The Key to Mastering Engagement in an Online Setting

By Katie Novak and Tara “T” Weaver 

As a consultant, Zoom is one of my closest friends right now. Online engagement can be challenging, especially evening presentations after everyone has poured themselves into a full day of work. But in some presentations, sparks fly, and it’s usually because the chat is abuzz with questions and comments. In one such presentation, I was lucky enough to present and connect with “T” Weaver, who helped to create a conversation, more than a presentation. As we interacted about the question, “How can we engage students in remote learning?” I realized that the answer is the same one for engaging adults in remote learning. I reached out to her and we collaborated to write this article which includes concrete tips to make your online presentations engaging for all. 

An online presentation isn’t a movie. As a teacher or presenter, you are not a Netflix star putting on a show. Engagement is in the interaction and collaboration with the learners. Through the principles of UDL, educators can provide multiple pathways for learners to interact in ways that are relevant, authentic, and meaningful.  Learners can be invited to share and learn from each other and offer their knowledge and experiences to enhance the teaching and learning process. You can be just as much a learner as your students – which is waaaayyy more enjoyable.  We should be models of an unfinished work of art, always needing to be reshaped, molded, painted, and polished. To do this, the following strategies will foster collaboration and community and help to create a learning community, as opposed to a learning performance.

Many of these suggestions take time, but it builds an expectation of community and active engagement.  You will see a decrease in nodding sleepy heads, unauthorized class clowning, and students mysteriously exiting stage left.  Engaging your students leaves them wanting to do some self-directed exploring and discovery to share or show off.  Let’s get these kids to hunger for more!

When posing a question, provide students with options for answering it. For example, they can use the chat to craft a reflection, use a graphic organizer to write a response, or choose to join a breakout room to discuss. Just a quick check-in? Learn shortcuts so learners can use words and/or emojis to respond (Mac is control-command-space; windows is windows-period symbol)! Think outside the box! If time allows, provide options to doodle or sketchnote and then students can hold them up and share. Or encourage students to charade their response, while allowing other students to make guesses based on what they have heard and experienced.  

Model vulnerability and ask, “How can I do better?” at intervals in the presentation. When learners have opportunities to provide mastery-oriented feedback, they have to reflect on their own engagement and consider the pathways that would allow them to engage at a deeper level. That deeper engagement can also be attained by asking participants to re-teach a topic in a different way, (slides, musical lyrics, artistic expression with explanation, dance, etc.) and co-teach content with you.

Create a poll to ask, “How engaged are you right now?” Although the answers may be hard to swallow, it is an incredible opportunity to use the chat to say, “Okay, I see that many of you are struggling with engagement right now. Let’s take 5 minutes to reflect in writing in the chat or join a breakout session to brainstorm an idea for how to make these sessions more meaningful.”  

Offer the option of a kinesthetic poll if students’ cameras are on. By displaying hand signals or marker color choices, students can display their multiple choice answers for questions asked.  Answer A may be displayed by hand signal “rock”; B, by “paper; and C, by “scissors”.  Answer choices may be represented by the display of a certain colored marker, or another object, being held up to the camera. For example, you can have the littles scurrying around their learning space as you say, “Show a blue object for choice A, red for choice B, etc.”

Get participants away from the screen. Provide options to get up out of that chair! Ask learners to find an artifact in their spaces that relates to the message being taught.  This allows students to find meaningful connections that may help trigger recollection of concepts, linking critical thinking and kinesthetics.  For example, in a recent kindergarten reading of We’re Going on a Leaf Hunt by Steve Metzger, students were asked to go outside to see if they could find a leaf to show the class. If they couldn’t find one, they could draw one to share!

Value relationship building and cultural sharing. We are not a correspondence course. We need to allow learners to contribute to the community. By doing something as simple as taking a poll or asking learners to share how people in their families greet each other (handshake, bow, fish bumps, etc.). Students can become experts in their culture and teach others about their traditions.  After sharing and learning, you may choose a student at the start of each meeting to choose which type of greeting everyone will give.  As an extension and discovery activity, you can introduce language exploration by asking students to share how different people in different cultures greet each other. 

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Tara “T” Weaver has been an educator and coach over a span of almost 25 years and is an All American Masters Track and Field Athlete. Tara holds credentials and certifications for Liberal Studies Multiple Subjects,  Music, Special Education (mm/ms), Adapted Physical Education, and USATF levels 1 and 2 Youth Specialization.  She is currently a Resource Specialist and Adapted PE educator at a Middle School in Fortuna, California. 

Katie Novak, Ed.D. is an internationally renowned education consultant, a practicing leader in education, and author of 8 books on inclusive practices. Katie designs and presents workshops both nationally and internationally focusing on the implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), MTSS, inclusive practices, equity in education, and universally designed leadership.


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