I’ve been chatting to some colleagues about student engagement in the blended classroom. There are some understandable worries about participation in online engagements. So I thought I would throw together this post with some thoughts, advice, and tips.

Firstly, remember that the online space is very different from the physical, and there are many reasons why a student may be struggling to participate, THIS DOES NOT MEAN THEY ARE DISENGAGED! A student may be living in a rural area with poor quality internet. When I lived in Wales, I once lived in a house with a connection so slow and unreliable it regularly couldn’t cope with YouTube (A live stream would have been very difficult).

Also, with the current COVID situation, local lockdowns, and mature students we have a range of potential issues. A student could be homeschooling their kid, or caring for an elderly relative. All these could be preventing them from joining session X at time Y. For this reason, asynchronous content is super important. Record sessions, direct people to alternate sources, book chapters (the OG asynchronous), YouTube videos, PodCasts, Collaborative notes or even Talis Elevate resources. Give students every chance to stay engaged.

Be wary of poling systems that require students to leave a live session. Polling systems are great for formative assessment but many polling tools require students to click a link which takes them to an external website. This can cause confusion and disengagement. If the student relies on captions or lip-reading they can’t keep track of what you are saying if they have to leave the stream to do a poll. So at a minimum, you should pause the session and not keep talking during the polling phase. You can give people X amount of time to do the poll, but very hard to guarantee that everyone will go to the site at the same time. Some students may be on slower connections, others may be struggling to keep pace with the content.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use these polls! Poling is a great tool for formative assessment. But consider when/how you use them. Some polls make great between-session or pre-session activities. If you want to do one mid-session, one that works within the stream. For example, Microsoft Teams allows you to embed forms into the chat. You can also use the “Hands up” function for simple yes/no polling. Also using emoji responses to chat questions can give you some complex polling opportunities. Other systems available for Zoom etc.

Their other issues sending people away from a session to an external website. Loads of opportunity for user error. I’ve been to many a virtual conference where people have had to click on a link and accidentally closed the session and struggled to get back in.

For this reason, use caution with “breakout rooms” which can suffer from the same issues. I’ve seen a lot of educators lose students by moving them between rooms. Clicking the wrong link or accidentally closing the system and students drop-out of the session. Shunting people between spaces can be confusing for everyone involved, and often requires a certain amount of shepherding. I’ve seen academics lost and confused in breakout rooms from working groups – It’s no easier for students. Confusion is a key barrier to engagement.

However, breakout rooms can be used to your advantage allowing for collaboration and discussion in small(er) groups. But these may be best left for the start or the end of the session, so students only need to move once. The best use of breakout rooms I have seen is as a separately timetabled pre-session activity. Flipping the learning, and getting the students to bring ideas for discussion. This was then brought together during the main session.

Ice breaker exercises can be a great way to promote participation. One fun one I use is asking participants to post a GIF in answer to a question, something abstract like “what are your hopes and dreams”. It’s a good, fun way to get people to focus on the session.

Consider having student ambassadors/demonstrators as “Chat MCs”. These students promote discussion by posting questions in the chat around the content of the session. I’ve done this in my ‘video games streams’, and they have been really effective in promoting engagement.

Rethink your session length. Adding scheduled breaks can help maintain engagement. sitting in front of a computer hearing someone talk for an hour is challenging. Throw in debates, videos, games, activities, to break-up the session into thematic chunks.

Remember that students may be feeling socially isolated. Provide a bit of time in your session for pastoral engagement. Give an opportunity to chat, discuss the programme, talk about challenges in a safe and supported space.

Do things that prompt active engagement “Put your hand up if you think X is correct”, “post a gif that demonstrates Y”, “Answer this question in the chat” These classroom assessment techniques can help people to reconnect with the session – especially in a longer session! 

If you have the opportunity, consider pair or co-delivery. A discussion is inherently more engaging and we see this format a lot in YouTube videos and live streams. One person talking to a camera can look awkward, a discussion feels more natural.

Another advantage of leaning into flipped-learning/asynchronous delivery is that you can avoid presentations. Plenty of research out there that shows that streams are more engaging when the learners can see the person teaching.

If you need to use presentations in your sessions, using software like OBS can allow you to project yourself into your presentation using a picture-in-picture technique. I wrote about how to do that on this blog post https://chrisheadleand.com/2020/07/02/using-open-broadcast-software-to-edit-your-webcam-in-video-calls/

Try to keep your video as clear and crisp as possible. Make sure it points directly at your face (not up your nose). Raising your laptop off your desk with a few books can help here. I wrote about improving video on this post. https://chrisheadleand.com/2020/06/23/filming-learning-materials/

The same goes for audio. The only time I have (personally) ever walked out of a session was due to the amount of echo on the call (it made the speaker almost inaudible). It was also “irritating” which is a barrier to engagement. https://chrisheadleand.com/2020/06/27/improving-the-audio-on-your-learning-materials/

This post was a origionally written as a series of tweets which can be read here.

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