Like most online interaction there has to a purpose for a user to do stuff online. People don’t do things online, just because it’s there. I’m doing an online course at the moment, because it chimed with a developing learning objective in my own work – digital data manipulation and visualisation. I could have read a book about it, but really the topic needs an online approach, because it’s all about online stuff. I also find that ‘doing a course’ (in this case an OU Futurelearn MOOC) reinforces the decision to do it – for me, it’s harder to let it slip if it’s a course than if it’s just some reading.
I’m also researching WW2 land combat doctrine. This can be done through books and articles, some available online, some not. There’s so much material that most of my activity is offline reading. I have little incentive (yet) to engage in a massive amount of online activity.
I suspect that it’s a trap to say “I want to engage with students online”. This is potentially confusing the objective with the means to achieve it. It might be better to start with “I want to engage with students”. Then you can investigate the purpose and nature of that engagement. Once you’ve got a handle on those, you can address the methods – the precise means of online engagement then flows from the purpose and nature of the student engagement.
I should probably stress that I’m not an academic or educator in any formal sense. I’ve done a bit of mentoring around board game design, and I’ve found that in that area online engagement forms a natural component. We speak on Skype regularly, and communicate via email regularly, because those are convenient forms of communication for those concerned. However, this is not to the exclusion of other methods of engagement. For example, we have regular face-to-face ‘game design days’ with a larger group of designers and the folks I’m mentoring participate fully in those days.
Maybe ‘online engagement’ per se is perceived to be more important for some types of formal learning nowadays? My own view is that online should be used as a mechanic where it’s appropriate. Don’t force it!