by Seth Fleischauer, Founder

A friend reached out with concern about his local school district’s plan for distance learning in the fall. Knowing of our success teaching via live video, he asked, “Honest question: how do you keep screen-based learning engaging and interesting for kids who are now doing that as their primary source of education?”

The shortest answer to his question is: our goal is for the level of engagement to be so great that the medium doesn’t matter.

We continue with that approach this fall with our K-6 online learning clubs.

Here’s how we do it:

1. Treat it like it’s live TV.

You’ve sat down to watch TV but the program just became the tiniest bit boring. In the old days we may have pushed through until it picked back up again, but now many of us look at our phone to see if there’s a small chunk of content that will get us through the lull before we can reengage.

As much as you’d like to just take what you’ve done in the classroom and move it online, learning from a screen is just different. When sharing a physical space there is at least somewhat of a social pressure to engage with the people around you; this is not so in the online world. Also, as a culture we have become accustomed to screens entertaining us. Your students are now your viewership. You are competing not just with another screen they could toggle to but whatever’s going on around them at home. You are also being held to an engagement standard established by other forms of media. You need to draw your students in with a reserve level of passion and charisma rarely seen in the classroom. Your students have to care about what you’re saying because you’re saying it in a way that anyone would care.

This comes naturally to some but for most it does not. If you fall into the latter group, to build this skill you can practice putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation that you must use creativity and humor to get out of. Toward that end, I recommend dabbling in some introductory acting, improv or even puppetry classes to improve your ability to engage your students online.

2. Keep up the pace.

In the age of Tik Tok you just don’t have that much time before your viewers start drifting off. If you have say, 7 minutes as a window of opportunity to truly engage your students in a physical classroom, cut that in half when you’re online.

You basically have three inputs: what can they see, what can they hear, and what are they doing. At least one of these inputs must change every X number of minutes (with X getting bigger the older the kids are). So if they are listening to you, you get X minutes before you switch to students talking to each other. If they are doing something passive, you have X minutes before switching to something active. If you’re sharing your screen, you have X minutes before switching back to grid view video. Just keep it moving.

3. Include informal social time.

Though the stated goal of school is typically academic, depending on the kid (and who you talk to) an even greater need met by schooling is socialization. Students no longer have before, after and even during class to just sit and talk to each other. So, build informal socialization into your lesson. Let it breathe. While that may sound counter-intuitive to keeping the pace up, it actually fits within that paradigm perfectly because it represents a shift in input/output. Do this even if it’s at “the expense” of your content (to which I would argue that, if it is, you should reconsider your content).

The zones of regulation are a great framework from which to facilitate more difficult, personal conversations. Check out our social and emotional learning series for an example of how to do this.

4. Connect students to people and places they’d otherwise never see.

Speaking of content, make the fact that you’re teaching them online a feature, not a bug. Bring in special guests. Take them on a tour of your kitchen and give a world history lesson using your spice rack. Do some science in your bathroom. Have them run outside, dig up some soil, put it in a jar and return for a collaborative analysis. Have a silly virtual background competition. Know teachers who live in other countries? Organize a virtual field trip.

We are huge believers in live video as this beautiful marriage of technology and humanity. Use this time to make authentic connections you never would have thought of it wasn’t necessary for you to mother some inventions.

5. Be a great teacher.

I know, easier said than done. But the idea here is to not lose sight of everything that made you great in the classroom. While the above will help you engage your students online, it is meaningless without building a strong foundation.

Need some more help? Check out our TITAC free training series with best practices for online teaching.