Easy Ways Educators Can Increase Student Engagement in Virtual Settings

An expert in the mechanics of online learning offers 5 basic tips.

GUEST COLUMN | by Paul W. Richards

When schools closed their physical doors in March, a whole host of challenges ensued. Classes became virtual, and instructor-student relationships changed overnight. Traditional learning and engagement processes that occurred inside classrooms were replaced with more task-oriented activities, uploading assignments and understanding learning management platforms.

Within weeks, many students felt overwhelmed, while others lacked access to critical technologies needed for a fully robust online experience. At the time, none of us fully anticipated what would happen this fall.

‘Virtual learning environments have some limitations, but they can also give educators and students unique opportunities to adopt new technology tools.’

Today, plans for some schools and districts remain fluid, with many operating either hybrid or fully virtual models.

Virtual Lessons

Virtual learning environments have some limitations, but they can also give educators and students unique opportunities to adopt new technology tools. In virtual classrooms, it’s become incumbent upon educators to structure their classes in ways that encourage student participation.

Recently, I attended The Chronicle of Higher Education’s virtual forum, “Structuring a Course So That All Students Participate.” The panelists spoke of some of the challenges they face in their respective institutions. One clear theme emerged: Instructors must learn to build community and connectedness in their online classrooms.

As a technologist, I regularly demonstrate how educators can bridge this gap. Incorporating online technology tools can enhance collaboration between instructors and their students in the K-12 and higher education environments. Dr. Christine Hagedorn, an assistant professor and Business Discipline Coordinator at Rosemont College in Pa., quoted Benjamin Franklin when I asked her how she’s tackling teaching online. She told me that Franklin famously said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Show me, and I learn.”  

Hagedorn, whom I’ve consulted with on this topic since the spring, recommends that educators challenge themselves to create new experiences that can capture students’ attention in ways that fit online environments. She urges educators to set objectives that focus on what students should learn. We agree that at that point, educators can use those objectives as guiding forces to identify specific technologies to create engaging, online lessons.

Some Basic Tips

Before I get started with some specific technology tips, it’s probably safe to assume by now that educators have the most critical pieces of technology in place: the audio and video. It’s essential that students see and hear their instructors clearly, so this step should not be taken for granted. Investing in a webcam and additional microphone makes a big impact on the virtual instruction’s effectiveness. Educators can then gradually introduce new tools for their online students to keep content fresh.

Here are some additional technology tips our team has found to be engaging and easy to implement:

1. Green Screens: With video conferencing taking the place of in-person instruction, educators should consider incorporating green screens. Green screens allow educators to create a variety of backgrounds and scenes, which can follow a lesson theme, show presentations and more, giving teachers the ability to create picture-in-picture scenes that draw students’ attention to specific content. 

2. Annotation Tools in Zoom: With no physical whiteboard, Zoom’s annotation tools can allow students to collaborate and participate in virtual classroom activities. Educators can create worksheets in programs, such as Google Draw, and incorporate them into the Zoom meeting. Students can then co-annotate with each other to brainstorm writing prompts, work through mathematical computations or draw on diagrams.

3. Document Cameras: Document cameras provide another view for students and allow educators to focus in on a specific piece of content. Document cameras take the place of classroom projectors, and they’re easy to use with almost any software that supports webcams.

4. Cell Phones and Tablets as Mobile Diaries: Teachers should encourage students to use their favorite tools: smartphones and tablets. Smartphones and tablets can be used as mobile diaries, where students can journal, record observations and more. As an educational tool, keeping a mobile diary can help students improve their writing and problem-solving skills. Educators may recommend that students type directly into their smartphones or tablets using the onscreen keyboard or use voice commands to jot down ideas.

5. Video Recordings: Ezvid is a video recording tool that is free and available for Windows. With this tool, instructors can easily capture and edit videos within a single interface. Using the program’s screen capture feature is perfect for PowerPoint presentations, video clips, and website browsing. Similar video creation tools exist, such as Panopto and Loom. Always remember that when sharing videos within Zoom, make sure to choose “share with audio.”

For more information and helpful educational technology tips, check out my book “Technology Tools for Online Education,” with its accompanying Udemy course.

Paul Richards, Director of Business Development for HuddleCamHD and PTZOptics, is the author of “Technology Tools for Online Education”. The book and corresponding 4-hour blended learning Udemy course teach education leaders how to connect with students using online communications. As Chief Streaming Officer at StreamGeeks, Paul teaches his audience each week about topics focused on live streaming. Paul also leads a free online Udemy course called “Helping Your Church Live Stream 2.0,” where he has reached more than 35,000 students interested in learning more about live video production and mobile streaming.

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