Five Strategies to Make Your Online Sessions More Engaging

Since the spring of 2020, we have all come to know what online learning is. As a result of the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and teaching organizations had to transfer their regular classes from traditional to virtual classrooms. To operate efficiently entirely online, the schools had to adjust all of their activities – not only the teaching and learning process, but also the handling of administrative activities, communication with parents, office hours, etc.

Before the pandemic, some of these activities had already been digitalized and automated due to SIS. Instruction, however, took place for the most part in traditional classrooms. The unexpected and immediate need to switch to online learning during the lockdown forced the teachers to use different and often incompatible tools to replicate their regular activities in an online format. After almost a year in this situation, the need for solutions that unite all face-to-face training elements in one online ecosystem has come to the fore.

Fortunately, such solutions already exist – for example, the integration of Lumen Touch (a comprehensive all-in-one school system) and VEDAMO (a virtual classroom for highly interactive real-time online teaching). The next step is to improve the methodology and practice of online instruction. The virtual classrooms’ students should not be passive receivers of information transmitted via video conferencing and shared screens. A productive and high-quality learning process requires students to be actively involved with their teacher and peers, albeit from a distance. A lesson in the virtual classroom lesson should not be like a TV show hosted by a teacher. Instead, it should provide an environment for teamwork, discussion, self-expression, sharing experiences, practicing new skills, etc. The personal contribution to the interaction is a prerequisite for increased motivation and engagement during online classes.

Here are five strategies that can make your virtual classroom teaching more engaging and effective:

  1. Collaborative activities on the whiteboard:

Тhe virtual classroom session is not and should not be a video lecture. It happens in real time and affords opportunities for active participation and collaboration between the instructor and the participants. Advanced virtual classrooms are equipped with all of the tools needed to apply collaborative learning. This pedagogical approach involves a group of students who work together to achieve a common goal, exchange views, or solve problems. In this type of interaction, the instructor’s role changes significantly – the instructor is not a lecturer but, rather, a moderator and counselor. It is a great way to turn the interaction into a partnership and encourage cooperation in skills development.

The online whiteboard in the virtual classroom is the perfect tool to engage students in collaborative activities. By using the tools for drawing, writing, editing, and presenting content on the online whiteboard, students can work together on many joint activities, such as:

  • Brainstorming
  • Creating mind maps
  • Playing or creating educational games
  • Working on a joint presentation
  • Editing content
  • Making quizzes
  • Discussing and analyzing case studies and much more.
  • Small-group activities in breakout rooms

Small-group activities are a great way to take students out of stressful large-group discussions, which often do not allow each student to participate, reflect on the learning material, and practice the new skills and knowledge. Working in smaller groups creates a more informal and relaxed atmosphere. The instructor’s role is to carefully plan and facilitate the interaction in the smaller group so that each student contributes equally towards achieving the learning outcomes.

The virtual classroom allows the instructor to separate students into breakout rooms and assign small-group activities. Breakout rooms are a separate workspace where students cannot hear or see those outside the group.

For example, suppose the virtual classroom instructor works with a large group of 20 students. In this case, the instructor can divide them into five groups of 4 students, distribute them into separate breakout rooms, and assign each group a specific task for a particular time limit. After completing their assignments, each small group can choose a presenter and report their results back to the whole class. This approach boosts student creativity, communication skills, and teamwork.

  • Flipped classroom approach

The typical scenario in the traditional classroom is that the teacher presents the lesson during class and assigns practical activities for homework. The flipped classroom has the exact opposite logic. The students prepare for the new lesson on their own by using different types of resources created or selected by the teacher – video lectures, presentations, articles, etc. During class, the focus is on practice and discussions under the teacher’s guidance. This approach stimulates more in-depth learning and skill building. This method’s practical application depends on the quality of the materials for self-preparation and the students’ motivation to work independently and prepare for the class. The instructor can trigger the students’ motivation by giving them a particular problem to solve that is related to the new study material.

The flipped classroom method can be successfully applied to online learning, especially when using a Learning Management System (LMS) with a video conferencing virtual classroom. The instructor can upload the materials for self-preparation on the LMS and assign a quick quiz for reading comprehension that students should complete before the virtual classroom session. During the real-time virtual classroom session, the instructor can engage the students in practical activities and discussions. In this way, the students will use the virtual classroom time to build on their skills by applying the new knowledge acquired independently.

  • Student-led activities

When the focus in class is on the instructor and the presented content, students usually remain passive and have little opportunity for collaboration. Student-led activities place the student at the center of the interaction. They aim to engage students in the material by giving them a leading role in the learning process. The students become the teachers – thus, they take ownership of the classroom interaction. In this way, learning becomes more meaningful and collaborative.

The virtual classroom provides the perfect environment for student-led learning. The instructor can easily create opportunities for both independent and collaborative learning. For example, the teacher can assign some of the students to make a presentation, demonstration, or a project on a specific topic. Each student will prepare in advance using available resources and guidance. During the virtual classroom session, the students and the teacher will shift their roles. The students can present part of the new lesson and engage their classmates in games, exercises, or discussions. This approach promotes peer-to-peer learning, improves the students’ presentational skills, and supports the long-term acquisition of new knowledge.

  • Gamification

Gamification is often confused with educational games or game-based learning. Gamification is an approach that applies gaming principles and techniques to the learning process; examples of gamification include collecting points, prizes, badges, etc. Usually, teachers use gamification to solve problems they encounter in their classrooms, such as issues with behavior, concentration, motivation, active participation, etc.

Gamification in the virtual classroom boosts the students’ motivation and helps them identify their strengths and weaknesses. How can the virtual classroom instructor apply it? Here are some ideas:

  • You can use the online whiteboard for weekly rankings. First, identify criteria and indicators to assess the students’ achievements during the week. Then, assign points to each indicator. Present the weekly ranking as a table on a separate whiteboard sheet. Finally, discuss the students’ progress at the end of the last virtual classroom session of the week.
  • When assigning individual work in breakout rooms, you can use an imaginary scenario and determine challenges for the students to overcome while completing their tasks.
  • You can award virtual badges for completing given tasks during the virtual classroom session. You can put images or graphic objects on the whiteboard next to the students’ work.

Gamification makes learning a fun and exciting process. It stimulates the students’ interest in mastering the new knowledge and developing skills.

With the right tools and functionalities, advanced virtual classrooms allow instructors to easily apply these strategies. They can provide significant added value to online learning by addressing student needs, individual characteristics, and preferences. Making students active and responsible participants in their own learning is one of the main factors that is taking virtual classroom instruction to the next level.

About the author:

Dr. Veronica Racheva is an education programme director at the VEDAMO company.

She is also managing various educational and social project at “Proznanie Foundation” Veronica has a PhD in Theory of Education from Sofia University. She also graduated from the Doctoral School at the Institute of Education, University of London and has a specialisation for a Virtual Teacher from the University of California, Irvine. Currently, Veronica is also a lecturer in E-learning at the Sofia University, trainer of teachers, researcher and author of scientific reports.