6 Best Practices for Virtual Teaching
Virtual teaching can be a challenge for both educators and students. Here are six expert-backed tips to make it engaging.
You’re working hard to pull together your lessons and ensure that online education isn’t a headache or a hindrance for you or your students.
But here’s the truth: It’s still notoriously tough to keep people engaged in remote learning.
Studies have estimated that only 60% of students are actively engaged in remote education on a regular basis. That means nearly half are zoned out (or worse, absent). Even further, two-thirds of teachers say that their students were less engaged in eLearning, when compared with in-person learning before the pandemic.
6 tips for virtual teaching that engages students
Sure, online education means students can more easily turn off their cameras and tune out the lessons you worked so hard on.
But, you don’t have to settle for black screens, slack jaws, and blank stares. We connected with a couple of education experts to get the lowdown on how to make virtual teaching as engaging as possible.
1. Remember the basics
Before you get into the actual curriculum and lesson planning, remember that all of the typical best practices for video conferencing in general apply in a virtual classroom. These include:
Cleaning up your background to remove distractions (goodbye, laundry baskets)
Checking your technology ahead of time to ensure it’s working properly
Having the resources and information you need prepared and within arm’s reach
Ensuring you have good lighting so your face is visible without any glares or shadows
None of this is rocket science (and it just takes a little bit of time and double-checking), but it lays the foundation for a focused and productive online learning environment.
2. Focus on community
What’s one of the biggest things that’s missing in online education? A sense of community.
“Students note that in the classroom they can make personal connections with like-minded peers who share their scholarly interests,” explains a piece for University Affairs. “This kind of bonding experience is not easily replicated online, as most students rarely converse with each other during and after an online class.”
Fortunately, there are ways you can bake some bonding into your virtual lessons. It all starts with a simple tip: turn your camera on (and encourage students to do the same).
You may have heard that turning off your camera helps combat video call fatigue, and there’s some truth to that. However, video chats allow you and your students to pick up on nonverbal cues. Plus, 70% of people who use video during meetings say they think it increases connectedness between participants.
“The goal is to connect and community-build, so make sure your faces can be seen when you are video conferencing or teaching,” says DeLaina Tonks, PhD, Principal of Mountain Heights Academy, an online public charter school in Utah. “Students prefer their own teachers’ faces to glossy paid actor videos.”
Beyond having everybody show their faces, it’s important to give students a chance to connect more personally – even about topics that aren’t relevant to what you’re teaching. It could be as simple as saving a couple of minutes at the beginning or end of each lesson for friendly chit-chat or even setting up dedicated channels and breakout rooms for socialization.
“We also use Discord as a community-building tool for specific types of curriculum and workshops,” says Mark Fairbanks, Cofounder and Executive Director of Islands of Brilliance, a nonprofit focused on learning programming for neurodiverse students.
“In addition to channels set up for curriculum specific topics, we make sure to set up topics that students gravitate to – music, memes, artwork, etc.” Fairbanks continues. “Learning should be fun, so we go to great lengths to make sure we leverage the advantages a virtual environment provides for shared interests and community wrapped around the learning.”
3. Collaborate with other teachers to ensure consistency
You’re invested in making your course and lessons the best they can be. But, it’s important to remember that most students aren’t just experiencing remote learning with you – they have a number of other courses and teachers they’re involved with.
That’s why collaboration is so important for helping students have a streamlined and cohesive learning experience. When remote students report higher levels of stress than in-classroom students, anything you can do to lighten the load makes a difference.
“Rather than each individual teacher doing their own thing, create consistency of course design/formatting, late work policies, where and how to access course materials, etc.” advises Dr. Tonks. “Otherwise, students expend their cognitive load trying to find everything and understand what they are supposed to do.”
You’d rather have them dedicate their mental energy to your course subjects, discussions, and homework – not the logistics. So, work together to make those pieces as intuitive and accessible as possible.
4. Break up your lessons
It doesn’t matter how energetic and enthusiastic you are – a three-hour lesson where you drone on and click through slides is going to be boring for students.
“Chunk information and activities to create movement, rather than having one big, long lesson,” Dr. Tonks says. Perhaps you’ll cover a subject for 20 minutes then do a related exercise or demonstration.
Dr. Tonks recommends that you also complete “frequent comprehension checks by asking students to raise hands, clap, thumbs up, drop an emoji” and more. Maintaining interaction throughout your lessons (rather than at dedicated times or intervals) will keep students on their toes.
While opportunities for interaction can be helpful, Fairbanks reminds teachers not to overlook the importance of a brief break. Even a five-minute break every half hour is enough for you and your students to rest, recharge, and...you know, use the bathroom without missing something important.
5. Switch up your format
There’s a lot to be said for consistency in online education, but that doesn’t mean every single day needs to rinse and repeat. In fact, trying out different schedules and formats can keep your content and your students feeling fresh.
“Consider flipping your classroom,” says Dr. Tonks. “Have students watch the instruction and try the work on their own. When you meet, answer their questions and review common errors.”
Not only does this prevent your lessons from becoming stale, but it can also lead to more lively and engaging discussions – since students have more time to connect and converse about the material, as opposed to learning it all together.
6. Use tech to your advantage
When it comes to remote education, much of the attention gets placed on the drawbacks and the challenges that need to be overcome. But, there are a lot of perks involved with remote teaching.
Fairbank advises people to make “use of the opportunities that tech affords, such as chat, polls, and opportunities to use collaboration tools.”
You have access to platforms and technology that you might not have in an in-person classroom, so use it to your advantage. And remember, your goal isn’t to flawlessly replicate an in-person environment. Remote learning can be something different – and equally effective.
Virtual teaching doesn’t have to mean glazed eyeballs
If you’ve heard the warnings and alarming statistics about the lack of engagement in remote learning, you aren’t alone. Getting students excited about your course material and keeping them involved in your lessons can feel like an uphill battle.
However, it’s not insurmountable – especially if you implement some of these expert-backed strategies.
As Fairbanks concludes, when done correctly, virtual learning can be even more effective than in-person workshops (which is something he’s experienced with the autistic population they serve at Islands of Brilliance).
“Ease of access, known environment, ownership of technology and tools, multiple channels of communication, and the ability to build community all play into this,” he says. “While we are in the midst of re-integrating in-person experiences, virtual learning will make up the majority of our programming moving forward!”