis of the data identified that digital technologies, multimedia presentations, and social network tools facilitate educational experiences and achievements of participants in asynchronous online learning environments. Participants applied digital technologies to navigate the Learning Management Systems (LMS) to engage and contribute to knowledge creation to achieve better academic success in online context. Findings support the need for online instructors to incorporate digital technologies to facilitate academic engagement and achievements of students from diverse backgrounds in online learning.”

Lucas, M., Nelson, J., & Sims, D. (2020). Schools’ responses to COVID-19: Pupil engagement in remote learning. National Foundation for Educational Research.

From the ERIC abstract: “On March 20th, 2020, the British Government ordered schools to close to the majority of pupils. This was a pivotal moment as the majority of pupils transitioned to learning remotely from home and schools had to adapt rapidly to this new way of teaching. With the majority of pupils not expected to return to the classroom until the autumn, remote learning remains at the heart of how schools will need to continue to support pupils’ learning in the coming months. Given the potential impact of this extended period of remote learning, National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) undertook an independent assessment to see how engaged pupils are, and the factors that might be driving this, as well as how schools are providing remote learning support for pupils. The report is based on findings from a national survey of 1,233 senior leaders and 1,821 teachers in publicly-funded, mainstream primary and secondary schools in England. Responses between May 7th and 17th have been weighted by phase and free school meal (FSM) eligibility to provide a nationally representative picture. The authors recognise that a number of factors are likely to influence pupils’ engagement, including access to IT, their parents’ engagement, and the type of support received from their schools. These issues are explored throughout the report.”

Myung, J., Gallagher, A., Cottingham, B., Gong, A., Kimner, H., Witte, J., Gee, K., & Hough, H. (2020). Supporting learning in the COVID-19 context: Research to guide distance and blended instruction. Policy Analysis for California Education, PACE.

From the ERIC abstract: “This report offers a framework for districts to use in their preparation to provide quality instruction through distance and blended models. In the wake of COVID-19, ‘teaching as usual’ will be neither possible nor sufficient to meet students’ needs because California’s schools have experienced disruptions to each aspect of the instructional core: teachers, students, and content. The report begins by describing the instructional core and the ways in which each of its elements has been disrupted by COVID-19. It then offers research-based strategies to mitigate that impact on students in distance and blended contexts. The final section describes the role districts must play to ensure that students receive quality instruction at scale: focusing on setting and communicating expectations about instruction; supporting educators; developing systems to address greater student needs; and improving technology and data infrastructure. The strategies and recommendations are intended to be used to frame conversations among district leaders and to guide strategic planning for the 2020-21 school year.”

Perkins, K. (2020). Transforming STEM learning at scale: PhET Interactive Simulations. Childhood Education, 96(4), 42–49.

From the ERIC abstract: “As COVID-19 spread across the globe, schools shuttered their doors and millions of students and teachers shifted to remote learning. This situation created significant challenges with regard to maintaining continuity, quality, and equity in education. At the same time, the very nature of the pandemic itself underscores the critical need to engage and educate the next generation in science and math. Today’s students are the future scientists, engineers, doctors, and nurses who need deep understanding and problem-solving skills to pioneer solutions and to serve communities through future local and global crises. And their classmates are global citizens who need foundational science and math literacy to guide their personal actions and collective decisions. Science, technology, engineering, and math--the STEM fields--are active, not passive, endeavors. They are driven by curiosity about how the world works and a drive to solve challenging problems. Since 2002, PhET Interactive Simulations at University of Colorado Boulder has been advancing and studying the design and classroom use of interactive simulations for STEM teaching and learning. The project was founded by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman, who had witnessed how interactive simulations helped make complex physics both engaging and understandable for highly diverse audiences--from high school students to physics faculty to the general public. Through innovation, research, and teamwork, the PhET team has continued to pursue and advance Carl’s vision of making STEM learning more engaging, accessible, and relevant to diverse students, and to do so at scale. Today, the PhET website features a collection of over 150 award-winning simulations, covering topics in physics, chemistry, mathematics, earth science, and biology, all available as open (free) educational resources.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Puntambekar, S., Gnesdilow, D., Dornfeld Tissenbaum, C., Narayanan, N. H., & Rebello, N. S. (2020). Supporting middle school students’ science talk: A comparison of physical and virtual labs. Journal of Research in Science Teaching.

From the abstract: “Research exploring students’ learning from physical and virtual labs has suggested that on the whole, students learn science content just as well, if not better from virtual labs as they do from physical labs. However, the affordances of physical labs might support the learning of specific skills and competencies that are just as crucial for learning science. In this study, we examined students’ discussions as they worked on physical and virtual labs to better understand how they learned from each, and the kinds of learning that each type of lab supported. One hundred and fifteen 6th grade students from three science teachers’ classes participated in this study. We examined audio data from all available groups as they engaged in physical and virtual labs (n = 14 groups; physical, n = 8 groups; virtual, n = 6 groups). We found that students conducting physical labs engaged in a significantly higher proportion of talk related to setting up apparatus and taking measurements and calculating outputs. Students who performed virtual labs, on the other hand, engaged in significantly more discussions about making predictions and understanding patterns of relationships between variables, and interpreting science phenomena. While students in the Virtual condition engaged in discussions that were more focused on the relationships between science ideas, students in the Physical condition learned science practices related to planning and carrying out investigations that are equally valuable. Our findings suggest that learning from one experimental modality may complement and supplement the relative weaknesses of the other, indicating a need for strategically combining the two. Implications and future directions are discussed.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest. (2020, April 8). Research-based resources, considerations, and strategies for remote learning [Webinar]. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

From the description: “This Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest webinar discusses research-based resources and strategies for educators teaching in a remote setting. Experts from REL Midwest and the American Institutes for Research present and respond to audience questions. Participants also hear from teachers in elementary and secondary schools. The webinar covers the following topics related to transitioning to remote learning:

  • Research-based resources
  • Social and emotional learning
  • Adult learning
  • Online learning platforms.”

Research for Action. (2020). Teacher use of digital tools: Results of a survey of district teachers in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton and Neshaminy. Author.

From the ERIC abstract: “When schools in Pennsylvania and across the nation were suddenly shuttered in March due to COVID-19, teachers were faced with an enormous challenge: how to effectively teach and engage their students remotely when the vast majority had never done so before. In order to meet this challenge, teachers turned to an array of digital tools-such as Zoom, Google Classroom, and others-to plan and deliver instruction, engage students, and assess their progress. But how effective were these tools? Research for Action conducted a survey to find out. The survey reached public school teachers to gauge their opinions about on-line teaching tools. Survey responses revealed that: (1) More than 80% of teachers said that online tools are effective with most students; (2) Digital teaching tools were most useful for instructional planning and delivery, but were less effective for assessing student learning and keeping students engaged; (3) Notably, fewer teachers said digital tools were effective for teaching students with special needs and those who are dual-language learners than for general education students; (4) Over 80% of teachers report that they would continue to use on-line tools, whether teaching remotely or in-person; and (5) Teachers felt strongly that they need professional development to continue to teach effectively using these tools.”

Rouleau, K. (2020). Changing digital learning from the inside out: System-level considerations for shaping online experiences that engage learners and teachers. McREL International.

From the ERIC abstract: “Online teaching and learning can be more engaging and effective for students and teachers alike if districts take into account several key considerations when formatting their digital plans and processes. Combining and building on ideas from change management, improvement science, and inside-out systems development, Dr. Kris Rouleau from McREL’s Learning Services team offers seven guiding principles for district leaders who are looking to refine their systemwide approach to digitally mediated learning.”

Saltz, J., & Heckman, R. (2020). Using structured pair activities in a distributed online breakout room. Online Learning, 24(1), 227–244.

From the ERIC abstract: “With the increasing availability of synchronous video-based breakout rooms within online courses, a growing need exists to understand how to best leverage this technology for enhanced online education. To help address this challenge, this paper reports on a case study that explored student activity within online video-based breakout rooms via a Structured Paired Activity (SPA) methodology. SPA, which is adapted from the concept of Paired Programming, defines a general way to structure roles and activities for the participants within the breakout room. Initial qualitative results suggest that the use of SPA in online breakout rooms increases student engagement and process effectiveness. These results are potentially applicable to a broad range of web-based synchronous online courses.”

Sattin-Bajaj, C., Boix-Mansilla, V., & Strom, A. (2020). Supports for students in immigrant families (Brief No. 9). EdResearch for Recovery Project.

From the ERIC abstract: “This brief is one in a series aimed at providing K-12 education decision makers and advocates with an evidence base to ground discussions about how to best serve students during and following the novel coronavirus pandemic. It addresses one central question: What research-backed practices can school districts, schools and classroom teachers use to support immigrant-origin students’ educational success and build inclusive environments in learning contexts transformed by COVID-19? In order to answer this question, the brief breaks down the issue into three points: (1) Immigrant-origin children are the fastest growing segment of the school-age population in the U.S.; (2) Immigrant communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in terms of loss of employment, representation among frontline and essential workers, and rates of illness; and (3) Immigrant-origin students tend to have lower access to at-home resources that might support their learning during the pandemic. Based on these points, the brief provides five strategies to consider and two strategies to avoid.”

WestEd. (2020, May 11). Engaging parents and students from diverse populations in the context of distance learning [Webinar]. Author.

From the description: “This one-hour archived webinar, hosted by REL West, focused on state, district, and school-based strategies that support student and family engagement, particularly among vulnerable populations, in the context of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Effective student and family engagement relies on establishing trusting relationships in which educators, students, and their parents see themselves and each other as equal partners. Without opportunities to interact in person, it is now more difficult and also more important to build and maintain these strong relationships. This webinar shared lessons from research and practice to help educators engage with students and their families to support continued learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Presenters discussed strategies in three important areas:

  • Cultivating a partnership orientation
  • Practicing cultural responsiveness
  • Establishing two-way communication

Presenters include family engagement coordinators from districts in California and Nevada discussing how they are adapting their work to address current challenges, with a focus on distance learning and working with vulnerable populations.

Who should attend: State, district, and school-level staff involved with developing and implementing distance learning and supporting parent and student engagement.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

EdResearch for Recovery Project –

From the website: “As the pandemic continues, the task of supporting students becomes ever more difficult. Education leaders face an unprecedented challenge as students return to school this fall. Based on a developing list of questions from policymakers and practitioners, the EdResearch for Recovery Project taps top researchers from across the country to develop evidence briefs to inform recovery strategies.”

Institute of Education Sciences, COVID-19 –

From the website: “COVID-19 reshaped all aspects of education and education systems across the United States, from early learning to adult education. Critical issues confronting policymakers, educators, and families run the gamut from leveraging technology in service of remote and hybrid instruction, protecting the health and wellness of educators and students, understanding and mitigating learning loss, and safely re-opening schools for face-to-face instruction. IES is compiling data and carrying out research to understand how COVID-19 is altering education, and is generating solutions to support learners, educators, and parents.”

Regional Educational Laboratory Program, COVID-19: Evidence-based resources –

From the website: “The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences funds a network of 10 Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs). Each REL serves a designated region of the country and works with educators and policymakers to support a more evidence-based education system. In response to COVID-19, the RELs have collaborated to produce this series of evidence-based resources and guidance about teaching and learning in a remote environment, as well as other considerations brought by the pandemic.”

U.S. Department of Education, COVID-19 Resources for Schools, Students and Families –

From the website: “During this coronavirus pandemic it is important that states, communities, educators, and families are equipped with resources and flexibilities that empower students to continue pursuing their education goals . This includes the ongoing development of guidance and policies related to elementary and secondary education, special education, higher education, and other essential components of lifelong learning.”

WestEd, COVID-19 Resources for Educators –

From the website: “As the world rallies to respond to the current public health crisis, schools across the globe have closed their doors to stop the spread of the new coronavirus and its associated disease, COVID-19. By mid-April, in the United States alone, at least 55.1 million K-12 students were sheltered at home, with the expectation that, for some open-ended period, they would receive virtual instruction. Today’s extraordinary circumstances present new challenges for you and other educators striving to continue your core work — whether it be teaching, leading, or policymaking, and whether it be at the K-12 level, in higher education, or in early care and education programs. WestEd is committed to supporting your efforts. This site offers an evolving selection of timely, evidence-based resources and guidance, designed to help you continue to make a positive difference in the lives of children, youth, and adults during these difficult times. We hope you find them useful and that you and your families and communities remain safe and healthy.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • COVID-19 “learner engagement”

  • “online courses” “learner engagement” 2020

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last year, from 2020 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.