Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Li, Jun


The landscape of higher education has undergone a transformative shift towards online learning globally since COVID-19. Student engagement in online learning emerges as a pivotal area of inquiry due to its critical role in learning outcomes and academic success. While extensive research has explored student engagement in traditional face-to-face settings, there remains a notable gap in understanding engagement in online learning environments, particularly at the graduate level. Adopting an integrated framework of improvement science and an online student engagement framework, this study examines the engagement experiences of graduate students in a fully online program offered by a Canadian university, utilizing a qualitative case study methodology. Through the lenses of cognitive, emotional, behavioral, collaborative, and social engagement, this study is guided by the holistic analysis of improvement science. Pedagogical, organizational, and socio-structural factors are identified as closely linked to student engagement in online learning. Strategies are proposed to improve interaction, provide personalized support, and cultivate a sense of community, while policy recommendations advocate for learner-centric approaches and quality assurance mechanisms. This study provides a better understanding of online student engagement, offering valuable insights for educators, policymakers, and institutions striving to improve the online learning environment for graduate students in Canada and beyond.

Keywords: student engagement, online learning, higher education, improvement science, case study

Summary for Lay Audience

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities have shifted to online learning. This change has highlighted the need to understand how students engage with online courses, as their engagement is crucial for effective learning and academic success. While there is extensive research on student engagement in traditional classrooms, less is known about how students engage in online settings, especially at the graduate level.

This study examines how graduate students in an online program at a Canadian university experience and engage with their courses. It looks at various aspects of engagement, including how students think and learn, their feelings and motivation, their participation and actions, their collaboration with others, and their social interactions.

Through a survey and interviews, the study finds that several factors influence student engagement in online learning. These factors include the teaching methods used, the organization of the courses, and the social dynamics within the online learning environment. To improve online learning, the study suggests enhancing interactions between students and instructors, providing personalized support for students, and fostering a sense of community among students.

Additionally, the study recommends policies that focus on the needs of students and ensure high-quality online learning experiences. Overall, this research provides valuable insights for educators and universities on how to improve online learning for graduate students in Canada and beyond.