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Video conferences can be exhausting. You might notice that students who are highly engaged during an in-person session suddenly disengage in a virtual meeting. Often, there are challenges with video lag or simply the inability to see the room entirely. I created the following visual for how you handle video conferences depending on your Hogwarts house. If you haven’t read the Harry Potter series, it might not make sense.

Video conferencing can present huge challenges. Without the built-in, in-person accountability of a classroom and a teacher, it easier to get distracted and fail to attend virtual meetings.

Even when students show up, virtual meetings can feel lonely. It can feel like you’re talking under water, where there’s this delay in communication and a sense of separation between each person. When the microphones are all on mute, you can’t hear any laughter. This is amplified by the sheer number of black screens from students who do not have the video turned on. Sometimes this is an issue of slow wi-fi connectivity. Other times, students are shy or insecure and might not feel comfortable being visible. Still, other times, students might feel embarrassed or ashamed of their home environment. It’s important that we give students flexibility in this area.  

However, virtual class meetings can actually be a blast. I recently attended a highly interactive, dynamic fourth grade class meeting. Students engaged in a Q&A, met in small groups, and interviewed me as an author. They had read a free book I created about a pizza with superpowers. Toward the end, each student participated in an interactive game using Kahoot. Students were highly engaged in the virtual meeting because the teacher had designed the entire experience using interactive elements. In another article, I shared some specific ideas for how to boost attendance and engagement in virtual meetings. In this article, I want to explore specific strategies for improving student interaction in virtual meetings.

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When to Use Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning

Last week, I wrote an article about improving student collaboration. It helps to think strategically about when to use both synchronous and asynchronous learning:

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Synchronous communication happens in real-time, in the moment. Synchronous communication might be a video conference, a webinar, a live chat, or a phone call. It’s essentially any of the type of communication you would do in-person that you are now doing with digital tools. Synchronous communication works well when you are planning for dynamic and interactive learning tasks.As a teacher, you might want to use a virtual conference for guided practice on a discreet skill. Similarly, a music, art, language, or physical education teacher might use a video conference for a quick performance assessment, where they can provide feedback in the moment. Synchronous learning also works well small group brainstorming, planning, and decision-making. With a slightly larger group, virtual learning can help create a sense of community.

Synchronous communication has its limitations, though. The synchronous, interactive nature makes it a challenge when students have unreliable internet or challenging schedules. It also tends to breakdown in effectiveness as groups grow larger. For this reason, virtual learning is not a great method for direct instruction or for processing new information. It’s also less effective in situation where you want to keep a permanent record of communication.

Asynchronous communication does not happen in real-time. Instead, it can happen over a longer period of time. Asynchronous communication might include a prerecorded video, an audio message, or an email. It also includes podcasts, videos, articles, and books. Most online course materials are typically asynchronous because of the ease of ability to read, view, or listen at one’s own pace. In remote learning, instructors will often use asynchronous communication for direct instruction or to introduce new ideas or concepts. Students can easily re-watch a video or pause it take additional notes. In performance-based courses, students can record themselves and compare it to a recording created by the teacher or professor.

Moreover, when students create original content, they typically use asynchronous tools. This might be a sketchnote, a blog post, an infographic, a math problem, a video, or a podcast. However, they might still choose to use synchronous tools for elements of creative work, such as an audio interview with an expert, a synchronous video in solving a problem in engineering, or walkie-talkie app during an experiment. In collaborative work, students will often use asynchronous learning for research, inquiry, and project management but use synchronous tools for problem-solving and brainstorming.

Crafting Interactive Virtual Meetings

As we think about how to maximize the effectiveness of virtual meetings, it helps to ask, “What are the key advantages of synchronous meetings?” In general, this includes dynamic, interactive communication and the ability to create shared experiences together.

This is why virtual meetings don’t work well for direct instruction. If you are planning to introduce a new concept for students, your best bet would be to create an asynchronous video that they can watch and re-watch again. Instead, it works best to have students watch an asynchronous video on their own and then clarify misconceptions and take a deeper dive into the topic in a virtual meeting.

In terms of discussions, virtual meetings don’t work for large class discussions. While it is feasible to have twenty students engaged in a free-flowing Socratic Seminar, the lack of physical space and body language makes these discussions a challenge in a virtual meeting. You’ve probably witnessed the challenge of a slight video lag as each person says, “you first, no you first,” in an ongoing loop. If you’re opting for a discussion, use the breakout room functions and keep it to four or five students, tops.

Virtual meetings don’t tend to work well for class presentations. Often, there are logistical challenges with having students share screens and there are quality issues if a student wants to use an embedded video clip. Instead, have students craft videos that combine annotated / recorded slideshows, live “talking head” videos, clips, and visuals. Students can then watch their classmates slideshows asynchronously and provide feedback on their own. This also allows students to edit and refine their presentation, leading to shorter videos at a higher quality.

A general question to ask yourself is, “Could this video chat be a recorded video instead?” If the answer is “yes,” then a prerecorded video is a better option. In other words, virtual meetings can be dynamic and interactive but they have serious limitations. If you’re doing a class video conference, it should be highly interactive and centered on deeper, free-flowing discussions. It works great when you want to clarify ideas or make decisions together as a group.

Specific Strategies for Boosting Engagement

So, how do we make our virtual meetings more interactive? Here are a few ideas:

  • Do a social / emotional check-in. Begin your class meeting with a quick social emotional check-in to see how students are doing. When the quarantine began, I used the following prompt. Students then shared their band names in the chat feature. Another time, I asked them to sketch a “high/low” for the week and with a quick description. Students then shared their pictures in small groups.
  • Incorporate movement. I know of a third grade teacher that does a daily dance to start their virtual conferences. This not only gets the blood flowing but it also creates a shared experience. Other teachers have a class phrase or mantra or a long-distance high five that they do. These increase participation and build community.
  • Use the Q&A feature. Many video conference platforms have both a chat feature and a Q&A feature. The Q&A feature is a great way to create a “parking lot” where students can ask a question at any time and you, as the instructor, can check it out when the time is right. If your video conferencing software doesn’t include the Q&A feature, simply add it to your LMS or create a Google Form.
  • Use polls. Some video conference platforms include a built-in poll. If that doesn’t work, you can use an online poll and link to it. Polls provide instant feedback and can help with reviewing information, gathering opinions, or doing a low-stakes ice-breaker. For what it’s worth, I’m an introvert, so I don’t enjoy breaking the ice. I’d rather it melt slowly over days or weeks.
  • Allow students to show off their pets. This is a small way to affirm each student’s identity and give them a sense of agency in their learning. If they don’t have a pet, they can share a stuffed animal (preferably a “stuffy” and not a taxidermy animal) or a house plant. I did this with a recent class and a college student held out a cactus that he had named Spike.
  • Use the chat function. It can be hard to navigate a large in-person discussion. However, the chat function can allow students to share their thoughts in real-time. They can also send private chats to other classmates for a pair-share or a quick discussion.
  • Make use of hand-gestures. Find specific hand gestures to get students moving. You might do a “four corners” activity on the screen rather than the room. Here, students place their hand by the corner they agree with and you can provide a slide to mirror the screen. You might also use a Total Physical Response (TPR) for content vocabulary. This can help solidify the knowledge by building an association between a word, a definition, and a movement.
  • Incorporate silence. Video conferences can still have moments for think time or for quick-writes or sketches. Simply add a timer and mute all participants to create the silence necessary for students to process the information. This benefits introverts who need personal think time to make sense out of ideas. It can also help students who are learning English to process the language at their own pace.
  • Integrate other platforms into the virtual meeting. A virtual meeting does not have to be locked into the specific video conference platform. You can have students attend via video conference but then edit a Google Document or co-create an infographic or interact with sticky note platforms like Padlet.
  • Use breakout rooms strategically. Many video conferences offer breakout rooms for small group discussions. As the instructor, you can set these groups up ahead of time or put them together in the moment. You might be worried about students being social in these small groups. What if they talk about football or Minecraft instead of adaptations or chromosones? But, honestly, during a time of quarantine, maybe being social isn’t such a bad thing. If you create a safe space where students connect, that’s a win.
  • Use hands-on learning to take it off-screen. You might do a maker project or a scavenger hunt. Or you might have students create sketchnotes. But the idea is to have students engage in a video conference but then go off-screen and return to share what they have found, learned, or created.

Note that you might need to create a set of norms for your meetings. As a class, you can actually negotiate norms and procedures together via the video chat. You’ll likely need a process for calling on students or getting each student’s attention. But even when they run smoothly, there will be significant challenges in virtual meetings. This is especially true in schools where districts are requiring teachers to live-stream lessons or to do hybrid with students joining for the whole day via video chat. For what it’s worth, neither of those approaches employ sound instructional design and often the result of political and community pressure. But as educators, we don’t always have control over the context. So, if we teaching virtually, we can choose to be intentional about increasing student interaction in our virtual meetings. And as a result this helps build a cohesive classroom community.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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