The unexpected outburst of the coronavirus collectively with the whirlwind relocation to online learning platforms has challenged student participation to a breaking point. Teachers have been forced to engage with new technology, sometimes finding that their students are more familiar with the platforms than they are. Further aggravating the already catastrophic situation is the age-old problem of vocal vs. introvert students, those who actively participate, and those who remain silent. As if almost by a fight-or-flight response, many teachers and students are challenging themselves in e-learning environments by engaging head-on with AI software and new learning methods, a few of which we will discuss below. In the vast recesses of the web, you are likely to find an overwhelming amount of information on how to improve student participation in your virtual classroom. However, this article will focus on synchronous and asynchronous learning strategies and what each looks like in participation models. Bear in mind that synchronous strategies refer to ‘active engagement’ or a group of students learning simultaneously (as in a classroom environment demanding attendance) and asynchronous to learning that occurs outside the classroom, at a different place and time (as in online learning or self-paced modules). However, both forms come with advantages and drawbacks, and the best virtual learning model will encompass both strategies. 

Improve student participation virtual classroom pic

Synchronous Learning: The Online Classroom and Student Participation

The biggest challenge to online learning is keeping track of student attendance and encouraging students to participate in an environment prone to lackadaisical wandering and zoning out. Adopting synchronous learning strategies in your virtual classroom will create an active and engaging atmosphere conducive to participation and risk-taking. The Best Schools lists the pros of synchronous learning: classroom engagement, dynamic learning, and instructional depth (face-to-face instruction and discussion).1 But this type of learning need not be limited to the in-person classroom. Virtual classroom technology has its own innate system of synchronous learning: live chat, teleconferencing, video conference, live-streaming lectures, Zoom and Microsoft Meetings, and so on. The drawbacks of synchronous learning? Mandatory attendance, rigid schedules, technical difficulties, and questions of privacy related to e-learning (students who are concerned with their work and discussions being recorded or shared in the online platform for public access). Regardless of the drawbacks, synchronous learning does maintain the ‘active’ learning environment, provides a support structure for students who do not work well independently, and allows for peer-to-peer and student-teacher interaction, discussion, and feedback. But in an environment where students are reduced to a webcam frame, absent from the social pressure to perform, and teachers are unable to read body language or make eye contact, the traditional methods present a challenge for the virtual classroom. Here are some simple tips for increasing participation through synchronous methods:

  • Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet: One way to encourage participation is through mandatory attendance by holding a live discussion through Zoom or Microsoft teams. You might even consider allowing your students to share their screen and present PowerPoint presentations, videos, or group projects with their classmates. You might also give bonus points to students for showing up to the lecture or for using creative means to react to group discussions or lectures (such as using emojis or face masks in Manycam or holding up note cards with questions or target words written on them). You can even offer extra credit or prizes (such as homework passes, etc.) to students who participate in extra-curricular or practice sessions on how to use Zoom and other virtual platforms. Zoom breakout rooms are an excellent tool for group discussions and peer-to-peer group work. According to Rawes, breakout rooms are “useful for managing larger groups…[splitting] a team into smaller ones to tackle different areas of a big project simultaneously.”2 Digitaltrends offers an entire tutorial on mastering Zoom.3
pic of online tutor
Online Tutor using Manycam
  • Spider web discussions: Spider web discussions are an excellent technique for increasing student participation and interaction with their classmates. According to Gassenheimer, spider web discussions “put students squarely in the center of the learning process, with the teacher as a silent observer and recorder of what s/he sees students saying and doing during the discussion.”4 While the students are discussing concepts, asking questions, and reacting to their peers, the teacher charts the process of the conversation creating a spider web diagram. This helps the teacher and students see who participated in the discussion, which students engaged each other, what was said, what ideas and questions were formulated, what concepts needed more work and practice, and who did not contribute. Spider webs give students more freedom to explore ideas and assess their own knowledge, with the teacher acting as a sort of referee. Wiggins, author of The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussions Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders, concludes that the result of spider web discussion is, “deep, high-level inquiry led and assessed by the students themselves.”5 You can extend these discussions to the virtual classroom by having breakout sessions or live discussions through Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet. 
  • Google Chat, Google Hangouts, or Zoom chat: Perhaps you have a class that is on a limited time schedule, but you still want students to participate, ask questions, and interact with their classmates. This is especially helpful for teachers interacting with younger students. Not only do chat features give young students keyboard practice, but it also encourages shy students, or students afraid of making mistakes, to interact with the curriculum. For example, instead of spending a good deal of time calling on students or handing out worksheets, you can ask the students a true or false question and have them type T or F in the chatbox. For older students, if you are on a budgeted class time, you may have them have flash discussions in the chat room where instead of posting a discussion on moodle or canvas, the students can engage in a live discussion and post their responses in the chat forum. The teacher could also ask students to post questions in the chat feature that they would like to see discussed in class. However, teachers ought to have the class develop remote learning norms or rules to observe when navigating virtual classroom technology.  For example, Google Hangouts or chat can only be used with the teacher’s permission, only school-related discussions, all instances of bullying must be reported, mute students who make too much noise, limit the number of emojis being used, and try to speak in full sentences instead of using texting language. The right to privacy must also be a cornerstone of your learning norms. Keep in mind that norms do not mean removing badly behaved students from class. France notes that norms should be “natural and restorative” and “norms should be supporting your classroom culture, and if they’re not, it might be time to re-evaluate.”6
  • Flipping the Classroom: This strategy involves the blending of asynchronous and synchronous education to increase virtual classroom participation. The teacher would essentially present new content through asynchronous means (i.e. prerecorded lectures and prefab online content). However, during the live class, the students and teacher engage with the new concepts, and breakout rooms provide further space for problem-solving and deeper hands-on activities and peer-to-peer interaction. The biggest advantage of flipped classrooms is that the teacher spends less time in lecture and direct instruction and more time listening to the students, finding out which concepts the students are struggling with, answering questions, and group work. This new form of targeted learning is ideal for the virtual classroom setup7
  • Google Docs: Another way to increase student participation is to break students into different groups, allowing each group to tackle an entirely different and unique set of problems (good for STEM classes) or discussion questions, and have them record their answers and questions on a Google Doc. This will keep a tangible record of the student’s work but will include students who would rather write out or work through the coursework instead of talking it out. Students can then designate a student speaker to share the results of the work during the live class. Google Docs may also be useful as warm-up activities, charting and organizing group projects, or brainstorming centers that can be edited and added to an entire semester by the students to chart their progress and work. Teachers, too, can post additional questions to the Google Doc as well as follow-up activities, further points of discussion, or information helpful to major projects. The Making Thinking Visible Framework contains important questions to help guide your virtual classroom.
  • Polling features and quizzes: You have a great deal of freedom and boundless resources when it comes to polling and quizzing in the virtual classroom. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, and WebEx Teams all contain the ability to create surveys or polls users during the meeting.8 Not only are quizzes a good tool for taking attendance, but they can also be used to hold students accountable for the information they have learned and help the teacher see which concepts the students are struggling with. Additionally, there are numerous external quiz apps, such as Kahoot! (excellent for in-class games, jeopardy, test reviews, and other learning-check activities), Quizizz, Quizlet, Mentimeter, SurveyMonkey, Gimkit (which allows students to earn in-game cash rewards), Plickers, and Formative, the list is in no way comprehensive. Liz Krulder notes, “a great way to measure participation is by requiring a permanent product—this is something your student leaves behind after they leave the call.”9 This might take the form of a quiz score, a response the student made in the chat or a shared post in the discussion forum. Polling addresses the issue of student attendance in the virtual classroom and provides an in-framework for virtual classroom participation.

Asynchronous Learning: Measuring Student Participation in the Virtual Classroom

On the other hand, asynchronous learning is catered to your schedule, allowing both students and teachers more time and greater flexibility. Asynchronous learning is especially suited to virtual classroom technology. This type of learning takes the form of self-paced modules, pre-recorded lectures, virtual libraries, class notes, online discussion forums, social media, and academic tools such as Blackboard, Moodle, and Canvas. Asynchronous learning has many advantages, including great flexibility (you set your own pace), pacing (you can work on, study, or review the materials as long as or as short as you wish without worrying about falling behind in class), and affordability (many massive online open courses or MOOCs are free) and there are many tech tools and virtual libraries that are free to aid you or your students in their online studies. One source observes, “asynchronous learning gives you the materials so that you can complete them at your convenience.”10 Convenience comes at the price of isolation and risk of apathy, as with this form of learning, students find themselves isolated from their teachers and peers, and real-time interaction and collaboration are lost. Procrastination is another problem, which I know all too well about as an online student. Setting your own pace, it sometimes becomes easy to put off assignments. One source notes, “the reality is that some learners do best with clearly stated expectations, immediate feedback, and a watchful eye.”11 As a teacher, you should strive to find a good balance. The best option would be a virtual classroom that makes good use of synchronous and asynchronous learning to encourage student participation. Watch your students, observe their interactions with the material during the live classes and the materials posted online that they work independently through. Try to see which type of learning they respond to best and then figure out how to make the other just as interesting. There are even classes for teachers! You can find more information on classes that will teach you how to transition from the site-based classroom to the virtual classroom. One example is Minerva, which has developed courses engaging head-on with the virtual classroom experience.12 Google Education,13 Along,14 We Are Teachers,15 and Scholastic16 also offer resources for online learning and tools for virtual classroom learning. Be sure to inform your students about the free virtual libraries17 that can aid them in research and their coursework. Remember, the transition from in-class to online doesn’t have to be a nightmare. With online resources, games, apps, and tech at your disposal, you can make class more fun and engaging than ever. The trick is to try, try, and try again until you find that perfect balance. The best part is that your students can help you learn things about virtual learning tools, and you can do the same for them.

Citations for Improve Student Participation in your Virtual Classroom
1, 2 BestSchools. (2020, September 11). Synchronous Learning vs. Asynchronous Learning. Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://thebestschools.org/magazine/synchronous-vs-asynchronous-education/
3 Rawes, E. (2020, November 16). The Best Tips for Using Zoom. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/tips-for-using-zoom/
4, 5 Gassenheimer, C. (2018, December 14). Spider Web Discussions Help Students Take Ownership of Learning. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://aplusala.org/best-practices-center/2018/01/11/spider-web-discussions-help-students-take-ownership-of-learning/
6 Emerich, P. (2020, April 16). 3 Tips for Developing Culturally Responsive Remote Learning Norms. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://paulemerich.com/2020/04/16/3-tips-for-developing-culturally-responsive-remote-learning-norms/
7 Ritchhart, R., Churchill, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.nesacenter.org/uploaded/conferences/FTI/2016/handouts/Mark_Church/D_MakingThinkingVisible_Summary_TheMainIdea.pdf
8, 9 Krulder, L. (2020, June 16). How to Keep Students’ Attention in a Virtual Classroom. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.edutopia.org/article/how-keep-students-attention-virtual-classroom
10, 11 Best_Schools. (2020, September 11). Synchronous Learning vs. Asynchronous Learning. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from https://thebestschools.org/magazine/synchronous-vs-asynchronous-education/
12 Student Engagement Strategies for Virtual Classrooms. (n.d.). Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.minerva.kgi.edu/virtual-engagement/
13 Teaching Resources | Google for Education. (n.d.). Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://edu.google.com/teaching-resources/
14 How It Works. (n.d.). Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.along.org/how-it-works
15 350+ Amazing Websites for Kids Learning at Home. (2020, November 19). Retrieved November 24, 2020, from https://www.weareteachers.com/free-online-learning-resources/
16 25 Best Websites for Teachers. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2020, from https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/25-best-websites-teachers/
17 Ranking the World’s Best Digital Libraries. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2020, from https://learningpath.org/articles/Ranking_the_Worlds_Best_Digital_Libraries.html

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