How to Embrace the New Frontier of Engaging Students Virtually

You are a trailblazer. Engaging students and helping them thrive in a virtual environment opens unique education possibilities. Change is rarely comfortable, though. You have probably experienced several pitfalls of teaching remotely.

Achieving 100% engagement when teaching virtually requires more work, more creativity, and more robust technological tools. Your time and effort improve learning for current and future students. This generation of pioneering teachers stands on the shoulders of previous pioneers in United States education.

On October 4, 1957, Americans heard a beep-beep sound on the radio that came from Sputnik in outer space. The NBC radio announcer said, “Listen now for the sound that forevermore separates the old from the new.” This event inspired prioritizing math and science for all students. The emphasis opened the doors for incredible advances in technology.

On January 1, 1983, the internet was born. By 2010, most classes routinely used the internet at school. Access to abundant information changed the way students interacted with content. The internet proved invaluable on March 17, 2020, when COVID-19 forced teachers to deliver instruction and assignments remotely.

Adapting to virtual learning environments propelled current teachers to use technology to engage students in learning. Like the preceding changes, it is a process that takes considerable time and effort.

The Basics of Engagement

The underlying components for engagement are the same for teaching face-to-face and virtually. You can find hundreds, if not thousands, of books written about student engagement. Below is a highly condensed review.

Students engage behaviorally, cognitively, and emotionally. Behavioral engagement is also called participation. Cognitive engagement refers to the amount and quality of student thinking. Teachers see cognitive engagement with the quality of questions, connections, and analyses that students make. Emotional engagement refers to how students feel. An emotionally engaged student will feel curious and excited, whereas an emotionally disengaged student will feel bored and frustrated.

You can usually read emotional engagement by body language, facial expressions, voice tone. Emotional engagement is the hardest for teachers to know in a virtual environment because you often do not see the students’ faces and body language. Quick emotional check-ins are crucial for gauging emotional engagement.

The three types of engagement are intertwined, so raising one kind of engagement often raises the other two. We discussed this relationship in the blog Three Steps to Emotionally Support Students to Promote Academic Success. Use these four guidelines to foster engagement.

  1. Nurture positive relationships.
  2. Provide meaningful, interesting instruction at the correct level.
  3. Give students a voice in their learning.
  4. Stretch students to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills.

Many teachers incentivize participation with bonus points, treats, and free time. Extrinsic motivation is an effective starting place and often yields fast results. If you offer incentives, ensure that you are also building intrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated students surpass extrinsically motivated students in most measurements of engagement.

Infusing the Basics of Engagement into Virtual Learning

Many teachers say that whatever strategies you do for engagement for face-to-face learning, you should amplify for virtual engagement. If you typically praise three times more than you give constructive feedback, increase the ratio to six to one. Instead of devoting three minutes per day for connecting with students, try devoting 10 minutes per day.

Try some of these ideas to nurture positive relationships:

  • Provide time for show and tell – even high schoolers like sharing parts of their lives with peers.
  • Send a handwritten, personalized card to students’ homes.
  • Reserve some class time for informal conversations.
  • Bolster communication with safe social media.
  • Start class with an interactive whole group icebreaker activity, such as 21 questions and “Would you rather …?”
  • Use students’ names often.
  • Communicate with students’ families regularly.

Try some of these ideas to provide meaningful, interesting instruction at the correct level:

  • Include activities that feel like a game.
  • Connect content with student interests.
  • Incorporate music, drama, and art into transitions and lessons.
  • Use pre-tests and leveled content to set students up for success.
  • Wait fifteen seconds before calling on a student to allow everyone an opportunity to think and process.
  • Relate the content to the “real world.”
  • Assess students frequently to make data-driven instructional decisions.

Try some of these ideas to give students a voice in their learning:

  • Allow for multiple modalities of participation and responding. Some students may write on a digital board, and others may submit a video response. For simple replies, emojis are popular.
  • Embed choice into assignments for books they read, writing topics, and project ideas.
  • Set up expectations that honor the students’ personal preferences.

Try some of these ideas to stretch students to use higher-order thinking skills:

  • Employ the Socratic method.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Use fishbowl activities.
  • Include activities using categorizing, annotating, writing, and discussing.

Apply EdTech Tools to Enable Virtual Engagement

EdTech tools are a game-changer for adapting engagement strategies to a virtual environment. Some of the tools are so helpful that teachers use them when teaching face-to-face as well. One challenge with applying EdTech tools is that there are so many amazing ones, and each one has a learning curve.

The abundance leaves many teachers feeling paralyzed by choice fatigue. Start by choosing one or two tools. Each tool has slightly different features that affect how well it will meet your needs. If your students have multiple teachers, agree as a team on using the same tools. Expecting students to navigate ten different tools is not fair to them. Below are some teacher favorites.

Digital whiteboards enhance sharing and communication among students. Popular ones include Nearpod, Padlet, Jamboard, Pear Deck, and FlipGrid. To turn an activity into a game, try Kahoot, Quizizz, Socrative, Gimkit, or Quizlet Live.

Two of the most popular EdTech tools are Nearpod and Pear Deck, which offer free and premium versions. Both integrate well with Google Slides and other software, have pre-made lesson content, interactive video capabilities, collaborative features, timers, and more. Their differences lie in what is included in the free versions, setting controls, and bonus features. Pear Deck has interactive flashcards, and Nearpod has better drawing capabilities.

To explore your options without signing up for a bunch of accounts, check out Sam Kary’s New EdTech Classroom on YouTube. He explains tools clearly and concisely.

Welcoming New Tools for Future Success

The potential for teaching anyone anywhere is exciting. Even when most students return to face-to-face learning, the educational shift will reach far into the future. At Harris Education Solutions, we provide software to help educators and students thrive in various learning environments.

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