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Session: Designing for Engagement

Session at the ETUG Fall 2009 Workshop

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Sylvia Currie
9 October 2009

Foundational learning theories recognize that getting and keeping students’ attention during learning activities is critical to effective learning. Yet, little research has been done on how to address this challenge explicitly in design processes, especially when teaching adult learners.

Denise Withers, Learning Design Specialist at the Sauder School of Business (UBC) and retired documentary filmmaker, tackles this tough topic by exploring, then building on, the combined experience of the workshop participants as facilitators of learning, as well as the latest research into engagement. Esther Hsu will assist during the session by creating a live visual overview of the presentation. Together, Denise and the participants will:

  • De-bunk marketing hype about what engagement is – and isn’t.
  • Explore the concept of the “gap” as the essence of engagement.
  • Discover why story is one of the most powerful tools designers have for engaging learners.
  • Try out some of Denise’s practical “10+1” design tips for generating and sustaining learner engagement.

Extra content

An award-winning educator and designer, Denise Withers has 25 years of experience facilitating learning through higher education, corporate training, popular media and community outreach. She combines this practical expertise with a strong academic background that includes a Master of Science investigating engagement design in technology-mediated adult learning, and a Certificate in Adult and Continuing Education.

As a Learning Design Specialist at the Sauder School of Business, Denise works with faculty, students, staff and key stake-holders to enhance learner engagement and learner success through applied activity, curriculum and research design.

Sylvia Currie
20:09 on 9 October 2009

For those with lots of time (and coffee), here's my thesis that came from this research:

You might also enjoy Daniel Pink's latest TED talk on the surprising science of motivation.  Bottom line: external motivators only work in a very small set of situations.

I'll get more content up shortly.


Denise Withers
17:25 on 17 October 2009

Esther Hsu is an assistant at the Learning and Technology Services at Sauder School of Business, UBC with Rob Peregoodoff and Denise Withers. She recently received her BEd. and is new to the world of learning design, engagement, and instructional design technologies.

Sylvia Currie
22:28 on 21 October 2009

Denise's amazing shoes

I wonder how many people have been searching online to buy these shoes! I have!

Sylvia Currie
18:21 on 23 October 2009

Denise Withers
Design guidelines for learner engagement …

  1. Create a gap between what the learner knows and desires to know.
  2. Design evolving challenges that match and stretch the learner’s skills.
  3. Ensure that the activity and information being taught is meaningful to the learner.
  4. Identify clear and achievable goals.
  5. Provide relevant opportunities for experiential learning and practice of new skills and knowledge.
  6. Include interactivity that is dynamic, reciprocal and offers agency to the learner.
  7. Offer the learner significant control over the delivery and execution of the learning experience.
  8. Create a safe environment that includes appropriate support, scaffolding and feedback for the learner.
  9. Include activities that naturally foster collaboration and social interaction.
  10. Eliminate distractions.

Based on Denise Withers’ graduate research thesis:
“Appreciative inquiry: designing for engagement in technology-mediated learning”.

Creative Commons License
Engagement Design Guidelines by Denise Withers, MSc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Canada License.

Denise Withers
14:31 on 25 October 2009

Embedded Content


Gráinne Conole
6:15am 10 October 2009

Sounds like a really interesting session. Engagement is critical. I think we underestimate the affective issues around the learner experience. Some colleagues of mine have done some nice work in this area - will try and dig out the references and add.

Denise Withers
5:29pm 17 October 2009

I'll be running a back channel chat during my session.  Any recommendations - or is anyone else using one?  These are my two favourites so far:


Donna DesBiens
6:05pm 18 October 2009

Hello Denise, Tx for posting your thesis. I had enough time & coffee this Sun am to enjoy reading it. As well as your clear review of the research on engagement, TML & User Centred Design Elements, I appreciate your application of AI to the design process. No pun intended! Your point about AI as a "radically different" design approach vs the typical gap or problem lens is well taken.  I think it's likely that a building on strengths vs correcting weaknesses approach could well create safer working environments important for the SMEs, instructors and other curriculum personnel in HE settings to let go of tech & change fears in course re-design.  After all, we're all adult learners as much as the students in courses. Regards, Donna DesBiens

Denise Withers
10:32pm 18 October 2009

Wow Donna! Thanks for the comments.  This makes you the fourth person in the world to read my thesis (after my committee and my mother ;p)

Yes, building on experienced strengths and successes is proving to be key in the work we're doing at Sauder these days.  The other lesson of which I've been reminded is just how critical it is to follow an explicit design process that addresses engagement (among other things).  Seems that most HE design these days is largely intuitive - with the result being that some curricula are excellent - and some are not. 

I'm looking forward to digging into all this more on Wednesday!

Sylvia Currie
10:19pm 21 October 2009

Live blogging Denise Wither's session

Engagement is in everything you read but little about how to design for engagement.

Used kangaroo shoes as an example. Why are people interested? Why curious? Because you have questions. You want to know why I'm wearing these shoes. As soon as the questions are answered there's no more interest.

What do you think engagement is?

  • curious
  • interest
  • personal connection
  • relevance
  • unexpected
  • flow
  • action based
  • focused
  • excitement
  • belonging
  • anticipation
  • 2-way connection

Engrossed in an activity that you want to CONTINUE. How to sustain the engagement?

Engagement doesn't JUST HAPPEN.

Csikzentmihalyi - did a study with gr 11 students. They carried pagers. Whenever paged they needed to stop and write down exactly what was on their minds. 100% were thinking about things that were not course related.

Technology DOES NOT generage sustained engagement. The only time that happens is when it doesn't work! :-D

Novel technology works, but loses appeal quickly.

Disney study - 3D Alladin Ride - everyone said fun but said they needed to know why they were there. Need a goal.


Sylvia Currie
10:50pm 21 October 2009

Live blogging Denise Wither's session... continued

What do you need to do to make your courses more engaging? We need to make it more interactive. What is it about interactivity that makes us think it's more engaging?

Key aspects of interaction?

  • communication - reciprocal
  • not necesarily about interacting with somebody else - can be other ways

Off the learner control over execution of the learning experience.

Create a safe environment - interesting that this is so important in supporting faculty for trying out new technologies.

Hate being asked to do something but every time I enjoy it and I learn something.


  • Making it fun -- But learning is hard! Teaching is about making something hard easier.
  • How do you make boring courses fun? Look for story solutions. At least will be memorable.
  • What is fun for a western audience might not be fun for a non-western audience.
  • Fun is a bonus. 
  • Appropriate scaffolding is very important.
  • Need to make obvious what the value added is
  • Retention? Engagement doesn't always lead to retention.



Gráinne Conole
3:08pm 25 October 2009

Lol - love the shoes Denise - thanks for a really really great presentation - you have a great presentation style. Are we able to access the mind map you produced - if so can you add a link here? Great to meet you.

Gráinne Conole
5:56pm 25 October 2009

Thanks for the link Denise - have added comapping to the Good examples of using mindmapping in teaching cloud.

Sylvia Currie
6:03pm 25 October 2009

Love the map! Thanks for posting the link, Denise. My Kangoo Jumps should be on order by the end of the day as well!

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