Virtual Classroom: Tips for Learner Engagement
May 27, 2013 by Bill Rosenthal

I've written before about the process of establishing a learner community in the virtual classroom. That is one issue among many you encounter when you shift from face-to-face learning to virtual classroom learning. In this post, I want to discuss how to keep learners engaged throughout the training session in the virtual classroom.

When you’re teaching in person, you have many cues that allow you to create a group conversation. You see when people aren’t listening, you can hear when they are talking over each other, and you can take steps to minimize those problems. Your virtual classroom, based on web conferencing tools, lacks those cues. Some systems even permit only “simplex” communication that allows a single audio feed to be active at a time. People may be talking at the same time without even knowing it.

When thinking about these obstacle, it’s important to ask the right question. You don’t necessarily need to simply recreate what you’ve always done. When making the shift to the virtual classroom, the question is not necessarily "How do I create a group conversation?" The question is "How do I keep learners engaged?"

In your virtual classroom, you can facilitate discussion by addressing the next person to speak by name. Some systems provide an animated speaker icon that shows whose audio is currently active. When your class is using such a system, remind learners to get into the habit of glancing at the icon as they are talking to verify that they indeed have the floor.

Use questioning and polling tools to keep learners responding and to sidestep the problem of multiple people speaking at once or one person’s audio feed blocking that of another. Your virtual classroom may inhibit group conversation. That doesn’t mean it has to inhibit learner engagement. Do what you’ve always done: look at the tools you have at your disposal and figure out how you can use them to keep the learners active, responding, and learning.