7 Steps To Romancing The Virtual Classroom

By James Wagstaffe
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Law360 (May 20, 2020, 11:34 AM EDT) --
Jim Wagstaffe
Jim Wagstaffe
We are living in tectonic times as teachers, trainers, lawyers, students, companies and workers everywhere wrestle with the reality of sharing lessons online. And let there be no doubt — these online warriors are struggling to engage and stay engaged. Romancing students and colleagues in the virtual world calls upon a very different skill set and use of multiple "tools of attention" not required when sharing the same physical space.

In my career, I have had the opportunity to teach full online law courses to lawyers, judges and their law clerks, as well as journalism undergraduates. These work-at-your-own-pace learning excursions have involved the embedded tools of taped lectures, enhanced graphics and continual student self-assessment. In addition, I've had the demanding good fortune to teach webinars for the Federal Judicial Center, various bar associations and LexisNexis (publisher of my online federal practice guide). When it comes to live remote presentations and teaching while on the road, I also have been a devotee of the occasional Skype class for my civil procedure law students and public speaking undergraduates at Stanford University.

While remote teaching tactics differ, the goals transcend delivery systems. We still must aspire to achieve what, for over 40 years of teaching, I have called the "three learning 'shuns": attention, comprehension and retention. This article will provide survival skills for mastering the art of virtual, real-time classroom/meeting room teaching and training.

The Virtual Classroom

Who would have thought just a few months ago that our online teaching vocabulary would be dominated by the terms "synchronous" and "asynchronous"?

Synchronous online teaching means engaging all learners in "attendance" with live, interactive activities. The synchronous teacher choreographs the contemporaneous teaching and learning performances like (what at least used to be) a "Saturday Night Live" show with all its immediacy and excitement.

Of course, when someone uses the broader term "online learning" this also includes what has come to be called asynchronous teaching and training. This is where the lectures, activities and materials are available online to be accessed by students at their own pace. Students take such classes (or complete such trainings) on their own schedules, on mobile platforms, and often with features for continual assessments so learners can jump ahead as soon as they've mastered the point of information or skill in question.

No one is saying you can't combine in a single course both synchronous and asynchronous learning (e.g., taped presentations and exercises) — and it can be particularly useful when students come from around the world in dramatically different and sometimes inconvenient time zones. But of course, all online teaching platforms are challenged when the learning environment calls for kinesthetic classes such as acting, lab work and production — each of which involves the physical classroom's excitement and immediacy.

Engagement Challenges

Stated at the highest level of generality, it is a big challenge for teachers and trainers to engage attention when students often are staring blankly at a small screen searching for motivation. Frankly, if they're looking at the screen at all you may be ahead of the game, as statistics in this COVID-19 era tell us that as many as 60% of our charges are — instead of listening — reading their texts, checking Instagram accounts, shopping online, eating food, listening to music, or leaving the room entirely.

Even in the physical classroom, it has been estimated that the attention span of students is in the five- to seven-minute range. Thus, it should come as no surprise that when the method of delivery becomes the more distant and unaccountable flat screen, studies show the average attention span is measured not in minutes but in seconds.

Students themselves are saying "my attention span at home is a lot shorter than it is at school" and "staring at that little screen actually hurts my eyes, neck and head." Even before the pandemic, some 67% of students said they didn't find online classes as effective as in-person ones. And in a survey of nearly 1,300 students conducted after shelter-in-place orders, 75% said they didn't think they were receiving a quality learning experience. We simply have to get better.

To be sure, the teaching and training experience itself is also more challenging. Preparation can be twice as hard with half the rate of return. We are mourning the loss of immediate feedback and the sounds of an engaged room of learners. In the virtual classroom, connections with attendees are easily disrupted because you often can't stop students from turning to their cellphones, playing video games or "leaving the room" while muting themselves and turning off the video. If it's just them going to the bathroom but they return, I aggrandize myself by saying I've won them back. All this is why, after teaching our Zoom classes, my colleagues and I are feeling less exhilarated than exhausted.

I believe one of the mistakes we make is thinking we can replicate online the excitement and immediacy of being in a room together. We convince ourselves that we will prevail simply by being funnier, more vocally varied and motivating through sheer energy and interesting material. Wrong.

The virtual classroom has completely different challenges and solutions. Forming emotional connections with students while apart and decoding their motivations require new tools of engagement and much, much shorter chunks of interactive information and activities.

Seven Steps to Romancing the Virtual Classroom

1. Fill the emotional void.

Human beings crave real connections with others. Yet in the virtual world, there can be an emotional void when we lack the visual connecting cues of eye contact, body language, gesture and presence. When the online audience is disengaged emotionally, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for them to pay attention, care about comprehension, and certainly to maintain any level of retention. In lay terms: They're bored!

So, the challenge of romancing the virtual classroom is how to fill the emotional void and trigger those learning endorphins. This means two things: (1) inserting emotional language into our lessons, and (2) using our facial expressions, hand gestures and voice to communicate passion, excitement and empathy.

Use meta-emotional language.

If your students feel disconnected emotionally, as a teacher you must fill the void with emotion-laden words so the listeners can decode your intent and attitude. Use restorative words that disclose your emotions such as "this is really thoughtful," "I am excited about this," "this will really be fun," and "that's terrific!" The contagion of enthusiasm and the meta-sharing of your feelings need to be more obvious and upfront when the normal cues from the physical classroom are absent.

Make emotional connections with physical and vocal tools.

When certain connective tools from the physical world are missing (e.g., eye contact, movement, full body language), you must increase the emotional force of what remains when communicating to others in the small rectangular frame of the computer screen. This includes, therefore, your computer-visible facial expressions, hand gestures at and above the chest level, and the vocal variety accessible through your microphone — all to signal excitement and passion.

What are these amplified tools? They are the smile, along with varied inflection, pitch and volume of the voice. In addition, you can enhance engagement with conscious changes in the rates at which you speak, along with varied use of pauses in order to modulate meaning and attention. As you might imagine, avoiding filler sounds (e.g., um, uh, like, you know, etc.) is key since, just as on a radio broadcast, their inclusion is more grating in the online environment.

In addition, you can create engagement through hand movement and body position (albeit in a more confined environment) by using emblematic gestures (e.g., "OK," thumbs-up, finger numbering, etc.) and alternating your distance to the computer. If your camera angle will cooperate, try standing up as you teach as it often leads to more authority and conversational tone.

Overall, and like most romantic endeavors, variety is the key. If you find yourself slipping into a vocal or movement monotone, have or pretend to have someone in your delivery room to simulate not a monologue but a true dialogue.

2. Never go it alone — use hosts and facilitators.

The standard classroom teaching model is the professor or motivational trainer as the "sage on the stage" who performs solo for the assembled listeners. Because the virtual classroom calls for varied voices to maintain engagement, as well as ongoing technical monitoring, your effective teaching may need to be a team effort.

Specifically (and even if you are not team-teaching a subject), you should have a designated person or assistant play the role of host or MC to assist and implement your romancing effort.

The host/MC can monitor the class presentation by introducing the lesson, asking at the outset how the listeners are doing that day, and then welcoming the teacher. Further, this person can ensure participation by coordinating turn-taking and feedback from students and interaction with the teacher (e.g., "We've got a question in our chat from Mary" or "Does anyone have any comment on Jim's point there?"). And if you don't have a formal teaching assistant or paid assistant, you can select your stellar students to play this role, which can include responsibility for being sure that everyone is heard.

In addition, you may want a separate person to facilitate the technical aspects of the online presentation. This can include choosing the best program for delivery (e.g., Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangout, Skype, FaceTime, etc.), running the tech, enforcing timed breakout assignments, and flyspecking problems that arise during the class (e.g., dropped participants, sound loss, etc.). It is simply too much for one person to teach and at the same time perform these other roles.

3. Teach in smaller chunks and for shorter time periods.

Since we cannot rely on the visual cues to let us know when our students are drifting, we absolutely need to realize that this brave new world requires teaching in smaller, bite-sized chunks and in shorter increments. The notion that a 50-minute class segment (normal in the face-to-face world) can be exported to the virtual classroom is nonsensical.

Romancing the virtual classroom necessarily will go forward in three- to five-minute chunks. If you find yourself speaking for longer segments without intervening topic changes and feedback loops (see below), you will often lose your students to the distractions of their own environment and desire. This may require breaking down your teaching units and learning objectives into much smaller subparts than you ordinarily would in the face-to-face world.

By the same token, we need to realize that the sheer act of staring at a small screen for extended periods is inherently fatiguing (for both you and your students). No matter how interesting you think it all is and how dynamic you are in the physical classroom, it is imperative you take short or longer breaks every 20 to 25 minutes.

If you combine the "teach in small chunks" with the "multiple breaks" methods, you just might be able to go as long as a total of 90 minutes. Any longer and you might as well be talking to yourself.

4. Motivate your listeners to learn.

As is equally the case in the physical classroom, you must regularly communicate to your students that there is a reason to learn the lesson(s) being taught. Any salesperson knows that you need to explicitly explain that there is something positive to be gained or negative to be avoided if the customer is to be motivated to buy what they're selling.

In my public speaking class, for example, when I'm teaching how to answer questions or give interviews, I emphasize that the skill set when mastered will help them get a job. It is almost prosaic for the old-time door-to-door salesperson to knock on your door, toss a handful of dirt in the entryway, and then inform you they are selling you a vacuum cleaner. So, always ask yourself why it is in your students' self-interest to learn what you are teaching.

5. Involve your listeners on a constant basis.

If you want to keep the attention of any listener — in or out of the face-to-face world — you must use techniques to involve them on a constant basis. This requires use of multiple tools of engagement and then actively listening to your students as outlined here:

Facilitate feedback and questions.

Perhaps in the physical classroom you were a dynamo and, like Socrates, students hung on your every word. Well, it is indeed a brave new world where you now must see yourself more as a conversationalist than a monologist in communicating in the virtual classroom.

All this means that you must be attentive to "taking turns" with others and giving cues (directly or through your class MC) that you want feedback and questions from your students. (E.g., "I'm almost done here, so let me open it up for questions after one more point.")

Have your MC monitor the chat questions and comments, judiciously interrupting your presentation and visuals with any matter that reasonably is on point. Encourage or require students to turn on their video function (even if sound is muted) so that you will see them raise their hand when they have a question on the material, and make it clear you don't view questions as undesired interruptions.

When your students are passive (i.e., don't take the explicit hand-off), that's when you may need to implement your playbacks and quizzes strategies.

Regularly get informational playbacks and give quizzes.

When you are sharing information and seeking attention, comprehension and retention, you can and must command and reward knowledge acquisition. You do this by immediately and frequently (every 2-3 minutes at least) calling on students to restate what you've just communicated. This will test their understanding in real time.

And to avoid the "Sorry Professor, I wasn't listening" response, consider giving a 30- to 60-second warning to individuals by name that they're on stage for answering the upcoming question. Your students will succeed more often with this approach if you remember regularly to summarize the points you are making.

By the same token, you can achieve group attention and accountability by giving mini quizzes (administered easily through the online polling function) on an equally regular basis. For example, in a 20-minute segment, I might have as many as three to four quiz questions to be certain my students are engaged and motivated to learn.

Be interactive.

In the physical classroom, you can make eye contact with your students and insist on a verbal response. In the virtual world, you must facilitate such responses without the visual cue. So, the tools to be encouraged are the online equivalents: the chat function, polling, and even encouraging use of the emoji (thumbs up, clapping hands, etc.).

I have also found (especially when viewing students in a video gallery) that explicitly and often asking them as a group to respond to questions with physical, nonverbal gestures can be particularly effective. (E.g., "Everyone give me a thumbs up or down right now depending on whether you think the Electoral College is a good thing.")

Moreover, the "Greek chorus" group response technique from the physical classroom can be adapted easily in the virtual classroom; simply tell all your students to unmute and together respond out loud and in unison to an instructional question you have posed. Ask for such "votes" often.

Use the breakout function.

While it can be more challenging than in the physical classroom, you can easily have a class go into smaller discussion units by utilizing the breakout function in the virtual classroom. Be sure, however, as you facilitate the breakouts that you follow these simple rules:

  • Be clear on what you want them to discuss on breakout.

  • Use freeform collaboration on a shared problem set (e.g., like math and science tutoring).

  • Suggest a "leader" for each breakout to facilitate discussion.

  • Increase accountability and participation by letting them know you (or your TA) may or will be monitoring the breakout.

  • Emphasize that they will "report out" once they're done.

6. Do fun things.

If you want your students to have fun, you have to give them fun things to do — and it doesn't always have to be topic-specific.

Ask questions and give out prizes for participation. Do an online magic trick. Hold an impromptu poll on current events. Teach your subject through a Jeopardy format. Use Prezi maps or pose video challenges to emphasize significant features. Adding music to your presentations is always a good way to add emotion to the information being presented. If you're having fun, so will your students.

7. Romance the virtual classroom visually.

Mastering visual learning techniques is vital in any classroom. Thus, it is vitally important in the virtual classroom as well.

Be aware of the computer screen image itself.

For starters, be certain that the computer backgrounds being presented to your students (and the ones they present to everyone else) are engaging and free from distractions. You should arrange and layer your background so there is a sense of depth to offset the two-dimensional flatness. This means placing an object like a painting, bookshelf or the like (not just a blank wall) behind you. Computer-generated backgrounds also can be fun but could be distracting.

At the same time, you must ensure that your face is lit clearly (e.g., with a ring light), indirectly or with cross-lighting, so as not to wash out images with high luminance. You absolutely do not want to be seen as talking in the dark, which occurs when placing the light or window behind you, or in a room that casts distracting reflections (e.g., off a visible glass frame or from overly bright light streaming in from an uncovered daytime window).

Also be sure that the computer camera is not aiming up (which gives quite the view into your nostrils). Aim the camera directly at your mid-forehead so that you will be framed at eye level and not as if you're on a mountain top. If you don't have a tripod, then simply place your laptop on books stacked high enough to raise the camera angle as desired. Bottom line: Look at yourself in advance to know where you are in the frame and how you will be viewed.

And finally, be aware of the distractions in your environment (small children in the background, open doorways to the bathroom, stacks of paper, etc.) and then control them. Romancing the virtual classroom is hard enough without the distractions of other people or uncontrolled sounds.

Master the teaching visuals and rehearse.

Skilled teachers have been working for years on mastering visual aids in the traditional classroom (PowerPoint, electronic whiteboards, etc.). In this endeavor, they have learned to avoid the distracting hypnosis of too many words and insufficient images. That said, in the virtual classroom with the use of the shared screen, teachers are far freer to use multiple slides and populate them with the verbal and nonverbal lessons.

Nevertheless, we still must make our slides and visual tools (such as virtual flip charts) engaging and clear. Such online visuals (which often should be provided to students in advance to increase their preparation) can involve multiple live activities and facilitate simultaneous work on documents in real time. (E.g., virtual whiteboards, BaiBoard for iPad, IDroo for Windows or Android, Groupboard, WizIQ, etc.).

To romance the virtual classroom visually, and since you cannot really see your students' eyes, you must use direction (not suggestion) as to what you want them to be looking at and when. Always ask yourself, "What are they looking at and what do you want them to be looking at?"

For example, on your virtual chalkboard you can point at, highlight or circle items in the shared screen to focus the attention of your students. All this will reduce the ongoing challenge of distracted attention — especially if you rehearse often.

Survival By Adaptation

Let's be honest — the virtual classroom ain't the same. But it is here now, and in some ways, it is bound to stay. Adapting to this change by learning how to romance the virtual classroom is the solution. And as General Eric Shinseki famously said, "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less."


 
James M. Wagstaffe is managing partner and co-founder of Wagstaffe von Loewenfeldt Busch & Radwick LLP, and the author of "The Wagstaffe Group Practice Guide: Federal Civil Procedure Before Trial," published by LexisNexis.

This article is also available with Lexis Practice Advisor®, a comprehensive practical guidance resource that includes practice notes, checklists, and model annotated forms drafted by experienced attorneys to help lawyers effectively and efficiently complete their daily tasks. For more information on Lexis Practice Advisor or to sign up for a free trial, please click here. Lexis is a registered trademark of RELX Group, used under license.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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