How to Make Online Learning More Engaging
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt around the world. Most of us are lucky because we’ve never seen or lived through anything like this before in our lifetime.
Unfortunately, that is where the luck stops.
In not experiencing an event of this magnitude from both a public health and an economic standpoint before, we weren’t prepared with a substantial enough plan to address all of the waterfall effects cascading down around us, and are essentially writing the playbook in real-time as a result.
Kids are People Too
I am a parent of two small children. I have a son who will be four this month and a daughter who is nearly seven. In the middle of March, I watched in disbelief as schools began unprecedented closures that went from an estimated few weeks to more than five months, creating the longest spring break ever!
Parents received message after message from the school districts revising schedules and education protocols, and saw teachers go from being educators in the classroom to something akin to a medic in the middle of a battlefield trying to sew up one wound while triaging another.
I listened to parents from around the country share stories of how they were trying to balance work, childcare, and suddenly being a full-time teacher all at the same time, while feeling that no matter what they did, they weren’t succeeding in any of those areas. How can you make online learning engaging while also trying to do everything else that’s on your plate?
As an educator myself, I felt deeply for teachers who had bonded with their students and classes all year, only to adapt again and again to directives constantly in flux.
The only thing that made it better was holding onto the hope that our children could go back to school in person for the fall. Although, we were assured that if they didn’t there would be ample time for teachers and parents to better prepare for an alternative situation.
As the summer wore on, and more and more reports of increased cases spread like wildfire across our country, we all began to wonder what would happen at the start of the school year.
At first, nobody talked about it, preferring instead to think positively and ignore the growing possibility that the return of the school year would not be normal.
Much like the plight of parents in the spring, it was largely swept under the rug, and it took weeks for even a single article to begin showing up in the media.
I know, because I looked for one every single day wondering with increasing anger how it was possible that we weren’t talking more about this situation.
When the articles did start to flow in, they focused on getting children back into the classroom and what that could look like.
Countless hours were spent devising complicated plans for a variety of schedules and scenarios, while again wasting valuable time and energy fighting those who wanted to bury their head in the sand and deny the situation, rather than problem-solving alternatives.
Most of the effort was spent on discussing what it would look like if students attended class 100% in-person, or in a hybrid combination of in-person and online learning. While it was assumed that some students would opt out of formal school for the 2020-2021 year and homeschool instead, or choose a district-offered online-only option, most of the discussion centered around making technology accessible and equitable for all students.
Understandably, this was and is still a monumental task, and I applaud those who have worked so hard to try to make education accessible for all during this difficult time. What I don’t condone is those state and government officials who refused to consider alternatives to 100% in-person schooling, often denying both the funding and effort needed to create a timely, organized, and empathetic plan to help meet the needs of students in each age group, teachers, and families.
The State of the Union
So, here we are. The fall has arrived, and for many schools including my daughter’s, children are attending class entirely online with no end date in sight. Unfortunately, teachers were not given the time to truly prepare for this style of learning, and I am deeply sorry for each and every one of them.
I have so much respect for teachers. I know how hard they work to educate and care for our nation’s children, often using funds from their own salary to supplement their efforts, and I think they are some of the most valuable pillars of our society. In fact, I am still in touch with my own kindergarten teacher from over three decades ago.
For some, school has been back in session since the beginning of August, for others classes began a few days ago or will start this week.
Why is our country still spending so much time debating the need for in-person school and getting kids back as quickly as possible instead of evaluating and improving where we are now?
Most parents would agree that in-person school is definitely the preferred option for learning and would like nothing more than to send our kids back. If, like me, you have young kids, then you may simply long for a quiet moment devoid of hearing your name repeated again and again while just trying to take a moment to use the bathroom by yourself.
If you have older kids, perhaps you would simply like to air out the house for a few hours allowing the lingering scent of Axe body spray to dissipate while enjoying some time without the need to tiptoe around the unpredictable and continually fluctuating emotions of your teenager.
The real question for many parents right now is not when and how to send kids back to in-person school.
Parents are instead asking, the kids are online, so now what do we do?
My daughter started school last week. Even though she was at home and couldn’t be in a physical classroom with her friends, she was so excited. She loves school, and this year she’s in first grade. Every day of Kindergarten she would say goodbye to her teacher, and happily bounce all the way home regaling her father and me with all the wonderful things she had done that day.
Even though things are different this year, we still wanted to fuel her excitement for learning. We made her a special spot in our dining room with pictures of dragons from her favorite movie on the wall, purchased a wobble chair, and collected a basket full of fidget toys to help her wiggly six-year-old body focus.
We shopped for school supplies and even let her choose a couple of outfits to wear on her first days of school. She met her teacher in an online meet-and-greet the night before class began, and despite her shyness from using Zoom in her classroom this spring, woke up early eager to begin class on her first day.
At the end of day one, she said she loved her teacher and that she was her favorite part of class. Her teacher is very kind and empathetic and has the calm, soothing presence one might expect from a person who spends every day working in the classroom with young children.
As we expected and were cautioned, it was a slow start with a lot of effort spent familiarizing the young learners with the buttons and guidelines they would need for online learning. Even though my daughter was more than a little bored with all of the waiting that was required, she still started day two eager to learn.
She had a good morning and was very excited about the art project they did, but after her lunch break, she burst into tears and was visibly sad and frustrated about the writing assignment she was given.
I could tell her frustration had nothing to do with the assignment itself but was more due to the fact that she was tired and having trouble focusing.
After talking to her more about her classroom experience, I realized that by 1:30 she had really only spoken in class once or twice and even though I was sitting at the table behind her, I hadn’t really heard her laugh.
By day three she had her head buried in her arms on her desk before the lunch break, tentatively holding up her blue “sad” card looking completely deflated. It was a challenge getting her to regain focus after lunch and we decided to just end the day early vowing to try again the following week.
A few days later on Sunday night before her second week of class, she had trouble falling asleep because she was anxious about school and said she “didn’t want to go back.”
As I considered the experience my daughter had during her first week, I knew that her feelings were not reflective of the high caliber of the school or teacher but were instead a result of her overall online experience. This is why there is a need to make online learning more engaging.
I spoke with several other parents to ask how their children were doing, and I started to think about the benefits and challenges of online learning for kids, particularly those like my daughter in the early grades of elementary school. I realized that the biggest and most vital piece missing from her online class was the ability to interact with her peers in a meaningful way.
When you’re six, an online classroom full of 20+ kids in small boxes on a screen can feel very overwhelming, and even when given the brief moments to interact with the mute button off, it isn’t anything like the natural energy of an in-person classroom where laughter becomes contagious as it flows from student to student, bringing with it a sense of comfort and camaraderie.
The interactions children are having now in an online classroom feel more like an awkward dance with technology, as each child tries to unmute themselves and speak, akin to walking down a hallway and suddenly coming face to face with a person walking in the opposite direction resulting in a series of uncomfortable and sometimes comical movements as each person attempts to let the other go first.
Arguably one of the most vital skills a child develops in their early years of school is how to successfully interact socially with others.
With the current online format for young learners, we have taken a vibrant and playful in-person classroom experience, and turned it into something that feels more like an online college lecture where students only participate by taking notes and turning in their assignments with minimal classmate interaction.
Learning should be joyful, but right now it rings a bit hollow.
I believe that with an open mind and some innovative, outside-the-box thinking, we can all work together to significantly and swiftly improve the online learning experience for both children and teachers.I spent my childhood performing music and theatre onstage and went on to study both subjects in college, gaining valuable education, presentation, and improv skills and experience along the way.
After college, I worked with adult learners who were primarily doing their studies online and then I left that job to obtain a Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education. I have spent the past decade working to educate visitors of all ages in museums, often in unconventional and non-traditional spaces, not unlike online classrooms, that require a robust and flexible skillset to build engagement and community in the midst of many distractions.
Drawing from my diverse set of experiences, I have spent the past week consumed with thoughts about how to better build community and engage students online effectively.
I’m not going to tell you that I have all of the answers, nor do I want to downplay efforts already in place to address this topic. However, I do want to share with you some ideas that may help, whether they act as a catalyst for more innovation and experimentation that will help entire classrooms across the country, or as just a single idea that will make a challenging experience better for a student like my daughter.
1. Don’t be Afraid to Play and Embrace Your Inner Goofball
In our family, my husband is often the goofy parent, whereas I typically fall more into the role of organizer and rule enforcer. Sometimes I feel like I’ve forgotten how to play, and have to pause and allow myself permission to let go and be silly.
But whenever I do, my kids are delighted and incredibly responsive to anything I am asking them to do. We all have an inner goofball inside of us, but sometimes you have to work really hard to find it.
I know being goofy doesn’t always come easy, but is a pretty universal and effective tool to use when communicating with young kids, especially in a virtual situation.
When you’re in an online classroom it can be easy to get caught up in the challenges of technology, but finding your inner goofball and creating opportunities for students to laugh will go a long way in helping to create community. Children love to laugh at adults, and it is healthy to give them the time and space to do that in a constructive way.
Give Kids Something to Look Forward To
Even something as simple as donning a silly hat or hiding something funny in the background of your teaching space that changes each day can be effective. Also, consider how you react to the responses of the students, and don’t be afraid to change your approach on a regular basis.
Perhaps one day you deny the existence of the funny hat and act as though everything is normal allowing a comical interaction to unfold, or maybe the next you make a point to draw attention to it and turn it into a joke or a game. Want to make online learning more engaging? If you do things like this consistently, you will give the kids something they can look forward to and actively look for.
In the spring when things started to shift online, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher started hiding a drawing of a Mo Willems pigeon in the area she was broadcasting from.
She told the kids she would hide it in a different location each day, but then never really pointed it out again. Even so, my daughter loved looking for it every time she logged on and was always excited when the pigeon was located. It was a little thing, but it created a ritual and infused a little silly into her online classroom experience.
2. Read Like You’re Performing Onstage
For as long as I can remember, I have loved children’s literature. The stories and lessons found within the pages of a children’s book are powerful tools and some of the most well-crafted words that have ever been written. As an adult and now a parent, one of my absolute favorite things to do is to read aloud to a child. I’ve also spent a lot of time in a variety of environments observing how other adults read to kids too.
More often than not, adults read in either their normal voices or with the quiet calming tone a parent might use to settle their child into bed. There is certainly a time and a place for that style of narration, but more often than not, the best reactions from kids are when the reader pulls out all the stops to bring a book to life.
You can never go too big when reading a book to a child. I’m not talking about volume, but I am suggesting the infusion of a little theatre into the story.
The best storytellers are the ones who revel in the language, giving each word meaning, and every character a distinct feel using facial expressions, body language, and yes, even funny voices to connect with their audience. There is no such thing as being too silly when reading kids. Never underestimate the power of a great story.
The more you invest in your performance (and yes, it is a performance), the more you will receive from your audience. The nice thing about reading a book yourself is that you can pause at intervals throughout and ask questions or find ways to have the children help with the story, too.
Sometimes it takes a minute, and it is best to embrace the chaos and take the entire class off mute so they can hear each other react. But if done well, one tentative question or silly laugh quickly becomes an avalanche of positive student engagement that infuses energy and breaks down barriers.
The more fun you are having, the more fun they will have.
If all else fails, feel free to give me a call, because I will always be more than happy to drop whatever I’m doing and read to a group of students.
3. Puppets – They’re Not a Dirty Word, and They Might Just Surprise You
I started working at the Monterey Bay Aquarium delivering public educational programs in 2009. Shortly after I began, I inherited the summer theatre program and immediately began to work hard to help it grow. A few years into that effort, we decided to try using puppets in our short musical theatre productions.
Initially there were many obstacles to overcome. In fact, the very idea of a puppet was at first treated like something offensive, too childish and badly done to be of use. However, after extensive research and a lot of discussion, we decided to try using puppets in our programs after being deeply inspired by the incredible ones found in the Noah’s Ark exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, CA.
These puppets, created by Chris Green, were made out of recycled and repurposed materials, and they were so cleverly done people of all ages were utterly delighted by them.
What we discovered is that puppets can be an absolutely magical teaching tool
There are all different types of puppets, and when done well, even a plastic bag can become an incredible character and teaching tool with as much life as any human actor. I think watching the reactions of children to our puppets at the Aquarium was the most illuminating experience of all. Children of all ages come alive when they have the opportunity to interact with a handheld character.
Sometimes a child will even confide in a puppet before they will share anything with an adult without one. Puppets can be polarizing, but the concept is a simple, low risk idea to try.
What if instead of having your face or body in the frame of your Zoom square, you instead used a simple hand puppet, perhaps a popular animal or even a silly sock creature?
Greet your class and ask where the teacher is. Start saying silly things, or singing a goofy song. It doesn’t matter if your singing is bad, because it’s not you, it’s the character you’ve created.
Use the puppet to lead an activity. Join the puppet on the screen and use it to cheekily check in with the students throughout your lessons creating an entertaining dialogue. We often learn the best when we are also entertained. The possibilities are endless, but the potential for positive engagement is huge and worth the risk of any embarrassment you might be feeling.
4. Ask for Help, and Be Willing to Bend the Rules a Little
This pandemic is stressful and hard for so many people, and every single one of us has needed some help from time to time. We freely acknowledge that our situation is not normal, and yet we often still follow rules that are put in place to guide us through times that are.
Of course, rules are important and in place for a reason, but sometimes they also need to be adapted or even tossed aside to better meet the immediate needs of a community.
This is not a normal school year, so trying to match hours required for normal classroom teaching or follow guidelines typically necessary to continue receipt of important funding should not be a factor this year. We all want to make sure that students receive a quality education, but in an online setting, less is more. This is especially true for young kids.
Short, engaging, interactive lessons with smaller groups of students will be far more effective and useful for both the teacher and the learner. If a teacher talks too long, it is easy for a student to disengage and immediately forget what they have just heard.
Make online learning more engaging
Kids learn best by playing, so we need to try the best we can to give them as many opportunities as possible to play even if the playground is online.
Every year, each classroom requests parent volunteers to help with various aspects of learning and enrichment. This could be anything from coming in to facilitate a lesson, copying materials to help the class run more smoothly, or helping to plan celebrations and enrichment for both the students and the teacher.
Since many in-person gatherings will not happen this year and there may not be as many materials to copy and distribute to the students, what if parent volunteers could help in a different way?
Many of us have chosen or had the choice made for us to be home more for our kids right now in order to provide childcare, facilitate learning, and offer support to them during this time. As a result, parents and caregivers are often nearby when synchronous learning occurs.
A classroom of 20+ people can be extremely intimidating for a child, and it can be challenging to get some kids to feel comfortable enough to participate. What if we used parent volunteers to partner with the teacher to periodically break up the class into smaller, more comfortable groups, allowing them to interact on a topic, play a game, or work on a project together?
I realize there might be some concerns about the safety and the legalities of this, coupled with a desire to limit facilitation to official school staff. However, most schools aren’t receiving enough money to the hire additional staff needed, but the parents and caregivers who are available to help are often in close proximity to the child as it is, and would feel far better if they could do something for their child that would be useful and productive.
For those parents who are unable to assist on a regular basis, that’s OK. Let’s agree that this is a time devoid of judgement where we can all lift each other up with no fear of guilt or inadequacy, supporting each other as a strong community of dedicated caregivers working toward helping children and teachers have a better experience.
5. Partner Outside the Box
I mentioned above that we all need help right now, but time and other resources are scarce. However, the education field isn’t the only one that is battling these challenges. The entire theatre and museum industries have imploded, with museums and theaters shut down for months with no opening date in sight, leaving thousands of incredibly talented and creative individuals out of work.
Work with your school district and local theatre community to reach out to these individuals to collaborate and ask for help.
These people often love working with children and have unique skills and experience teaching outside of a traditional classroom— skills that could be a big help in creating effective online engagement.
While some of them have found alternative work or temporary solutions, others are sitting isolated in their homes, desperately trying to stay fresh and relevant, wanting to find a way to connect and help others during this lengthy intermission from their regular lives.
Even if you don’t have money to spare, it doesn’t hurt to network within the museum and theatre communities both locally and nationally because you might just be surprised at the amount of positive responses you receive. The arts have been devalued and underfunded in this country for far too long which is a shame because art in all forms is one of the most powerful and important parts of human society. They are incredible vehicles for teaching content, expressing emotion, and building community.
There has been so much hardship this year, but even in times of darkness there is always a light just waiting to be discovered.
Online Learning Must Be Engaging For Children to Learn
Much like a phoenix rising from the ashes, we will persevere. There will be important innovations and discoveries that arise from this tumultuous year that will positively change the way we do things in the future.
Imagine what education could become if we used this opportunity to unite formal and informal learning together and rediscover the value of the arts by utilizing music, art, theatre and improv techniques that will not only make the online learning experience more effective and engaging for all, but will also help improve in-person learning as well.
Instead of simply wishing for this year to be over and for things to get back to normal, let’s pledge to make lemonade out of lemons. Give yourself permission to be silly, even if you feel ridiculous at first. Know that it’s ok to play and to laugh at yourself sometimes.
Your students, and their parents will love you for it. Don’t be afraid to bend the rules a little bit and think outside the box for creative solutions.
Look for help in unexpected places and forge partnerships that will make the educational experience stronger no matter where the learning happens. Try not to let challenges with technology stifle the joy of learning, because learning is a gift to be valued and enjoyed in any setting, virtual or otherwise.
Most importantly, don’t forget that you are doing a good job and that we’re all in this together.
Further Reading: Documentary Photography: Time to Replace Traditional Family Photos?