Overcoming Engagement Hurdles with Remote Learners

In order to empower people at some level, you first need to engage them.  It is nearly impossible to create a culture of learning if there are elements of boredom, inactivity, and lack of relevance.  This is a lesson I learned most recently as a presenter and workshop facilitator. Early on, I used more traditional strategies since this was a new arena for me. The shift from principal to full-time consultant brought a certain amount of fear. Thus, I reverted back to what I was comfortable with in terms of what I could control and perceived that educators wanted. I basically became the sage on the stage and a master of direct instruction with little participant interaction. 

I thought I was doing a pretty good job as no one told me otherwise. There was consistent eye contact, and all of the feedback I received from surveys was mostly positive. It wasn’t until a presentation at a major conference where I got the kick in the butt that I desperately needed but wasn’t aware of until then. As I was reading tweets from the session, a participant basically told me that I spoke at them the entire time and didn’t provide ample opportunities for greater discourse, practical application, or reflection. 

It was at this point about four years ago, where I began to embrace and model the very same strategies that were being used at my high school when I was a principal. Multiple opportunities for discourse and collaboration were included as well as time to develop action steps. Engagement was amplified with a focus on the how, exemplars from all types of schools, and the use of digital tools to provide everyone with an opportunity to respond. In essence, my role is now more of a facilitator of learning.  Another fundamental change was intentionally developing ways to personalize the experience for those I am fortunate to work with in my role. For example, I really appreciate Michael Ford pushing me in this direction when he asked me to create a choice board as part of a professional learning date with his staff. 

These changes, combined with what I hope is a unique style grounded in relationships, have enabled me to better connect with educators. Now more than ever, I have benefitted from these changes in the current remote and hybrid world. As someone who currently supports educators and schools all over the world in this area, it is critical that I not only engage as many people as possible but also model the most effective strategies that can be implemented in the classroom. I recently saw the fruits of my labor in action during a keynote with over 2000 educators.  Using one of the strategies listed above, I was able to get over 1200 responses to a question part of the way through using Mentimeter.

The pandemic has created a myriad of issues for educators, with engagement being at the top of the list. Every day I am asked for suggestions, especially when it comes to remote learners, no matter whether or not you are hybrid at this point. In addition to some of the ideas that I shared above, I strongly encourage you to check out this post, where I outline six specific focus areas. Below are some additional ideas:

  • Begin each lesson with an anticipatory set to get kids excited and impart relevance.
  • Call on students who have their camera and microphone off. By doing this consistently, the stage will be set for increased attention and participation. 
  • Integrate breakout rooms for discourse and randomly pop into them. 
  • Utilize quick checks for understanding (1-3 questions max) throughout the lesson using Google or Canvas forms.
  • Leverage digital tools for voice and choice. It is also good to use these following any breakout room activity to get a grasp on engagement levels.
  • Use the Rigor Relevance Framework as a means to evaluate the level of relevance in questions, tasks, and assessments. 
  • Develop means for accountability through routine feedback and timely grading. I cringe when mentioning the latter, but we must look at any and all strategies during these difficult times.
  • Include closure at the end of each lesson or synchronous session.
  • Move to tasks and work that are more purposeful through blended strategies such as station rotation, choice boards, playlists, self-paced activities, and flipped approaches.
  • Assign less work while going deeper into concepts.

The above ideas are more teaching-facing. However, engaging learners is a shared responsibility. Administrators can assist with the above by providing teachers non-evaluative feedback during remote lesson drop-ins or using a walk-through process. Additionally, job-embedded and on-going professional learning is critical for all educators, regardless of position, to improve engagement in pedagogically-sound ways.  Another way that administrators can help out teachers in this area is through relentless communication with families. In Digital Leadership, I outline how a multi-faceted approach that meets stakeholders where they are is the most effective way.  It is essential not just to get out information, but also engage families in a dialogue during these unprecedented times. 

When it is all said and done, engagement is grounded in a learner’s sense of why they are learning something and how it will be used in the real world through their lens. It can be achieved through a combination of context and application. Think about what motivated you as a learner and what still does today. This might be the best starting point of all.