Engaging Students Virtually

As we watch kids participating in distance learning at school over the last several months, it seems most of the content is delivered through lectures. Some classes may have always been conducted that way in classrooms before COVID-19 closed schools, but it seems we have lost some capacity to engage students. Regardless, the modalities used to deliver content to students in schools definitely changed once delivery shifted online.

One reason teachers may favor lectures over more interactive teaching methods when they are teaching virtually is that (unlike in-person classes) students often do not speak up in a virtual environment or enter comments on their screens. There is little interaction, and thus teachers may have decided to take the path of least resistance by not fighting student tendencies of not wanting to engage or be on-screen. Thus lecturing becomes the path of least resistance – tell students what they need to know, make assignments for the next class, and then everyone signs off.  

However, lectures are only one of many ways for people to learn. Children and adults alike prefer a mixture of approaches that incorporate imagery and interaction. Adding a visual component to lecture presentations and classroom materials improves the learning experience. Researchers have found that visual aids in the classroom increase learning by up to 400 percent (  Visual content also helps younger students with lower literacy to better understand text that may be difficult to read. Another study ( stated that applying visual components to online learning helps:

  • Clarify content
  • Enhance vocabulary
  • Motivate students to learn
  • Avoid class dullness

Interacting with teachers, fellow students, and the materials keeps children involved. With a bit of planning, there are means of generating input in a virtual setting to engage students more effectively. A teacher might craft six or eight questions for discussion. Then the teacher could break the class up into subgroups; ask the subgroups to work as teams so every student could contribute. The latter does not infer they would simply go around the circle and they say what they want to contribute. Instead, classmates could access a digital collaboration platform and add their own individual content to the group’s work.

For example, a teacher could pose a question like this in a history class: “What are the checks and balances of the US federal government?” The normal approach is for the teacher to pose the question and talk for 45 minutes about the topic. Or the educator starts by asking the class to list checks and balances; get two or three responses, and then begin the lecture. In a virtual environment, the teacher could have each student contribute one example of checks and balances on a digital collaboration platform. Pupils could populate their answers on a digital workspace at the same time. With this type of interaction, we get a lot more engagement than just the teacher writing text or sharing images: the students themselves contribute content.

Using a digital collaboration platform enables varied learning approaches and facilitates a different way of interacting beyond one-directional lectures and the flat interfaces of Zoom, WebEx, and Microsoft Teams. Students can see and talk with their classmates. They can contribute ideas and see their contributions alongside the ideas of others. Now we have moved away from a linear, unidirectional way of distributing information and engaging people. Using a more concurrent, real-time way of collaborating essentially democratizes learning. When everyone participates, everyone’s ideas are seen and shared. 

The best part is that students are no longer sitting passively as it they were watching infomercials. Now they are actually thinking and acting. 

When we have access to the right digital collaboration tools, this approach is not simply wishful thinking. It can become the way virtual every class period is run.

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