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Exploring engagement with online interactivities: An introduction to our project

By Sarah Henderson and Ben Melluish

A recent conversation with a colleague centred around that age-old question of how to get her son to eat his vegetables; a dilemma we are sure many parents will be familiar with. The young man in question (like many of us) was struggling to see the merits of carrots over cake and crisps in spite of promises of being able to see in the dark! No doubt in time he will come around to his parents’ way of thinking.

However, as adults, we are not exempt from that sense of doing things that we think worthwhile and leaving those aside which seem fruitless, regardless of whether that perception is misplaced. So, it is with students, particularly those who are time-poor and need to make important choices about how to juggle study hours with life. We are interested in how students make these choices in relation to the different types of interactive resources they are offered to help them engage with their online course materials. Do they apply their valuable study time to these particular resources? Furthermore, is there a relationship between activities students think most valuable and overall achievement?

More specifically, we are looking at how level 1 students engage with interactive resources when undertaking their first business or law module. The benefit of this is that we will be able to assess whether the value students attach to these resources changes as they settle into a pattern of supported distance learning.

What do we mean by “online interactivities”?

When designing modules for distance learners, the need to engage students actively with the course materials is always foremost in our minds. Whilst level 1 students have the active support of a tutor, attend online tutorials and – at least in pre-pandemic times – day schools; much study time is spent learning independently. Consequently, our online materials are interactive and may consist of, for example:

  • Quizzes and multiple-choice questions with feedback
  • Short answer questions with feedback
  • Tables and diagrams to complete
  • Case studies to consider and apply knowledge
  • Reflective activities
  • Forum activities
  • Research activities with feedback

Engagement with Distance Learning 

On 5th June, responding to an article by Hilliard and Stuart (2019), Dr Ruslan Ramanau considered on this blog the question of whether a high degree of interactivities in a blended learning environment (50%) resulted in less engagement by students than a medium blend (25%-50% activities). He concluded that:

  • More online and less face-to-face contact does not automatically lead to less interaction or interactivity
  • Greater proportion of online activities may lead to a more interactive learning experience
  • Personal interaction and interactivity matter and if embedded into course design may lead to learners holding favourable views of their learning experience

Will our study support these findings?

Research questions and method

We started by identifying all interactivities within the online materials for our introductory level 1 modules for business and law and sorting these by type. Whilst seeking data as to assess the amount of times each activity has been viewed by students, we’ve encountered some initial barriers. Firstly, it has not yet been possible to break down the data sufficiently to show engagement with individual activities embedded within the virtual learning environment. Furthermore, that data itself is rather a blunt tool as we are aware from conversations with students (and, we confess, our own experiences of online learning when time has been short), that there are occasions when students will engage with activities superficially – just viewing feedback rather than actively engaging with the task. Because of this, we will be interviewing students to find out the following:

  • Which categories of online interactivities do students use the most?
  • What value do they place on each type of interactive resource?
  • Does their view of these resources and the time they allocate to engaging with them increase, decrease or remain constant as they settle into studying as a distance learner and receive feedback on their written performance? That is, do they attach any more or less value to interactivities as they become more experienced learners?
  • Do students feel that engaging with interactivities enhances their learning?
  • Do students who attach higher value to these activities achieve more favourable outcomes?

As always, we are mindful of the fact that those students willing to participate in focus groups can tend to be very engaged generally and so, to achieve balance, we aim to engage with students with a varying degree of overall participation.

We hope that this has given a brief introduction to our intended project, the purpose of which is to inform the development of new modules within the faculty. We aim to have some findings to share in the summer of 2021, at which time we will post a follow-up. Watch this space…

This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or the Open University.


  • Ramanau, R, Designing Online Learning for Interactivity, 8 June 2020, (accessed 26 November 2020)
  • Hilliard, L.P. & Stewart, M.K. (2019). Time well spent: Creating a community of inquiry in blended first-year writing courses. Internet and Higher Education, 41(1), 11-24. Elsevier Ltd. Retrieved May 7, 2020 from
Sarah Henderson

Sarah Henderson

Sarah Henderson is the Head of Student Experience – Law – within the Faculty of Business and Law. Sarah is also an Associate Lecture on the undergraduate law programme and currently teaches Constitutional Law, Criminal Law and An Introduction to Law.

Ben Melluish

Ben Melluish

Ben Melluish is a Lecturer and Assistant Head of Student Experience in the Faculty of Business and Law. Ben’s teaching experience covers enterprise, marketing, leadership and change management. Ben has been teaching for more than 10 years at various Higher Education institutions. Ben has also been an international student and has studied in Finland as part of his undergraduate degree.