Active Participation in Synchronous Online Learning

Kear, Karen; Rosewell, Jonathan and Donelan, Helen (2023). Active Participation in Synchronous Online Learning. In: EDEN 2023 Annual Conference, 18-20 Jun 2023, Dublin, Ireland.



Active learning has been a tenet of the Open University’s (OU) distance learning methods for 50 years. Tutorials have always been an important component of OU distance learning; these have moved online, initially to improve access and then as a consequence of the pandemic.

The benefits of active participation in synchronous online sessions have been highlighted in several studies. Interacting with other students and their teachers can enable students to feel part of a learning community, to hear other people’s views, and to clarify their understanding of a topic (Rogers et al., 2021; Wang et al., 2022). However, educators designing tutorial events face the challenge of overcoming students’ reluctance to participate actively (Butler et al., 2018).

This paper reports results from a study that investigated current practice and student and tutor perceptions of tutorials by means of two large scale surveys and fourteen focus groups, conducted across all faculties of the university. Over 600 students and 200 tutors responded to the surveys which gathered both quantitative and rich qualitative data.

Tutors can design tutorials that encourage active participation by including activities such as questioning and discussion, and by making use of tools offered by the online environment such as polls, shared whiteboard and chat channel. However, this assumes that students will be willing to participate in this way. Tutors report that most students are unwilling to use the microphone or webcam, although they are more likely to use text chat or anonymous tools such as a shared whiteboard.

The survey data showed that students’ anxiety and lack of confidence are major factors restricting their willingness to engage actively. Over one third of students indicated they were stressed when expected to take part actively. Some students appear happier to listen passively. They often feel they have little to contribute and are worried about what other students and their tutor will think about their contribution.

The surveys provided insights into differences in perception between tutors and students. When surveyed, tutors suggest students may not use the microphone or webcam due to technical issues or unsuitable home environment. However, in the student survey data other reasons are given more frequently, including ‘being happy to listen’, lack of confidence, anxiety and being behind in their studies.

Work continues to understand how to encourage and support students and teachers in these environments. This may include persuading students of the value of participating and building their confidence to do so. Tutors need to accommodate a wide range of student preferences and to reduce the stress, for example by providing material in advance and making greater use of anonymous low-stakes activities, such as polls and whiteboards.


Butler, D., Cook, L., Haley-Mirnar, V., Halliwell, C., & MacBrayne, L. (2018). Achieving student centred facilitation in online synchronous sessions. Proceedings of 10th EDEN Research Workshop, Barcelona, pp. 76–82.

Rogers, K., Thomas, C. & Holmes, H. (2021). Encouraging student participation in mathematical activities in synchronous online tuition. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, DOI: 10.1080/02680513.2021.1938523

Wang, Q., Wen, Y. & Quek, C.L. (2022). Engaging learners in synchronous online learning. Education and Information Technologies.

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