Teaching in the Virtual Classroom—Is Anybody Out There?

Teaching is such a rewarding experience. I love what I do and I’m passionate about inspiring others to be successful at what they love to do. Anyone who’s attended one of my lectures will tell you my passion is apparent in the classroom. I’m animated! Some might say a tad overzealous, even frenetic at times—my lectures are energized and fun. And I like it that way.

However, with the changing landscape of teaching environments—pressure to keep costs down and the growing demand for more programs—many courses are being moved online and it’s a challenge to keep the same level of energy and enthusiasm in the virtual classroom that characterizes my typical physical classroom.

Anyone who teaches or trains online knows what I’m talking about. It’s lonely! We do our best to ensure the live virtual lecture from the basement, home office, backyard, or boardroom is as exciting as our in-class sessions, but we can’t tell if our students are preparing breakfast, sitting in a coffee shop, or sleeping, which makes it almost impossible to maintain the level of energy required for an optimal learning environment.

When asked what makes online teaching so difficult, most instructors site loneliness as the primary challenge. Toss out a question and the same two students repeatedly offer the only responses. Are the others reluctant, confused, or absent?

Here are five strategies that you can use to keep your live virtual classroom delivery exciting and engaging:

  1. Use the tools in your virtual classroom! Most virtual classroom solutions provide a variety of tools—not only to encourage participation but to add some interactivity to the session. Few are listening after the first 10 minutes of a ‘death by slide show’ online lecture. Mix it up. Use the whiteboard, colouring tools, and polling options that most virtual classroom solutions offer.
  2. Share the stage! Remember in high school when you were asked to write your answer to the homework question on the board? This wasn’t just a way to see if you completed your homework. Students want to see and hear from other students as much as they want to see and hear from the instructor. Many virtual classroom solutions offer the ability to quickly ‘promote’ a student to the ‘front of the virtual room’ by turning on the cameras of one or several students to share their thoughts. This is a great way to bring some energy, variety, and collaboration into the virtual classroom.
  3. Turn the participants’ cameras on. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could see the students’ reactions to your jokes? Or detect whether they’re completely confused by the lesson? Turning the camera on sounds like a simple solution but make sure you have the proper technology in place. Do your homework as some solutions can’t handle the additional bandwidth and the last thing you want to deal with is continuous technical support while you’re delivering your session. It’s important to find a solution that works for your class size, but once you do, seeing your students is a great way to ramp up the energy.
  4. Build in some social learning. Social learning is a standard requirement for most people seeking training and continuing education today. Establish some ‘virtual breakout groups’ or use the collaboration tools in your software. Students enjoy learning from one another in the physical classroom, so why not give them that opportunity in the virtual classroom.
  5. Track engagement. When you’re standing at the front of the room and the front row of students have fallen asleep at their desks, you know you’re losing them. But in a virtual classroom, how could you possibly know when most of the time you can’t see them. If you are not able to turn their cameras on, build in some polling or quizzing to track their listening and engagement.

With more and more learning taking place in the virtual classroom, it’s becoming critical that we as instructors find ways to engage and energize our virtual sessions. Otherwise, we’re doing a disservice—not only to the learners in our virtual classrooms, but to ourselves as teachers.

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