4 Ways to Engage Virtual Learners

Considerable digital ink has been devoted to assisting classroom teachers and face-to-face trainers with the transition to virtual instruction. Often overlooked are the adjustments that learners also must make to their changed learning environment. Simply put, learners interact with both the learning material and the instructor differently in a virtual classroom than they would in an in-person learning opportunity. That means that learners — and instructors — will need to do things differently to encourage and facilitate engagement. Veteran facilitators and virtual instructors make these four suggestions.

1. Talking heads are dull

Woman looking at her laptop screen that is displaying a webinar or virtual call. Four people's heads are being displayed on the screen.

In person, instructors tend to move around, gesture, call on people — they rarely stand still and talk for minutes (or hours) on end. But when they move online, many instructors simply lecture. The learners see either a fairly static talking head or a slide deck.

This is dull, not engaging.

As Donald Taylor writes in How to Be a Webinar Master, “Our eyes follow motion.”

Learners will simply tune out much of the lecture if it’s not presented in a more engaging manner. This is not a suggestion to use all those built-in animation features to fly each line of text in using a different approach, though. “Making your text appear in a fancy way does not add value to your presentation; showing a flow of movement through a process diagram does,” Taylor advises.

In addition to using process or flow diagrams, think of ways that your content naturally suggests ways to add motion. For a discussion of how to do something, consider using a video; when asking for learners’ input, generate a mind map or word cloud on the fly.

Above all, when presenting virtually, change slides frequently, minimize the amount of time an instructor’s talking head appears on screen, and include frequent activities, such as poll questions or open-ended questions that learners answer using chat, to break up the presentation.

2. Q&A takes longer

Simply responding to a question becomes more complicated for learners in a virtual classroom. In person, an instructor can call on someone or choose from a flock of raised hands. While most virtual classrooms have an icon to approximate a raised hand, in many virtual classrooms, the learners’ mics are muted to reduce background noise and distractions or due to bandwidth issues. Calling on a learner requires the instructor to activate that learner’s mic. Alternatively, one or more learners can respond to a question using the chat function, which generally slows things down a bit, as the student types an answer.

This commonplace activity thus becomes a technical and logistical challenge when compared with the ease of asking questions in a physical classroom.

Rather than dispense with this essential engagement, instructors need to plan for it. Allow more time than usual for question-and-answer interactions, and consider using chat or a shared white board to enable learners to respond. Savvy instructors toss out an open-ended question, give the learners 1 minute to respond, and use that brief break to sip water and check for incoming questions from students.

3. Build a rapport by engaging learners

Wooden cubes with an icon representing a person on each. They rest on a teal blue background and all cubes are connected to each other with white lines, forming a network.

Building rapport via virtual classroom was challenging enough with students teachers already knew, as many classroom instructors discovered in the early days of virtual schooling in the spring of 2020. When faced with a screenful of strangers, creating a safe learning space and fostering open exchanges of ideas is even harder, as those teachers are discovering with new cohorts of learners in the fall.

Corporate trainers accustomed to meeting their learners in person are similarly adjusting to teaching virtually, with learners they may never meet face-to-face.

Added to the “roomful” of strangers is the problem of learners’ environment: In a physical classroom, the instructor can reduce or eliminate distractions. But instructors have no control over virtual learners’ environment. If learners are in a busy office or at home with a spouse, children, and pets, distractions are a given.

In How to Be a Webinar Master, Donald Taylor observes, “No matter how much they might want to, your audience won’t listen to you as closely online as they would in person.” Virtual learners will read everything on your screen, he contends, so “If you have any crucial instructions you need them to follow — then present it in writing. This is particularly important for questions: relying on your audience to catch a question you ask on the fly means a proportion of them will miss it.”

And allow sufficient time for them to respond using chat.

In addition, instructors may want to strongly encourage learners to reduce distractions, use a headset, and practice using interactive tools like chat and white boards. Opening a session with an icebreaker, even something as basic as asking learners to share where they are located or what they hope to get out of the class, can start building rapport and foster a sense of community among learners.

Keep the momentum going with frequent interactions. Some virtual training experts suggest doing something interactive every 4 minutes. That might mean asking a poll question or open-ended question, asking learners to write on a shared white board, or using more sophisticated virtual classroom tools like breakout rooms to have learners chat or collaborate on a small project.

4. Integrate multiple types of learning

Teaching in a virtual classroom is only one way to reach learners. Integrating these sessions with online training in other formats can also improve outcomes and encourage learners to be more engaged with the sessions.

One approach is to use microlearning or short eLearning courses to cover or review concepts and terms used during virtual classroom sessions. Another option is setting up discussion boards for learners to interact — and even respond to prompts the instructor provides — between virtual sessions.

This extends learning as well as deepening the sense of belonging to a learner community.

Your SmarterU LMS integrates all of your online training

The SmarterU LMS integrates with several virtual classroom platforms as well as facilitating use of social and collaboration platforms, OttoLearn Agile Microlearning, and SCORM- or xAPI-compliant eLearning. Find out more about how to use your SmarterU LMS to extend learning and engage virtual learners.

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