Postgraduate Research &
Innovation Symposium (PRIS)

Engagement in online learning – it is time to act

Ms Sarah Blewett is a MSc candidate in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science. Her research is focused on determining student engagement online in order to develop a model for predicting student success.

It is undeniable that we are in a new era of teaching and learning – an era seemingly clouded with uncertainty as well as excitement. Technology for teaching is no longer optional.  If it is not integrated correctly, however, it can lead to disastrous results.

Blewett has a BSc in Computer Science and Information Technology (cum laude) and a BSc Honours in Computer Science (summa cum laude). She is passionate about making an impact in e-learning and has been involved in pioneering work around effective digital-age teaching approaches. Blewett is involved in training schools, universities and businesses to use technology effectively in teaching, as well as to develop engaging online courses.

Her determination developed when she discovered she was one of three female students in her honour’s class. ‘It became a passion of mine not only to make a difference in e-learning, but to inspire more young people, and especially girls, to pursue careers in technology.’

Blewett is inspired by her father, Professor Craig Blewett, who is a leading Educational Technology academic and consultant who has developed pioneering approaches in modern education. Professor Blewett developed the Activated Classroom Teaching (ACT) Model on which most of Sarah’s research has been based. The ACT Model provides a framework of six digital-age pedagogies: Consumption, Curation, Conversation, Correction, Creation and Chaos. ‘I have been blessed to have had the opportunity to play an active role in his on-going journey – a role that ignited my passion for e-learning,’ said Blewett.

Her research goals are to present a reconceptualisation of OSE through a pedagogic lens that aims to stratify engagement based on the pedagogic underpinnings of online activities. It suggests that this reconceptualisation will allow for better predictions of student academic performance. The pedagogies are ordered based on the level of OSE required, with Consumption being the lowest and Chaos the highest. These groupings will allow for a better understanding of effortful engagement and therefore can be used to determine OSE as a whole.

The COVID-19 pandemic catapulted the need for effective online education to centre stage for nearly every higher education institution around the world. One of the key issues facing teachers in online spaces is determining student engagement and activity. The lack of “visibility” online makes it difficult for teachers to gain insight into students’ engagement and respond to potential student issues. Online student engagement (OSE) is vital to the success of online teaching. Numerous studies point to a positive correlation between OSE and academic performance, making it a key element in predicting student success.

There is, however, a lot of confusion around the definition of engagement in online learning.

Blewett has presented at the UKZN e-learning Symposium held in September 2021, where she demonstrated how she has used her research to create effective and engaging online courses at UKZN. She will be participating in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science’s Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium (PRIS 2021).

Education has changed. It is not an unexpected change, as educationalists have been signalling the need for this change for decades. Nonetheless, it is a somewhat traumatic change. ‘New paradigms, new pedagogies and new teaching approaches are required if we are to navigate the change successfully,’ said Blewett. ‘While trepidation is normal, I believe we are living in one of the most exciting times in education’s history. We have the opportunity to be part of defining a new approach to modern education.’

‘I am passionate about making an impact in education and technology and I believe with the correct models and design, blended and online learning can be a university’s biggest asset. This motivates me to continue my research.  It is an exciting time for education worldwide and I hope to use my skills to help universities and schools not only navigate this transition but thrive in this new era of activated online teaching and learning.’

Blewett is also an entrepreneur and has a company that develops websites and Learning Management Systems with a focus particularly on education.

‘As Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” And now we are being called on to reshape this “weapon” in ways which could truly change our world. This is very exciting.’

‘Conferences such as PRIS 2021 give me a platform that I can use both to inspire others and share my research in this important area,’ said Blewett.

Words: Samantha Ngcongo