HETL Global Communities

Reaching Out to Struggling Online Students with Web 2.0 Technology

September 30, 2013 in Volume 3

HETL Note: We are pleased to present this feature article titled: “Reaching Out to Struggling Online Students with Web 2.0 Technology“. This well researched article lets the reader understand better the issues related to lack of learner engagement and motivation and shows how the use of social media in the online classroom may help struggling students develop a sense of belonging and fulfillment. It provides a useful starting point for those who are planning to include of Web 2.0 technologies in teaching and learning – in online, or even in traditional class settings. You may submit your own article on the topic or you may submit a “letter to the editor” of less than 500 words (see the Submissions page on this portal for submission requirements).

ShaunCurranPhotoAuthor Bio: Shaun D. Curran began writing stories at a very early age, and by fourteen he was regularly writing science-fiction stories, some of which were published in his high school and college newspapers. His hearing loss made it ideal for him to attend online classes at the University of Massachusetts at Boston while majoring in English. Upon graduating with his B.A. in English in 2003, he attended National University online and graduated with his M.A. in English in 2006. He began teaching at Quincy College in January of 2010, and by September he was teaching online classes at Quincy and Liberty University. He is currently enrolled in the Doctoral program for Adult Education Leadership at Jones International University. Attending online doctoral classes, Shaun developed a passion and love for online learning theory and intervention. After graduation, he plans on becoming an online administrator. In addition to writing science-fiction stories, Shaun enjoys playing blues guitar, writing science-fiction stories, bodybuilding, and restoring his antique 1979 Ford F-250. Shaun can be contacted at [email protected]

Reaching Out to Struggling Online Students with Web 2.0 Technology

Shaun D. Curran

Quincy College, U.S.A.



The concern among administrators and instructors regarding isolation and lack of engagement between student and instructor in online courses continues to grow as educational institutions continue to set up online departments and courses. On-campus courses offer advantages in the area of interaction in the form of a face-to-face setting; however, online courses pose challenges: feedback between students and instructors is often left to random emails or comments on assignments. The purpose of this article is to show how Web 2.0 technology can increase interaction in online courses while reducing isolation and engaging struggling students.

Keywords: Social Media, Online Education, Web 2.0, YouTube, Facebook.


In on-campus classes, students can approach instructors after class or during assigned office hours to discuss assignment-related issues, to obtain extra help, or just to converse. The rise of online courses and virtual campuses means students may no longer communicate with instructors as often, if at all. Routinely, interaction exists only in the form of emails or feedback on assignments. Dykman and Davis (2008) insinuate this type of interaction is passive and ineffective; in order to actively engage students and keep them involved in their own education pursuits, educators may want to consider new technologies available to them.

The question of whether technology replaces the student-teacher interaction found in the on-campus classroom is a major discussion among educators and administrators today. Examining student-teacher interaction both in the classroom and through videoconferencing, Umphrey, Wickersham and Sherblom (2008) noted students reported a greater feeling of connectivity with face-to-face teaching as opposed to videoconferencing. Surveyed students indicated that there is a focus on explanation and clarification of concepts in face-to-face interaction, as opposed to simple assignments or activities in the online classroom, and that face-to-face interaction allows for the instructor to offer words of encouragement in real-time, whereas in online classrooms feedback is usually limited to comments on assignments (Diaz & Entonado, 2009).

As online education continues to grow, the need to communicate and interact effectively with students of different backgrounds, learning styles, and varying degrees of familiarity with technology becomes apparent. McCrory and Putnam (2008) found that asynchronous communication found online is radically different from communication in the classroom. There has been limited success in engaging online students in a similar fashion found in the classroom. This is due in part to the nature of the online learning environment. According to Marin, Martinez, Pecino, Rodriguez and Melero (2011), there is a need for interaction between the instructor and student in the learning environment. They argue that the interactive nature of student-teacher relationships is key, and sets the stage for understanding what students expect from their teachers and vice-versa. When asked to provide their perspectives on what made an effective instructor in the classroom, students ranked both teaching and social ability highest. Students want to know what their instructors’ expectations are, need encouragement and reinforcement, and suggest the student-teacher relationship is an important step in student learning (Marin, et al., 2011). This reveals a difference between campus courses and those taken online. As stated by Umphrey, et al., (2008), students tend to perform better when there is interaction between the instructor and the student.

Many online classes have no face-to-face interaction, and all content, including assessments and feedback, are delivered through an online learning environment (Coldwell, Craig, Paterson and Mustard (2008). Interaction is a critical part of the learning process (Sher, 2009). Sher (2009) stated the gap between the student and instructor can be linked well through technology by incorporating communication tools that bridge “both physical and time dimensions to bring the faculty and students together as a virtual community” (114). As Dykman and Davis (2008) pointed out, the instructor’s role in the campus classroom is different from that of an online one. They propose a shift away from the instructor’s authoritative role in the classroom to one of a facilitator of online learning. Detailing this shift, Barrett (2010) argued that while many campus instructors may be resistant to modifying teaching strategies, the nature of an online class should encourage instructors to develop course content that facilitates active participation. Kurkela (2011) noted as technology increases online, teacher competence, as well as shifts in teaching paradigms, needs to occur.

While technology may sound like the end all to creating an inclusive learning environment online, research by Peck (2012) shows otherwise; in a study on interaction in an online discussion board, Peck found that international students are most reluctant to become involved with online discussions because of their limited ability to write in English. Sher (2009) also found that lack of familiarity with technology is another barrier to creating an inclusive learning environment online. With respects to the online classroom setting, utilizing more than one form of technology is one suggestion, and creating assignments that place emphasis on developing skills that will be greatly beneficial in the real world is another (Dixson, 2010). This would address concerns about ESL students falling behind that Peck (2012) observed.

The At-Risk Student: Isolation and Interaction

The group that needs to be considered consistently when teaching online courses are students who are struggling to keep up with the course. Citing case studies of violence at colleges across the United States, Hollingsworth, Dunkle and Douce (2009) observed that there is increased demand from the public for school officials and student affairs offices to detect and address disturbed or at-risk students. Many of these demands are contradictory at best and time consuming at worst. School officials and student affairs offices have limited engagement with students who attend college campuses. These departments are frequently understaffed and yet charged with dealing with the entire student population, which can be upwards of over fifty-thousand students (Hollingsworth et al., 2009).

The term at-risk has multiple meanings. In addition to the growing concern of violence, at-risk can also mean at-risk for dropping out. Singell and Waddell (2010) cited evidence that among at-risk students at the University of Oregon during 2001-2006, the dropout rate remained in the 40% bracket among students with the highest risk. One drawback to Singell and Waddell’s study is they do not focus on the reasons why at-risk students drop out. Crosling, Heagney and Thomas (2009) reported that there are a number of reasons why students fail to progress at higher education institutions and stated that it is rare to find one solitary reason for high student dropout rates. Rather, the reasons are often complex and a mix of the following: financial issues, personal circumstances that can range from domestic violence to a death in the family, poor preparation for college, or poor course match (Crosling, Heagney, & Thomas, 2009; Juneau, 2010; Lee & Choi, 2010).

A similar problem with student retention is found in online courses. Lee and Choi (2010) cited reports by the Sloan Foundation that despite a 12% increase in online course enrollment in 2008, dropout rates remain high. Well over half of student withdrawals from online classes are attributed to student concerns, which include psychological attributes and skills relevant to the course, as opposed to issues with the online learning environment or course format (Lee & Choi, 2010). While students, counselors, administrators, and student affairs personnel have the opportunity to reach out to each other to address concerns of at-risk students, Juneau (2010) warned that at-risk students who enroll in online classes at home are at a disadvantage when it comes to these services. Warning signs of troubled students on campus can sometimes manifest in terms of behavior or attitude. In contrast, students who take online classes typically show warning signs only when their coursework falters.

Students who are considering online classes frequently wonder if they can perform as well online as they might in a traditional classroom and whether they will be able to interact with their classmates and instructors effectively (Mohamed, Hassan, & Spencer, 2011). Despite concerns raised by Bolliger and Halupa (2010) regarding isolation causing anxiety among students and this being the primary reason for students dropping out of online classes, students appear to understand the risks of isolation in these classes and find the advantages of online learning to outweigh the risks (Mohamed et al, 2011). The aforementioned study suggests that administrators of online departments need to understand student fears and concerns and address these issues before students enroll in online classrooms to reduce these concerns (Mohamed et al. 2011).

Despite concerns raised by Bolliger and Halupa (2012) regarding isolation causing anxiety among students and resulting in their dropping out of online classes, students appear to understand the risks of isolation in these classes and find the advantages of online learning to outweigh the risks (Mohamed, Hassan, & Spencer, 2011). Mohamed, et al., (2011) found that students who are considering online classes frequently wonder if they can perform as well online as they might in a traditional classroom, as well as whether they will be able to interact with their classmates and instructors effectively. Mohamed’s study found that administrators of online departments need to understand student fears and concerns and address these before students enroll in online classrooms to reduce these concerns.

If administrators are serious about addressing the problem of student retention in online classrooms, a conscientious effort at student retention involves reaching out to both non-risk and at-risk students by offering programs to help these students remain motivated and focused on their goals. Often, institutions are not meeting the needs of their online students who are unprepared for online learning, and it has been suggested that a comprehensive online orientation class may be effective at introducing students to new technologies (Jones, 2013). Students in online classes need to understand the technology they will be using. However, short online tutorials that help students understand the technology being used may be more effective than a class that focuses on orientation (Sargent, Borthick, & Lederberg, 2011).

Social Media in the Online Classroom

Web 2.0 is widely considered an engaging and interactive way in which individuals can use the Internet to create, collaborate, and interact with people from all over the world; this feature is in contrast to Web 1.0, where users could only read text or view graphics on the computer screen (Peck, 2012). The most easily recognizable forms of Web 2.0 technology are social media sites like Facebook and YouTube (Chenail, 2011; Fodeman & Monroe, 2009). These two sites, however, are only a small fraction of Web 2.0 technology, which includes blogging, wikis, RSS feeds, and photo sharing sites. Instead of focusing on mere content, as was the case in Web 1.0, Web 2.0 is clearly focused on the user. This user-centered focus is, as Dohn (2009) states, precisely why educational settings are finding more and more ways to incorporate Web 2.0 into learning settings. Students are increasingly more engaged in a world where they can participate and collaborate on projects.

Web 2.0 Technologies

It is observed that not all Web 2.0 technologies are effective at engaging students. An example of this was documented by Bolliger (2010) who found students struggled with ePortfolio, a type of online application designed to showcase art students’ work. Bolliger (2010) cited inexperience of using ePortfolio-type programs as the major cause for why students were frustrated. While Bolliger (2010) focused only on the technology aspect for why students struggled, there is also the possibility that some students would have rather showcased their work offline. These students who used ePortfolio were not alone. There is a great deal of apprehension regarding the acceptance of technology amongst both educators and students alike (Gibson, Harris, & Colaric, 2008) possibly due to the complexity of both computer programs and learning management systems (LMS) as complex LMS have a higher learning curve than less complex ones. In addition, not all higher education institutions utilize the same LMS. As a result, activities or assignments available on Blackboard may not be offered on Moodle.

What aspects of Web 2.0 technology are best suited for instructors of the online classroom? Arulchelvan (2011) examined the concept of online forums; explored previously by Bolliger (2010) is the idea of ePortfolio; Collins (2010) identified blogs, Facebook, and Twitter as teaching tools. Part (2010) examined the usefulness of wikis as a tool for online students. Chenail (2011) and Young (2008) found YouTube to be an effective teaching tool. The most widely used Web 2.0 social media technologies that students may be familiar with are social media sites like Facebook and YouTube. Research by Gerlich, Browning and Westermann (2010) found that the very nature of social media enables instructors and students to communicate through a “medium nearly on par with face-to-face interaction” (p. 39). The availability of new technologies means that instructors of online classes have more tools at their disposal to reach out to struggling students.

Facebook as a Teaching Tool

Cain (2011) stated Facebook can be used as an informal learning environment to further discussion of topics not normally covered in the online classroom. However, the author does not explore Facebook’s use as a forum, a way in which instructors can have students post assignments or questions to generate discussion and highlight aspects of the assigned text, as Dyrud (2012) does in her analysis of Twitter. Yet using Facebook solely as a forum only touches the tip of the iceberg with regards to its potential. Instructors can send notices of concern through Facebook, encouraging struggling or absent students to reengage or remain involved in the classroom. This option is only available if the instructor has already been using Facebook in the online classroom.

One question that arises from this potential use of Facebook to aid struggling students is how this method of contact is more distinct and effective than a simple email. Students registering for classes often use their college email to receive notices from the instructor and the college. Accessing this email means logging in and checking the individual emails being sent. This is passive, as students who perceive they are performing poorly may withdraw from all contact from the instructor entirely. Since many students are online either on Facebook or Twitter throughout the day, sending a notice of concern through Facebook’s message system allows for the engagement of the student in real-time. The student may be able to spend a minute or two replying to the instructor, perhaps explaining why he or she has been struggling or absent in the online classroom. From there, the instructor may open up dialogue and offer help. One of the major drawbacks to this approach are time constraints. This method of reaching out to students is time consuming, but it may result with the student reengaging in the classroom. The amount of time instructors can spend engaging with students online can be just as limited as that in the classroom, depending on the number of students.

One issue with using Facebook that needs to be addressed is the concern of privacy. In today’s digital age, an assumption that must be made is that when something is posted online, it is there forever. One of the ways around this concern is the use of Facebook groups. Groups can be created in Facebook with settings that allow only those students within the group the ability to read each other’s posts. If an instructor desires to do this, it is a wise idea to use the Facebook discussion group as a place for open discussion with the understanding that once the class is finished, the group will be deleted. It is also wise for the instructor to ensure that assignments posted in the Facebook groups do not reveal personal information that students do not want publicly available.

YouTube as a Visual Teaching Tool

While Everhart (2009) noted the interactive nature of YouTube videos as a stimulating way to educate students, he does not go far enough in exploring its capabilities. By creating videos that highlight aspects of the material they are teaching, coupled with visuals and examples to reach out to various types of learners, instructors can now create an environment that closely matches the on-campus classroom experience (Young, 2008). Videos can be basic, highlight only a few points through a webcam, or can be elaborately constructed through the use of editing software designed to keep students engaged in the information being presented.

As an engagement tool, YouTube has tremendous potential. While tailoring individual notices of concern for students on Facebook is possible, doing the same using YouTube is impractical. A more effective approach is to highlight important points various students have made in their assignments or in the discussion board within each video presented. Many instructors utilize a weekly preview announcement to highlight the week’s learning activities, as well as a weekly summary to review some of the key points learned. Through these announcements, students can learn different concepts that will be covered during the week, and can learn of any concerns their classmates have presented during the week’s activities.

Tying Social Media and Interaction Together

By using Web 2.0 technologies like web conferencing, Facebook, and YouTube videos, coupled with submitting weekly notices of concern and encouragement to students who are not submitting work or struggling, instructors can do their part to reduce isolation in the online classroom as well as create a dynamic environment where students feel included and are actively engaged. By engaging students throughout the semester, instructors may be able to reduce institutional reasons for why students drop out. While personal circumstances may prevent some students from finishing their coursework, using social media to reach out to these students may help encourage them to get back on track to finish their classes by showing them that their instructors do care. As Tunks (2012) argued, the focus of the online classroom is to create a community. If instructors embrace this belief, their focus will shift to building relationships with students.

Instructors of online classrooms may already be very busy creating assignments and answering emails. There are a number of things that instructors can do with little time available that could make the online classroom more active and engaging for students:

  • Create short YouTube clips that highlight important points that are covered in the textbooks that students might have difficulty understanding.
  • Send links to students of videos that illustrate in detail complex topics that may need more time to understand. An example of this would be APA or MLA formatting. Many students need additional reinforcement to understand how and when to use in-text citations.
  • Create a discussion board on Facebook. Using Facebook’s groups and inviting members of the class into the group could help facilitate discussion among both the instructor and the students.
  • Send weekly announcements by creating a YouTube video or a blog highlighting the week’s learning objectives, assignments, and readings.

This helps students understand that the instructor is involved and wants to remind students what is due.


Discussed here are reasons for utilizing social media and Web 2.0 in the online classroom. It must be emphasized that while Facebook and YouTube are highlighted, instructors should use those modalities that fit their teaching style and curriculum best. Likewise, there is such a thing as using too much technology in the online classrooms. As explored by Bolliger (2010), the existence of Web 2.0 technologies does not mean students will embrace or understand them. Instructors should always use discretion and common sense when selecting technologies for use with their students, as the learning curve can be high.

Using Facebook and YouTube, or any other Web 2.0 technology as a teaching tool is only one aspect of its potential. By addressing problems highlighted by Sher (2009) and Juneau (2010) regarding isolation in online classrooms, instructors can use Web 2.0 technologies to focus on effectively engaging students by going above and beyond textbook or college-wide policies on reaching out to struggling students. Instructors need to be aware that there are numerous reasons why some students do not perform well in online classrooms, and attempt to address these issues to bring them back into the online classroom.


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This feature article was accepted for publication in the International HETL Review (IHR) after a double-blind peer review involving five independent members of the IHR Board of Reviewers and three revision cycles. Accepting editor: Dr. Charlynn Miller (University of Ballarat , Australia), member of the IHR Board of Editors.

Suggested Citation

Curran, S. D. (2013). Reaching out to struggling online students with Web 2.0 technology. International HETL Review, Volume 3, Article 9. https://www.hetl.org/feature-articles/reaching-out-to-struggling-online-students-with-web-2-0-technology

Copyright © (2013) Shaun D. Curran.

The author asserts their right to be named as the sole author of this article and to be granted copyright privileges related to the article without infringing on any third party’s rights including copyright. The author assigns to HETL Portal and to educational non-profit institutions a non-exclusive license to use this article for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author also grants a non-exclusive license to HETL Portal to publish this article in full on the World Wide Web (prime sites and mirrors) and in electronic and/or printed form within the HETL Review. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and as such do not necessarily represent the position(s) of other professionals or any institution.

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