Back in the day, many tutors were skeptical whether online learning could provide the same sort of interaction as an in-person classroom. And in fact, for many years it couldn’t. There wasn’t the right technology and the internet capability. But things have changed a lot since then, and in many ways the internet environment is a great alternative to an in-person classroom.
What is more, there are situations and moments in which online learning is even better. But despite the plethora of choice for internet learning, the abundance of platforms, tools and applications, there is still the valid concern of how to keep your participants engaged in your online classes.
When your students are at home, there are a lot of things happening around them, or even other browser windows opened on their screen, so you will need to compete for their attention and here are some things that you can do to craft your online teaching skills:
Act as a real person having a normal conversation with your students. It is much harder than it seems, especially when we are being recorded, we often behave unnatural and robotic. If this is going to be your first online class and you want to feel more comfortable, why not try it out with your family or friends first. Invite them to your online classroom that you will be using, present them with some information about your hobbies, a movie or a book that you have read recently and practice interacting in more natural ways.
Remember that a typical, natural conversation involves a lot of gesturing, facial expressions and physical cues. If you are a person who gestures a lot, you want to make sure that you are sitting far enough away from the camera, so that your hand gestures can be picked up comfortably. Create some extra space between you and the camera so that you can lean in or lean out, move a little bit and still be fully visible.
Practice speaking a bit more slowly. Take a deep breath if you need to. Students will take their emotional cues from you, so when you slow down a bit, your students will adjust and you will notice that your online session will be much more comfortable and enjoyable for everybody.
Don’t forget to be a little bit silly and laugh a bit. Even though it might feel a little awkward, it is okay to laugh. Things like that bring a little bit of humor and lightheartedness to your online sessions, and when there is laughter and giggles in that always makes things go better and puts everyone at ease.
Get your students on camera
Your students are going to be as reluctant to be on camera as you were when you first started teaching online. You will need to be creative with how you can push your students to be willing to turn on their cameras and speak just as they would in a normal classroom. To help you get started you can use the breakout room feature on your video conferencing app and give students a chance to interact with one another and feel a little bit more at ease being on camera. Create the breakout rooms and put your students there for a few minutes. When you bring them back to the regular session, you will notice that many students that are usually reluctant to be on a camera, now feel much more comfortable and confident to stay in the regular open session.
By taking advantage of the breakout rooms early on in class, you create the connectedness between the students in your room and help them get to know each other better before jumping into the actual online session.
Use frequent check-ins
Once your students are on camera, it is a great idea to use frequent check-ins to keep them in front of their cameras. One of the things you can do is to ask questions that require a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Also, you can use the reaction option on your app to allow students to give you a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Another thing could be using an icebreaker in the form of telling a joke, asking some participants to show what they have on their desks or telling what is behind them on their walls or backgrounds, for example. At any time during the session you can also ask for polls and have students answer your question by clicking the YES or NO button in the participants window.
Go as much visual as you can. This is especially important if you work with elementary school students who require more attention than older students. Besides, just a talking head for the duration of the entire online session would often make the most patient participants bored and dissatisfied. The simplest way would be to get a large dry-erase board and place it next to you so it fits in the camera frame and is easy for everyone to see.
An even better option would be to utilize the screen sharing feature, which most video apps are equipped with, and share your computer screen with content like powerpoint presentations, pdf documents, or even video presentations.
This is a time of great creativity and great problem-solving opportunities. The visual draws your students in and allows them to be more interactive with you and keeps them engaged. The technology is already here, just use your imagination and craft your own style.
Foster connection and engagement
As you and your students get more comfortable on camera, all interactions between you and the participants, and also between the participants themselves are going to naturally build a better sense of engagement and connectedness. If you want to take this connection a step further you can apply a few techniques That you normally use in a standard classroom, for example, group work or cold calling. The group work can be done by utilizing the breakout room option mentioned earlier and using it as frequently as possible. This keeps students involved throughout the class by talking to one another
Cold calling is a great activity to keep students paying attention. You simply call on some of them and ask them a question to answer. Bear in mind that this activity may sometimes be a little more intimidating because your students are suddenly called on to give an answer. Moreover, when this happens, some video conferencing applications focus on the speaker and put them in the center, so that the others can easily see who is speaking. In such a situation you can apply the cold calling with a warning to minimize the feeling of nervousness and anxiety of being in the spotlight. What this means is that you actually tell your students that you are going to cold call them, you also tell them what you are going to cold call them about and give them time to think about it. This gives your students a chance to think about the answer, and most importantly reduces the stress level among your participants.
Use the chat option
The chat window is an amazing feature that is not available in a traditional classroom. Most video conferencing tools have a private chat which allows you to poll your students and get their responses without sharing them broadly in the class.
This feature is also useful with shy and quiet students who would like to ask private questions without feeling embarrassed by having to share them publicly, or maybe they do not want to interrupt the flow of class in order to ask you.
Some students will never get on camera
You have to accept the fact that some students will never get on camera for many reasons. Some may not even have a webcam, and this is something you have to get comfortable with. Hopefully, over the course of a single class, or even several sessions, they will see how much more engaged the other students are being on camera, and this will convince them to get a webcam, or simply, turn the camera on for some of the activities.
All of the tools that you use in your physical classroom, also work online, and in fact you will have a little bit more flexibility in the online space to get your students involved.
So, if you have decided to take on online teaching either by choice, or because of the circumstances demand it, do not panic and use it to your advantage. It may feel a bit awkward at first, but that is normal; you do not immediately feel comfortable the first time you step in front of your students in a physical classroom as well.
Remember that all the tools and techniques that you have been using as a traditional teacher are absolutely transferable into the online environment, and in fact you will even have a few additional tools available online. So as you become comfortable, you also will offer your students a chance to find the same sense of ease and comfort in class.