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3 ways to make remote learning more engaging

By Jorge Valenzuela
April 23, 2020
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Like many teachers, since COVID-19 I've been teaching all of my classes remotely. Although I am not new to online teaching or coaching, I wasn’t sure how to make the experience fun and engaging for me and my learners.

I knew the basics of delivering content online — or at least I thought I did! But was knowing the basics enough? I was worried about many of my students who were accustomed to receiving my instruction through systematic and reflective practices (i.e.,evidence-based instructional strategies and educational protocols). Would they now get the same level of engagement through Zoom and PowerPoint slides?

Thanks to the education community, which has rallied to provide their resources and talents at no charge to educators, I have begun using strategies that engage learners in interactive and personalized activities.

Here are three ways you can make remote learning interactive:

1. Use virtual breakout rooms to enhance student collaboration.

Having my students pair up during activities or work in project teams has been an integral component of my face-to-face instruction and I didn’t want to lose that in a remote setting.

Fortunately, the Zoom platform enables online facilitators to place student project teams in breakout rooms for collaboration.

Some examples of how I blend my teaching strategies with breakout rooms include:

  • Storytelling at the beginning of a mini-lesson: To inspire students and connect their previous knowledge to new concepts, I like to share related stories. The students then go into breakout rooms (either in pairs or triads) to share their own stories. This shouldn’t take more than five minutes. 

  • Turn and talk: I use this as an informal and low-stakes way for students to share their thoughts and ideas. Students are paired and only go into breakout rooms for about 3-5 minutes.

  • Jigsaws: Groups of 3-4 students spend time in breakout rooms reading, developing computational artifacts and debriefing. Work time varies between projects and it is important for teachers to make frequent check-ins.

  • Work time in projects: The meaning of work time varies between guided and independent practice. For this purpose I love to form learning centers in the breakout rooms within the structure of the workshop model.

  • Feedback protocols: The number of students assigned per breakout room will vary depending on the protocol you use. Prior to using a protocol, be sure to model its use for the entire class before sending them into the breakout rooms. Also, be sure to be the timekeeper and use the broadcast feature to keep everyone on task during the protocols.

My students really enjoy being able to collaborate virtually during class time using Zoom. I love that the breakout feature also allows me to visit each of their spaces, which enables me to engage with individuals and small groups and clarify misunderstandings about the material.

Other video conferencing platforms with the breakout feature include GoToMeeting and RingCentral. But before diving in, it is important that educators connect with students only via platforms that are supported by their school district.

2. Use interactive and dynamic slides

In my face-to-face classroom, I always teach using systematic and reflective strategies. My academic class content changes, but my norms and collaborative culture with an inquiry mindset do not. When we switched to distance learning, I wasn’t sure how I was going to maintain my classroom norms. I was concerned about keeping students engaged and collaborating virtually with only my traditional PowerPoint slides.

Luckily, educator Michelle Moore introduced me to a way to add interactive elements to slides using Nearpod. By adding features such as polls, fill-in-the-blank activities, short quizzes, open-ended questions and drawing, student participation during my lessons soared, and, best of all — in real-time! Our lessons now involve dialogue that isn’t one-sided.

Online presentation slide alternatives for teachers are Knovio, Google Slides, and Keynote.

3. Keep students social — even in class

Many of our students are using social media to connect and share their videos and pictures daily. So I was eager to find a safe tool to help learners connect with others academically and socially.

For engaging students socially in their new virtual classroom projects and lessons, many in my PLN have begun using Flipgrid. I like that Flipgrid is a free tool that allows teachers to create grids by academic topics and are a safe space for learners to record and showcase their short videos. This feature allows educators to lift up all the diverse voices in their digital classrooms.

For getting started, I found the Flipgrid Educator’s Guide to be an excellent resource. I incorporated Flipgrid into some of my lesson activities in tandem with Nearpod and Zoom, and found the app useful for establishing community, having students respond to class topics and reflect on their learning, and bringing in experts in topic guest mode.

Another useful app for allowing kids to interact socially with others is Recap. The app is also free to educators and enables student responses via video but also through text and audio.

It’s up to us

No doubt, the switch to remote learning has changed many aspects of how we live, work and learn. I believe the same holds true for our teaching pedagogy — it needs to evolve. Our students are accustomed to a world of their own design. To teach them, I believe we will need to meet them halfway. With both the availability and the capabilities of today’s technology, it’s on us to prepare ourselves with engaging lessons.

Keep the learning going during COVID-19! Explore the resources.

Jorge Valenzuela is an award-winning education coach, author and advocate. He is the lead coach for Lifelong Learning Defined, a national faculty of PBLWorks and on the Teach Better Team Speakers Network. Jorge was appointed by Virginia’s governor to serve on the STEM Education Commission for the 2019-20 school year and is the author of Rev Up Robotics Real-World Computational Thinking in the K–8 Classroom. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram @JorgeDoesPBL to continue the conversation.