The Simplest Act to Increase Engagement in a Virtual Learning Environment

For the past 6 years, I’ve had the privilege to work for a virtual company: engage2learn. When I was hired by the company, there were several norms that had already been established to ensure employees were productive and engaged in a remote learning environment. One of those norms is to have your camera on during virtual meetings. This simple act of having to turn my camera on during meetings keeps me engaged throughout meetings, even through a course of eight to nine hours of meetings per day. engage2learn’s CEO Shannon Buerk shares how this simple act of turning on cameras shapes our personal connection with one another, which keeps our cultural strong:

“Being a virtual company for nine years, we have had to be intentional about creating a thriving culture. I believe our protocol to use video instead of phone for meetings and to keep our cameras on at all times is one of the most powerful things we have done to create connection. We have worked through some very challenging times, we have laughed together, we have cried together, and our bond is ultra-strong even though we are only able to physically be in the same place once a year.”

For more information on engage2learn’s protocols and systems for virtual meetings, check out the blog How to Set up Virtual Meeting Systems and Protocols.

Due to this simple norm of having cameras on, engage2learn has been able to keep employees engaged, connected, and sticking to the e2L culture. This uncomplicated act of turning on cameras can easily be used in any virtual environment, including remote learning. 

With the start of 2021, the reality is that virtual learning is still one of the most viable options for students during the midst of a global pandemic. Therefore, let’s explore how turning cameras on during virtual learning or professional development can increase engagement for both educators and students. One of the biggest challenges that educators have faced with virtual learning is student engagement. Educators understand that in order to address the issue of mitigating learning loss, that they must engage students. There are many ways to increase engagement in a virtual learning environment, such as virtual collaboration, creating personal connections, and recognizing desired behaviors.  For more ideas, check out Robyn Scott’s e2L blog How to Increase Engagement in the Virtual Classroom. In order to be able to use the strategies Robyn refers to in her blog, educators need to employ the simple norm of having students turn their cameras on during a video call. 

Why Turning on the Camera Increases Engagement

Annelisse Durkes, an eighth-grade math and algebra one teacher in El Paso ISD, noticed that many of her students were attending their virtual classes during the first six weeks of school with their cameras off. She had no way of knowing if they were understanding the material, and she was seeing that many students with their cameras off were not mastering the state standards. Therefore, she realized she needed to implement a change in norms. 

“I have been making sure to have my students turn their camera on because I want to make sure that they are the person behind their screen for security purposes,” Annelisse explained. “As a teacher, I want to make sure that they are taking notes and are understanding the concept that we are working on.”

By having them turn their cameras on, Annelisse can use her students’ verbal cues to see if they are not understanding the material and ensure they are actively engaged in learning the material. She also asks them to show her their notes on camera. 

Annelisse also noted that having cameras on makes it easier for her to gauge how her students are feeling throughout instruction, which helps her teach in a way that best meets their needs. 

“By being able to observe their facial expressions, I can see if they are getting frustrated or having difficulty understanding,” she said. “These are very important cues to me.”

As a result of having students turn on their cameras, Annelisse saw an immediate improvement in student engagement and achievement.

How to Get Students to Turn Their Cameras On and Keep Them On 

Wondering how Annelisse set the norm for students turning on their cameras, after this had not been the norm during the first six weeks of school? She decided to call each student’s parents/guardians and explain the reason for asking students to turn on their computers. After she contacted each parent/guardian, students started having their cameras on, and it became a class norm.  

Once you have the norm, you can create a visual to share with students at the start of each synchronous learning opportunity. For example, at engage2learn we have virtual learning norms that we utilize and refer to during any virtual learning professional development. Below is an example of our Virtual Meeting Norms visual!

During synchronous learning opportunities, review the virtual learning norms and have students self-reflect on how they are doing adhering to the norms. Zoom has a great built-in poll feature, and there are other third-party digital tools like Poll Everywhere and Slido that you can use to have students quickly self-reflect on norms. Self-reflection is a great way to promote students adhering to the norms. 

Finally, recognizing the desired behavior will reinforce students following the norms and having their cameras on. Some ideas for recognition systems are to use virtual badges, tickets, or stickers to celebrate students adhering to the norms. Most LMS systems like Schoology, Google Meets, Canvas, etc., all have badging systems that allow teachers to design their own badges. You can check out the engage2learn blog How to Leverage Micro-credentials to Recognize & Foster Educator Growth to get ideas for how we use micro-credentialing and badging to recognize educator growth. Many of these same ideas can be applied to student growth. 

Learning Experiences that Increase Engagement

Once you have the norm set of having cameras on, create learning experiences that require students to collaborate with one another. To begin with, have students determine team roles and norms when on a Zoom, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams meeting. When every student has a role, they are more likely to be engaged in the learning. Once they have determined their team roles, provide activities that require them to have their cameras on to collaborate, such as video performance tasks to show mastery of their learning. There are a lot of great digital tools that promote video for performance tasks, such as Flipgrid, Screencastify Submit, or recording audio/video within an LMS to submit. 

What Actions Can You Take to Implement this Simple Norm? 

Let’s review the action steps below as a quick reminder of how to engage and connect learners in any virtual setting: 

  1. Share the “Why” behind having cameras on
  2. Develop Virtual Learning Norms in collaboration with your students
  3. Review the norms during synchronous learning and have students self-reflect
  4. Recognize desired Virtual Learning Norms behavior 
  5. Create learning experiences that require students to have their cameras on to collaborate with one another 
  6. Develop partnership with parent/guardians  

Once you have implemented these six steps, consider using a tracker to compare student achievement and discipline data prior to and after having learners turn their cameras on. You just might obtain similar results to Annelisse, since turning cameras on leads to learner engagement and connectivity. These results lead to a decrease in discipline and, even better, an increase in student achievement, which is ultimately why we do what we do: to positively impact students’ lives.


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