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Blog post Part of special issue: Uncharted terrain: Teaching and learning in higher education for times of uncertainty

Flipping the course curriculum: Digital engagement for active learning

Ausma Bernotaite, PhD candidate at Griffith University

Digital engagement has steadily become an important part of an educator’s pedagogic repertoire since universities started offering courses online in the early 2000s. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to be acquainted with tools for online engagement is now particularly pronounced and the universities that have not yet incorporated practices of blended learning are pulling the short straw. As universities were forced to start delivering content online unexpectedly, plummeting student attendance and dropout rates have highlighted the pressing need for the provision of engaging digital classrooms. Online learning can be a challenging experience for students that are used to in-class teaching. Understanding the principles of online teaching and learning can give a head-start to educators moulding their new digital teaching styles and philosophies.

What may be the biggest (and most exciting) challenge of digital classrooms is that switching from in-class teaching to a digital classroom requires a paradigm shift. The core principles of retention, persistence and knowledge acquisition remain pertinent to the learning process, but technology-assisted teaching and learning offers unique benefits. Säljö (2010) suggests that technologies do not simply assist learning, but that they in fact transform the nature of learning. Successfully applied approaches of blended learning have been found to engage the higher-order thinking skills of students (Becker, McCaleb, & Baker, 2015). Indeed, education scientist Redmond (2011) observed instructors as they moved from teaching in a physical classroom to blended and then to fully online classrooms, and concluded that – if provided sufficient time and training resources – educators embraced the paradigm shift in the ways that they designed, delivered and supported online teaching and learning.

‘The core principles of retention, persistence and knowledge acquisition remain pertinent to the learning process, but technology-assisted teaching and learning offers unique benefits. … technologies do not simply assist learning, but they in fact transform the nature of learning.’

Institutions that already offer courses online have been more equipped to support their educators in bringing their teaching and learning online. Some institutions that have largely relied on face-to-face teaching and learning approaches may have found it more challenging to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic without prior preparation. The key research-based principles of engagement in the context of learning are emotional, cognitive, behavioural, social and collaborative (Redmond, Abawi, Brown, Henderson, & Heffernan, 2018). The authors highlight that these five interrelated elements can be treated as a curriculum design tool for instructors. The good news is that these five principles of student engagement are the same for all types of classrooms – physical, blended and fully digital. The element that is different is the tools of engagement used to include those five principles. Active learning design tools for online environments, such as the Active Learning Design Tool (Griffith University, 2020), are essential tools for the design of engaging online content. The foundation of successful online teaching is in designing digital course content with engagement principles in mind and using active learning tools – that is, to prioritise student engagement over learning tools.

Digital engagement requires a paradigm shift in a way of developing new competencies to allow educators to develop parallel online teaching philosophies. Although the need to become a ‘master of all trades’ – proficient both at in-class as well as online engagement – may seem daunting, digital learning is now part of the skill set required to ensure student success, and it is not likely to go away. Institutions must ensure that teaching and learning support teams are ready to accompany their educators departing on the exploration of their own digital teaching styles. In times of uncertainty, teaching is indeed all about supported continuous learning after all.


Becker, M. R., McCaleb, K., & Baker, C. (2015). Paradigm shift toward student engagement in technology mediated courses. In F. M. Nafukho & B. J. Irby (Eds.), Handbook of research on innovative technology integration in higher education (pp. 74–92). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Griffith University. (2020). Active learning design tool. Retrieved from

Redmond, P. (2011, December). From face-to-face teaching to online teaching: Pedagogical transitions. In Proceedings ASCILITE 2011: 28th annual conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education: Changing demands, changing directions (pp. 1050–1060). Hobart, Tasmania, Australia: Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE).

Redmond, P., Abawi, L. A., Brown, A., Henderson, R., & Heffernan, A. (2018). An online engagement framework for higher education. Online Learning22(1), 183–204.

Säljö, R. (2010). Digital tools and challenges to institutional traditions of learning: Technologies, social memory and the performative nature of learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning26(1), 53–64.