Create Engagement to Make E-Learning Different

Christina Gómez
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Quick take: In order to differentiate its online programs in the market and increase online student enrollment, California Baptist University invested in high-definition video conferencing technology, course design facilitation, faculty training, and student advisory services. These initiatives have extended the reach of the campus and promoted online student engagement.

Riverside, California, United States.

Higher education is saturated with online programs from various colleges and universities. So if a small private non-profit university was interested in expanding its online presence, how would it go about doing this? How would it differentiate itself from the myriad of choices that students wade through when they are interested in returning to school for a degree?

In 2010, California Baptist University (CBU) faced these questions. Located in Riverside, California, CBU did not have much of a distance education presence but was renowned for its high touch culture, academic quality, and engagement with students at its traditional campus. CBU made a decision to form a new division called Online & Professional Studies (OPS) to help address these challenges. Within three years, OPS was ranked #25 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report for top online bachelor’s programs. In 2017, CBU OPS was ranked #8 across the nation.

Dr. Torria Davis, instructional designer for OPS (left) and Dr. Tranh Hong, Associate Vice President of Technology (right) at California Baptiste University. Riverside, CA, USA. Photo: AFP Kyle Grillot.
Dr. Torria Davis, Instructional Designer for OPS (left) and Dr. Tran Hong, Associate Vice President of Technology (right) at California Baptist University. Riverside, CA, USA.

The first step in getting OPS started was bringing in Dr. Tran Hong, Associate Vice President of Technology, to guide the development of the online infrastructure with technology and staff. One of the primary goals was to distinguish its online programs from an already crowded market. This was done by leveraging innovative high-definition video conferencing technology along with a unique course design to raise student engagement. Working closely with the academic and support services staff, Dr. Hong and his team adapted various technologies to help increase online student enrollment by 700% utilizing three objectives:

1. The development of Virtual Hybrid

2. The facilitation of Course Design

3. The connectedness of students and faculty at a distance

The Virtual Hybrid

Dr. Hong knew from the beginning that offering only asynchronous content would not achieve online student engagement. Working with academic staff, the team proposed a new model called “virtual hybrid” that would take advantage of a Cisco technology called Telepresence. Telepresence is a technology platform that allows for high-definition video conferencing of a typical class size (around 24 students plus the teacher). Telepresence is used in conjunction with other systems such as Webex and Blackboard Learn (a Learning Management System (LMS)) that hosts asynchronous content. For example, the online Master of Counseling Psychology program uses the virtual hybrid model in all its classes because it allows students to interact with their teacher and fellow classmates in an immersive way. Because most online students live within 50 miles of a traditional campus, virtual hybrid provide students with the option to come to campus as well as participate remotely if desired. The virtual hybrid model works by sharing the physical class in high-definition with other students who are participating virtually.

Dr. Hong also knew that simply implementing high-definition video conferencing technology would not automatically mean that every student would be engaged, just as a student’s physical presence in a classroom would not guarantee that student would be engaged. At that point, it is up to the class, the faculty and the course design to generate the engagement. If the course is static, neither the content nor the video conferencing will be dynamic. This leads to the next objective of Course Design.

Course Design

The high quality content developed by faculty is made interactive and engaging through good course design. It is essential that the online student experience consist of more than reading directions on a screen and taking multiple choice exams in the learning management system. Dr. Torria Davis, Instructional Designer for OPS, partners with faculty to create interactive and engaging online experiences. She supports faculty in three ways:

1. Sharing web tools to create a sense of presence in the online space

2. Training on Blackboard features for interactivity and engagement

3. Supporting the implementation of Quality Matters standards

In order for students to engage in the online classroom, it is imperative that they connect with the instructor, their peers and course content. This is facilitated by using variety of web tools that allow students and the instructor to be seen and heard. One such tool is VoiceThread and this tool has been implemented university wide. Students and instructors can use their web cams and microphones to be seen and heard while having conversations around course content. This means instructors can narrate their PowerPoint presentations, facilitate an asynchronous discussion with students, and create engaging learning experiences in a variety of other ways.

Interactivity is supported through Blackboard. The assignment, test, discussion board, group, and rubric features are used to assess learning outcomes, provide self-assessment opportunities and student feedback on work submitted. Providing strategies for building content that is accessible across mobile devices increases opportunities for interactivity and engagement in a course.

Recently, the academic team decided to implement Quality Matters to strengthen the course design and development processes. Previously, course design and development was guided by Blackboard’s exemplary course program rubric, providing quality guidelines in the areas of course design, interaction and collaboration, assessment, and learner support. The implementation of Quality Matters will contribute a strong alignment between learning outcomes, instructional materials, course activities, and assessments. The result of these collaborative efforts with faculty is a cohesive course design that engages students and supports the attainment of learning outcomes.

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Connectedness is a third objective built on efforts to bridge faculty and students. As part of this endeavor, faculty strive to respond to students within 24 hours and even meet with students at local coffee shops or through Telepresence to discuss assignments or lend a helping ear with personal challenges.

Another endeavor in the connectedness objective is the yearly faculty training. Faculty continually learn new technologies and methods in delivering the highest quality interactive experience with students. Faculty incorporate content and technologies in the Blackboard Learn environment addressing areas such as teaching strategies, online lectures, including PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos, Telepresence, and other technology integrations. New this year, for example, was the use of Voicethread with Blackboard, in order to offer natural online interaction that lends itself to students presenting and defending their work before experts and peers.

An additional part connectedness is its advising service, where every student is assigned a specific one-stop advisor to help with student needs. This includes helping students with academic planning, any challenges or issues with classes, improving grades and financial aid. OPS developed an in-house software system that helps advisors work with students more effectively. This application aggregates student data from various systems to form a student profile that advisors can use to help with advising services which contributes to the retention/completion rates. Faculty also have the ability to communicate directly with advisors when there is a sense that students may need assistance.

Faith Integration

As a Christian university, the combination of technology and course design make it possible for faculty to engage with students more easily when it comes to faith. Asynchronous and synchronous technologies provide the foundation for faith integration and conversations between faculty and students. Weaved within the course content are references to scripture as it relates to the discipline and assignments help students connect this to practice. The video technology is available for faculty to further connect and discuss faith directly with students as needed.


California Baptist University believes each person has been created for a purpose. CBU strives to help students understand and engage this purpose by providing a Christ-centered educational experience that integrates academics with spiritual and social development opportunities. The online division combines these tenets with innovative technologies and course design to create an effective and engaging virtual learning environment so that graduates can live their purpose in the workplace and in the world.



* Dr. Torria Davis, Instructional Designer for OPS, California Baptist University.

* Dr. Tran Hong, Associate Vice President of Technology, California Baptist University.


* AFP Kyle Grillot.

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