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ATD Blog

Tips for Keeping Virtual Learners Engaged

Friday, April 2, 2021

“Teachers affect eternity, no one can tell where their influence stops.”—Henry Adams

In early 2020, much of the world shifted from in-person to virtual overnight, some struggled more than others. In order to thrive in this new environment, we had to relearn much of what we knew and how we approached our work. The stable environments where we learned and the time and space allotted to our growth and development dissipated, but our need to learn continued. As learning became a byproduct of the new virtual world, the feedback and messaging became “virtual learning does not work.” The challenge, however, is not with virtual learning—it is with those of us who design, develop, and deliver the virtual learning—we are the ones who determine whether or not virtual learning is successful. And it can be successful.

One of the biggest reasons virtual environments are not successful is the lack of engagement. In the virtual environment, we tend to drop the activities that we did in person. But here is the reality: engagement and interactivity are the most important aspects of a successful virtual learning environment. We cannot deliver asynchronously to our learners, especially now. When we are together in a live virtual environment, the content and the opportunity to learn needs to be synchronous, engaging, and full of energy.

Our learners’ environments are filled with distractions, more now than ever before. A lot is happening in our learners’ lives, and we are fighting for their attention. But attention alone isn’t the only reason engagement is important in a virtual setting, the other reason is the social component. In the virtual learning environment, we need to leverage the opportunity to create social connections for learners. Our session might be their only time that day to connect with someone else. They may be alone most of the time, and some may not have friends they can see or may not have family around. Take advantage of the opportunity to connect and establish and create opportunities to build those social connections.


Icebreakers and Energizers

The tone of your session and its success is set from the very beginning. Establishing a connection, building trust, and creating an engaging environment when the session opens sets us up for success and primes the learners to be involved. It’s equally as important to keep the energy level consistent throughout your session. Icebreakers are a great tool to use at the beginning of your session. Energizers are a great tool to use throughout your session, especially after breaks or lunch, to pull the learners back in and get them excited and energized to move forward. Icebreakers and energizers can be used interchangeably—the only real difference is “icebreakers” are the activity at the beginning of the session to break the ice and get learners connected, while energizers are the activities we use throughout the session to keep learners engaged, give their brains a rest from content, and keep the energy level high. Here are some of my favorite icebreaker activities:

  • The Object of Me
  • Remember Me
  • Optical Illusion
  • Virtual Rock, Paper, Scissors

Instructions for each of these games can be found here:


Best Practices

Three to five minutes is the best practice for creating frequent interactions. It does not need to be a complicated activity, and it can be a simple call for their attention back to the screen. For this to work, though, level-set with your students at the very beginning of the session, let them know it’s going to be interactive.

In addition to icebreakers and energizers, use nonverbal communications to create engagement in the virtual classroom. It could be as simple as asking a question and having students type the answer in chat or click on the agree/disagree or thumbs up/ thumbs down button. Nonverbal communications tools are available regardless of the platform being used and are very powerful ways for our students to continue to engage with us. The idea is just to create some sort of engagement or interaction that draws them back into that virtual environment so that we can get their attention.

Remember to consider your learners in everything that you do. The most important thing we need in this world right now is empathy, not just for our learners, but for everyone. Design and deliver with your learner in mind will help keep them engaged and lead to successful virtual learning experiences.

About the Author

Keith Keating is a senior director of GP Strategies supporting General Motors’ Center of Learning. With a career spanning more than 20 years in learning and development, Keith Keating holds a master’s degree in leadership and has experience in instructional design, leadership coaching, operations management, and process transformation. More recently, Keith has been leading GP Strategies’ clients on the development and execution of their global learning strategies. Regardless of the role, at the heart of everything Keith does centers around problem solving. He studied design thinking at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and found it was a perfect tool to add to his problem-solving toolkit. Since then, Keith has been using design thinking to help clients tap into understanding and resolving unmet customer needs.

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