Obviously, one of the biggest challenges for the virtual facilitator is keeping learners engaged and participative in a virtual workshop. There are simply more distractions in a virtual setting, and it is difficult to keep participants engaged through technology, no matter how hard we try.
That being said, I have delivered over a hundred of virtual sessions over the past 12 months and I think I have developed some practices which I believe dramatically enhance learner engagement. Here are some strategies that you can integrate into your own workshops to improve your own learner engagement.
1. Make A Virtual Connection BEFORE the Workshop Begins
We find it really helps to record a short introduction in Zoom, as a prework activity. We like to introduce the workshop and ourselves, using a few slides to set expectations. We record this short introduction in Zoom and send out the recording to participants a few days ahead of the scheduled workshop. We find this helps form virtual connection with the learners, they see you and hear you and they feel you have connected with them.
2. Be on Camera Yourself as Participants Join
Just as you would in a classroom, be present and signed in ahead of your participants. Welcome them by name as they enter the room and don’t hesitate to set the tone with appropriate small talk. Make it feel like they would if they walked into your classroom. Keep it informal and don’t be shy to speak. Also, role model the use of chat by putting a “welcome message” into chat as people are joining. It all helps to open up a variety of communication channels.
3. Set Expectations of Engagement up Front
As you begin the workshop, let learners know that they should plan to be actively engaged throughout the session. Encourage them to turn off email, notifications and to close other applications on their browser. You can also include this information in a pre-event email. It sets the tone for the training and reminds the audience to focus on their learning activities.
4. Turn on Your Camera
Simply having video on improves learners’ engagement in training sessions, because they will want to appear attentive and engaged. However, encouraging participants to use video can be tricky. Set this expectation in advance in an email and prepare participants. Ask participants to turn on their video at the beginning of the session and give them a reason why it is important. And don’t forget to thank participants by name who have turned on their video. This positive reinforcement can also encourage those who haven’t activated their cameras yet.
5. Role Model Engagement Within First 5 Minutes
The key to an interactive training session is participation and engagement. Integrate opportunities for participation in the first five minutes (ideally in the opening) to set the expectation that you will be requesting engagement throughout the session. We ask participants to use ANNOTATE to record their names and we ask them to use CHAT to introduce themselves, with their names/roles and another relevant information (depending on the workshop).
6. Ask for Engagement Every 5 to 10 Minutes MINIMUM
To keep participants engaged throughout the session, aim to engage them every 5 minutes in some way or form. It can be the use of virtual signals, like raising a hand, dropping a comment into chat, a quick poll, a question with a response in CHAT, or a slide for them to ANNOTATE responses. While it may seem like a lot, the engagements don’t have to be formal. In fact, more casual engagements can work best. This cadence will keep learners paying attention and engaged, since they know you could ask a question at any time.
7. Ask Direct Questions
We begin our workshops by warning participants that we will be calling on people by name, with direct questions, Of course, in doing so, it is important to use the person’s name FIRST (at the front of the question). For example: “Kelly, what do you think about this? Go ahead and mute yourself and share your thoughts Kelly”. That way Kelly is forewarned and perks up her ears before the question! PLUS you have helped her know HOW you want her to respond.
8. Ask Rhetorical Questions AND Seek Visual Acknowledgement
We like to use rhetorical questions to create a semblance of engagement. It’s a quick way to make it feel more engaging. We like to ask for acknowledgement in a variety of ways:
“Does that make sense?”
“Do you see why that is important?”
“Can you see the value in that?”
When you ask a rhetorical question, encourage learners to give a visual response, such as asking them to give you a thumbs up or an affirmative nod. That all goes towards making it feel more like a classroom setting.
9. Be Patient and Wait for Responses
Occasionally, you may have learners who are difficult to engage. If you ask for participation and don’t receive any responses, you’ll need to wait until someone responds. If you just move on without a response, especially early in the workshop, you are signaling to participants that they really don’t have to answer your questions. Begin by asking an easy question and then be patient and wait for responses before moving on.
10. Use First Names to Acknowledge Participants’ Chat Contributions
When people respond in chat, it is important to acknowledge their responses. For example, “Bruce says he’s done this before. Kelly is saying she is a beginner.” Using learners’ names rewards them with attention and positively reinforces that you care about responses. Of course, this means monitoring the CHAT constantly. A good virtual facilitator will monitor and respond to comments at appropriate junctures, while they facilitate. (Put a reminder in your speaker notes if you have tendency to forget.)
Virtual learning needs this level of engagement to be effective. As a virtual facilitator, you must be deliberate in creating an engaging environment to drive participation and keep the learners motivated and engaged.
Of course, BCR have touched on this same topic in other podcasts. For example, see our discussion here: Engaging Both Roomers and Zoomers.
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