Say what you will about the virtual classroom (meaning the use of teleconferencing software to deliver instruction online instead of in the classroom). It is cheaper to deliver instruction that way and it comes with benefits that offset the inconveniences imposed by travel and time zone differences. With attention to design and delivery details, synchronous eLearning and real-time human interaction will improve learner engagement many times over.
What does it mean for a learner to be engaged?
Experts who are masters of synchronous delivery, including Jennifer Hofmann, Karen Hyder, and Cindy Huggett, suggest many ways to ensure engagement of learners in the virtual environment. The key to engagement is to remember that it involves the learner’s whole person. As the presenter, your job is not to broadcast content. It is to facilitate learning so that persons in the session are active, not passive, participants. Participants must be engaged:
The more comfortable participants are in the virtual environment and the better they are supported, the more they will be engaged.
There are four fundamentals that make an effective virtual classroom possible, and none of these have as much to do with technology as they do with your work as the facilitator. I call them the “Four P’s”:
Pilot your presentation so that you know it works, so that you know where any possible problems are, and so that you know how to troubleshoot technical glitches.
Practice your presentation in an online setting with your colleagues; the more relaxed you are during delivery, the more comfortable your participants will be.
Have a Producer who can provide support to participants during sessions.
Prepare your participants with pre-work, including any advance organizers or asynchronous eLearning and related apps. In addition, consider providing a way for participants to upload contact information and personal background that they are comfortable sharing with classmates. It is a good idea to provide participants with a Help file or FAQ and log-in instructions that include contact information for tech support.
These fundamentals are the basis for the engagement of the participants.
Engagement in the virtual classroom
Most synchronous eLearning and conferencing software includes multiple support methods for the virtual classroom, including:
- Discussions by voice or text (chat)
- Knowledge checks
- Team presentations
- Team tasks/breakout rooms
- Shared screens
- Virtual whiteboards
- Video conferencing
You can modify the approaches you might take in face-to-face classroom situations in ways that make good use of those features.
Rather than have participants use built-in presentation features with which they are not familiar, it may be simpler to have them use Word and PowerPoint to create and deliver presentations and breakout results. Wikis are another good way for groups to develop and document their team findings and to provide takeaway results.
The only way to know if learners are engaged is to measure the actual learner engagement. While you are familiar with the ways to do this in a classroom setting, measurement in a virtual environment involves a different framework that is beyond the scope of this article.
In a session during the Learning Guild’sMeasurement & Evaluation Online Conference , September 30 to October 1, Jennifer Hofmann and Charles Dye will focus on how to apply and measure various types of engagement in the virtual classroom. Measuring Learning Engagement in the Virtual Classroom will begin with a review of research into learner engagement, including the framework needed to address differences in learner experiences resulting from differences in virtual environments. Jennifer and Charles will look at the significant changes that reflect engagement such as comments made by participants and the development of consensus in group discussion. They will move from developing understanding of what matters in engagement to various approaches that maintain learner engagement and motivation, and then provide you with a toolkit that will help you achieve and measure meaningful engagement in a virtual classroom.