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Three Steps to Effectively Engage Learners in a Synchronous Video Learning Experience

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Juliana Finegan

The Learning Accelerator

For many, the prospect of designing or participating in yet another lesson overview can feel daunting. Educators may feel overwhelmed by the challenge of keeping learners fully engaged from a distance. For learners, the modality often feels like a “one-size-fits-all” experience, featuring the educator in the driving role as the “sage on the stage.” When thinking about how to design an effective synchronous video learning experience, start with what you already know by exploring the effective in-person strategies you likely used prior to the pandemic. Strategies that get students engaged and set them up for continued, active participation in their learning – such as small groups, varied learning experiences, choice around activity, and brain breaks – are all starting points that can transition online. Using time creatively and dynamically and designing instruction that can span virtual and in-person contexts can empower learners to move through a variety of experiences without leaving their seats.

Research shows that in order to engage learners in remote, virtual, and/or hybrid learning, it is important to first support them in building a foundation for self-directed learning and then leverage those skills to enable active engagement. From a design standpoint, research also tells us that learners also need to engage through technology and rigorous design that is active and mastery-based, with connection to others as well as personal needs and goals. Not all lessons need to contain all of these components all of the time, but it is good to think of these factors as ingredients that can be mixed in throughout a lesson in dynamic ways to ensure engagement and effectiveness.

To kick off your design, consider these three basic steps to ensure your synchronous video lesson is an effective learning experience – as opposed to a “sit-and-get” webinar.

Step 1: Design in smaller chunks.

No learner – student or adult – is able to focus and actively participate for a full 60 or 90 minutes straight. Breaking up a large block into smaller chunks (5-20 minutes maximum) allows learners to focus, get excited about what’s coming up, and authentically engage with the content. Further, offering multiple learning experiences keeps the cadence of the lesson moving in a way that allows participants to jump in and out, participate in a variety of ways, or even take a break when they feel the need to do so. Below are strategies educators have used to break up their day and/or lesson, and offer opportunities for fun and movement.

Step 2: Offer a variety of groupings.

By allowing learners to work in different group structures or independently, you can enable them to receive more focused support, learn socially, and have time to dive deeper into personalized content at their own pace. Groupings can include whole-group learning, small-group time (via breakout groups), one-on-one check-ins with individual learners, and “asynchronous” or independent learning time within synchronous learning, where participants work on their own projects and readings (or take a break if needed). Breakout groups can be constructed randomly, chosen by learners, or more intentionally built before the lesson to offer additional support to students at similar levels of content progression. Explore a number of ways to leverage groupings to offer a variety of learning experiences below.

Step 3: Remember that engagement is more than video presence!

Too often, ‘engagement’ is defined as cameras being on and students “facing the lesson.” But requiring students to have their cameras on will not guarantee that students are engaged – just as having their cameras off does not signify that students aren’t engaged. For many learners, being “video-on” can be stressful and pose an additional cognitive burden, leaving them to feel unsafe and concerned about offering a look into private home lives that they would rather not share. To address these concerns, it is critical to let learners engage in ways that go beyond just being visually present and providing them with multiple options for active engagement – both verbally and non-verbally – throughout the lesson. Here are some ways other educators have allowed their students to engage through chat, emojis, hand signals, and more:

To close, when thinking about virtual and remote learning, it can be easy to assume that we need to design these experiences in a completely different way than in-person instruction because we lack physical proximity to students. However, when designed effectively, synchronous video lessons can be personal, dynamic, and engaging. Educators should think of this modality as an in-person lesson with a host of new opportunities that enable students to explore, participate, and learn in ways that span the virtual divide.

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Juliana Finegan

The Learning Accelerator

Juilana Finegan is a Managing Partner of Practitioner Learning, Platforms, and Production at The Learning Accelerator, leading their practitioner learning work. As an expert in blended and personalized learning and Title 1 educator for almost a decade, Juliana specializes in adult learning, designing tangible resources for practitioners, and engaging partnerships and networks to build strategic support throughout the ecosystem.