This is the first installment in a four-part series that explores actionable approaches facilitators can use to improve learner engagement through purposeful facilitation using InSync's InQuire Engagement Framework™.
If a tree falls in the woods and no one witnesses it, does it make any noise? If an individual hates the virtual classroom, does it have an impact on the success of the program?
Of course it does. The learning environment and the learner are both changed by contributions from the learner, interactions with the other learners, delivery of content, and interactions with the facilitator. In the case of the virtual classroom, this environmental engagement begins with comfort with the capabilities and requirements of the virtual classroom.
What is environmental engagement and why should it matter to a virtual classroom facilitator? Our research tells us that:
Environmental engagement relates to the perception of and interaction with the learning environment itself. We consider: How do learners perceive the learning environment? Does it create a constructive, effective experience? Does the learner interact with the environment?
The facilitation process aligns with both design and delivery within a particular environment, like the virtual classroom. When a learner is environmentally engaged, the learner knows how to interact with the environment and easily perceives opportunities when they can connect and interact with the content, peer learners, or the facilitator.
Facilitators often think the virtual learning environment exists outside of our control. In reality, though, we can positively manage and contribute to the environment to foster strong learner engagement in the virtual classroom environment.
You don't need to rely on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, or Adobe Connect to engage your learners. Really, it's better that you don't.
8 Techniques that Foster Environmental Engagement in the Virtual Classroom
Facilitators can foster environmental engagement by:
- Fostering ‘comfort’ and digital fluency in the virtual classroom environment. When learners are comfortable in the learning environment, they can better focus on learning. Think of the simple case of a learner intending to “raise his/her hand” to volunteer some information or an opinion. In the virtual classroom, if we don’t ensure the learner knows how to interact with peers, the content, and the facilitator, the learner can’t focus on the experience. Instead, they expend energy on the basic mechanics of interacting. Frustration follows.
- Fostering a diverse environment that is accessible to all learners. When learners feel like their personal needs are being met, the learning environment seems more inclusive and individuals are more open to learning.
- Fostering diversity of opinions and open conversations. When learners respond with “yeah, but,” “what if?”, and “in my experience…”, you have evidence that they are listening and connecting to the content. And, when they are engaged in active conversation with each other over these types of comments, you have evidence that you are taking the learning to a deeper level. At that point, the role of a facilitator is to guide the discussion to ensure every learner gets the most out of that experience.
- Fostering conversation with learners. When there is meaningful conversation between learners and the facilitator, that is evidence that the learning environment is becoming more natural, and it also indicates that the learners feel “safe” to contribute.
- Fostering positive engagement in the learning environment. When learners contribute to the discussion in a positive and meaningful way, the impact on the learning environment is positive, as discussions become more interesting and sophisticated. Alternatively, when learners (or even one learner) contribute in a negative way, the entire learning environment suffers.
- Fostering a willingness to change and adopt new knowledge and skills. Training programs are designed to assist individuals in changing how they work. When the lesson is persuasive, it impacts the learner’s willingness to learn new things.
- Fostering understanding by encouraging learner questions. Learners often feel they have more in common with other individuals in the class than with the facilitator. Therefore, when other learners have meaningful questions, it triggers individuals to pay more attention.
- Fostering interaction between learners. When there is meaningful interaction between learners, that is evidence that they are focused on learning and not the technology, indicating comfort in the learning environment. This is fundamentally different than two learners talking to each other – this is “building” upon another learner’s contribution in an active multi-voice discussion – the learning becomes a narrative with the learners telling the story.
InSync's InQuire Engagement Framework™, developed by InSync’s Dr. Charles Dye, is based on an operationalized situated cognition model and neuroscience, and optimizes learner trajectory by considering the learner, the learning environment, and the learner-environment interaction through measurable and well-defined measures of effect. Access the original research here: https://opencommons.uconn.edu/dissertations/2403/