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Apr 06, 2017 Jennifer Hofmann

Types of Learner Engagement in the Virtual Classroom

Virtual Classroom Learner Engagement Recently, we looked at the two different types of learner engagement we can use in the virtual classroom: interaction and collaboration.

Let’s build on that foundational knowledge with a deep dive into different subtypes of interaction and collaboration, and intelligent ways to use them. 

Serial Engagement

Serial engagement activities ask learners to contribute one at a time, one after another. We often use serial engagement in the face-to-face classroom during icebreakers.

For example, we may ask learners to say their name and a fun fact about themselves one at a time, until everyone has introduced themselves to the group. While this kind of activity engages all learners, they often struggle to remain focused while others share their information, especially when we don’t require learners to memorize that content.

We very rarely use serial engagement in the virtual classroom. It takes a long time and we lack personal context clues that make these activities memorable. I have, however, seen serial engagement used in live online learning sessions successfully. The keys: small groups of learners and tight design.

One client I worked with provided software to travel agents around the world, and they were moving agents into a new web-based environment. The interface agents worked with daily was changing, but wasn’t available for demo. How do we train people on a product that’s not widely available? Serial engagement provided the solution.

We invited eight to ten learners at a time to virtual classroom sessions and used application sharing within that platform. I would application share the new platform and turn it over to the participants. The participants said, “I need to go from Point A to Point B and back.” The learner appointed “travel agent” asked questions of the “travelers” as they booked this trip. Whenever the travel agent got stuck, other learners helped figure out where that information belonged in the new platform. Then the next learner would book the next aspect of the trip. The learning built on itself in a small group, with everyone depending on everyone else. In this case, serial collaboration worked really well.

Because we weren’t teaching people how to become travel agents, this approach worked. Learners knew what questions to ask when booking client travel, they just needed practice with the system.

If choosing to use this approach, some things to know:

  • The exercises take a long time.
  • It’s orderly and well controlled.
  • Learners can easily hide.

Concurrent Engagement

Activities that engage all participants at one time constitute concurrent engagement. You really only see this approach in the virtual classroom because the lack of structure and chaos make it difficult to implement in the face-to-face classroom

In the virtual classroom, we can ask all learners to write on the whiteboard at the same time. Everyone can “pick a spot” and write their name and interesting fact. Afterwards, the learners review the board while facilitators engage learners about their comment. We often use this activity to kick off a learning program. In a few minutes, everyone participates, and facilitators get an idea of what tool instruction the group needs.

Using concurrent engagement helps all learners feel important, as everyone has the same voice and their opinions have the same value. It works well for brain storming and other learner-centric activities.

We need to learn how to facilitate this engagement technique, since we can’t present as much content as we would if we didn’t include these activities in our designs. I often hear, “I don’t like using breakout rooms because they take too much time.” When leveraged correctly, concurrent engagement fosters collaboration and leads to deep learning. It’s time well spent.

Remember: adding more slides and clicking through them is not an accelerated learning technique. With all interaction and collaboration, people need time to process and practice and interact and ask questions for learning to really happen. Design these opportunities into your virtual learning programs and give your learners room to practice and try.

Additional Resources

Published by Jennifer Hofmann April 6, 2017
Jennifer Hofmann