4 Strategies to Increase Participation in the Virtual Classroom
Participation equals engagement, not mere attendance.
Whether joining a synchronous chat or logging in and working through course material at their own pace, the baseline expectation is that students will be present in some manner for class. But participation implies more than mere presence. Participation means being an active part of the life of the classroom—asking questions, interacting with peers, contributing substantive thoughts during class discussions, and more. To that end, here are four strategies to increase participation in the virtual classroom setting.
1. Build deep, sustained, trusting relationships.
No matter whether you are in a virtual classroom full-time, or part-time as part of a Hybrid Education model, there is always a temptation to get distracted by the technology itself: videoconferencing, discussion tools, learning modules, screencasts, and more. Don’t get distracted from the most important aspect of any classroom—building the strongest relationships possible with your students.
Participation in the virtual classroom will only increase when students feel w4elcomed, accepted, encouraged, and supported as full partners in learning. Consider setting the tone by having students create a post in your learning management system (LMS) in which they talk about who they are and one thing they would most like to learn in the class. Require peers to respond to at least two of their classmates. Provide sample starter comments for the responses, such as: “It’s really cool that you like to…” and “I also want to learn about…” to help students learn to respond to one another in appropriate ways.
Your virtual classroom culture is everything. Base it on strong, trusting relationships, and the groundwork is laid for students to meaningfully participate for the entire year.
2. Create high-interest discussion topics.
Chances are that some of the teachers you remember the most were the ones who always seemed to engage the class in a stimulating, high-level discussion or debate. You can probably remember days when class time seemed to fly by because the back and forth discussion in the class felt so interesting and important. Engaging, organic discussions are still one of the best ways to increase participation in any classroom, but especially in the context of the virtual environment.
Great virtual classroom discussions can occur in a live, synchronous format. For example, the teacher might simply use videoconferencing software linked to the learning management system platform to conduct a live discussion, calling on students as they normally would in an in-person classroom experience. Taking it up a notch, a teacher might introduce a high-interest prompt and let students use a cloud-based tool, such as a document, brainstorming board, or mind-mapping app to get as many thoughts out as possible before engaging the class in a more formal conversation around those thoughts.
Asynchronous discussions require a little more planning and forethought, but can be just as powerful, since they bake in more time for students to think and respond at their own pace. Lay the ground rules early. Set a time and length for both the initial post as well as for responses. Will students cite sources formally or, in a more 21st century-oriented method, hyperlink? Decide when and how often you as the course instructor will interject your own thoughts and questions to stimulate further discussion. Build a classroom culture of respectful discourse in line with your digital citizenship goals.
Whether synchronous or asynchronous, when you use edtech to engage and serve the larger purpose of facilitating the discussion, not just to use technology for technology’s sake, that’s when discussions in the virtual classroom can really take off.
3. Create authentic, project-based learning experiences.
Students are engaged when they demonstrate high levels of both attention and commitment. One of the best ways to engage students and increase their participation in a virtual classroom is to plan great lesson activities and assessments. Authentic, project-based learning (PBL) is a terrific way to do that.
The example I like to cite when discussing the difference between “doing a project” and engaging in true project-based learning is the class project that most of us probably did in middle school: the incredible edible cell, in which the student makes a model of an animal and/or plant cell by using food items. My personal favorite was mini-marshmallows as ribosomes. Delicious! That’s “doing a project”—more of a one-off activity than a comprehensive system. True project-based learning is much more.
In a PBL environment, the student creation of, say, an edible cell, would be rolled into a unit-long project. In the virtual classroom, students might still create and share pictures or video of the creation of the cell via the LMS, but the unit would encompass so much more. For example, students might begin by identifying a problem or current issue in the field of cellular biology. Students could then research cell structure and build a model of a cell, interview a cellular biologist, infectious disease expert, or another knowledgeable person in a field related to their issue or problem, or take part in any number of activities that help them inform their overall research. This adds way more depth to the project than a single activity provides.
A key component of any PBL experience is a presentation of the results open to the public. This can also be conducted in a virtual setting and be so much more meaningful than just a fun one-off class activity, because students have the leeway to make their own choices about what they learn, how they learn it, and how they will present their results. All of this brings us to a related strategy: Student voice, choice, and student-driven learning.
4. Facilitate student-driven learning.
You have found the holy grail of student engagement when you go from teacher-directed instruction to more student-driven learning. This is particularly important online, when it is tempting to try and control every aspect of some form of computer-mediated instruction. In the virtual classroom, helping students build their intrinsic motivation for course material is critical, and that means the more student voice, choice, and collaboration you can build into the virtual environment, the better.
When you have opportunities to do so, survey students about what they want to learn and what goals for their own learning they would like to set. For example, in an American History or U.S. Government course, if the standard is to learn about how people and groups of people (e.g. political parties and/or interest groups) band together to effect change, that’s a perfect time to ask kids what they want to learn, thus turning it over to student voice and choice.
Students could choose to delve into widely varying social and political movements to satisfy that standard, such as the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century, the work of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers, or the rise of modern conservatism under Ronald Reagan. The possibilities are almost limitless in a scenario like this one, and as long as students come away from the unit able to explain how people and groups of people form factions and work the levels of power and influence to bring about desired results, they will meet the standard.
Virtual Classroom, Real Results
Increasing participation in the virtual classroom is all about building relationships with students and empowering them to learn in ways that engage and inspire them. This may feel harder at first in a virtual environment, but it just requires an investment of time and intentionality to get it right. When students trust you and when they see you trying to involve them in discussions and other learning opportunities that are of high interest and meaning to them, you will see them respond enthusiastically.