Synchronous online teaching – keeping virtual classroom students engaged

This was the second continuing education course that I attended at EAHIL 2017. This session was led by Tomas Allen a librarian based at the World Health Organisation in Switzerland.

The aim of the session was to dispel some myths about online teaching. To improve the learning experience and to adapt the instructor’s style to the online environment.

To begin with we were asked to sit on the table that most matched our learning style – Activist, Pragmatist, Theorist or Reflector. In our groups we had to devise a 5 minute session on teaching MESH. The point of the exercise was to make sure that we all addressed the different learning styles that people have. Knowing and understanding how people learn affects how we teach them whether online or face to face. There are different tools that can be used online to meet the different styles.

When teaching its important to remember its not what you already know that’s important but what you want the students to learn. Students will be more engaged if what you are telling them is new and not something they’ve heard before.

We watched a YouTube video called “Conference call in real life” This showed us some of the problems that can be experienced when leading online training. There are problems with people joining late, unable to log in, being present but not visible, being easily distracted by other things.

During an online session it is possible to see who is active, as in a face to face training session. You can then target the inactive people with questions to wake them up. When online you have to ask more questions to keep participants engaged.

I found this session very useful as we were given some top tips to use if we ever lead a training session online. These tips made up most of the session, some are common sense but it doesn’t hurt to point them out.

Its important to keep participants microphones closed except at the beginning and end of a session so there is no disruptive background noise. Encourage participants to use the online chat to ask questions, this gives you the opportunity to reflect on questions before answering. Encourage people to make their questions simple and clear this will make them easier to answer. Emoticons can be used to gauge how people are feeling about different aspects of the training. Polls can be used to see how people are reacting to what you are teaching but don’t do too many at once and the questions need to be well worded.

It is very difficult to lead an online session alone, there should be at least two people as one is delivering the session the other can be dealing with technical issues and respond to any questions.

Before you start your session, it’s a good idea to share handouts and any reading so that people can prepare ahead of the session. This gives them an opportunity to take more away from the online session.

Using web cameras can help to see people’s responses as you would in a classroom but this can slow everything down. Using photos may make it easier if the network connection is slow. Tomas usually uses a photo of himself at the start of the course as people like to know what their trainer looks like, then he would use the full screen for the actual training.

When training online it’s helpful to have two screens and have all the links and documents required during a session pre-loaded so that they can be dragged across to the main screen when required and there is no messing about with waiting for things to load. Have any searches already typed up in word and simply paste them into the database to save time. Make sure any pop up email alerts are switched off as this can distract from what you are teaching if they appear during your session.

Unlike when teaching face to face it’s important to have a script. If you teach from bullet points as in face-to-face there may be some hesitation, which doesn’t come across very well online so make sure your session is well scripted.

There is no point advertising too far in advance, if people sign up too far in advance, they are less likely to participate in your session. Tomas suggested advertising a week in advance with a reminder the day before then 15 minutes before the session starts.

It’s a good idea to have something up and running online ahead of the start time, as some people will log in early and its better if there is something there for them to see. Use this as an opportunity to promote future training.

High-level staff are more likely to join an online course, as they are more anonymous than they would be in face-to-face training. This means that you need to advertise these courses differently and think about how you might target a different audience.

During the training we were asked to practice our talking skills and keep talking for five minutes about anything, as it’s important when training online that there is no silence as with radio dj’s. I can tell you from my own experience that this is very difficult to do. At the beginning of the session you can talk about anything the news, weather etc. this gives you an opportunity to check your microphone and participants to check that they can hear you. It is possible to download royalty free music to fill some of this time so that you don’t have to keep talking. Good sources of this music are and Make sure you don’t choose anything too annoying though!

Leading an online training session can be tiring so to give yourself a break, include videos in your training. You do however need to be aware of any copyright issues with using videos.

Sessions should run for about an hour with fifteen minutes for questions afterwards.

Annotation tools can be helpful to mark up items, these can even be used by groups of people e.g. to show where in the world they are located.

As with anything on the internet before you begin teaching online you should check how your chosen software works with different browsers. You will need to tell participants if there is an issue with a particular browser ahead of the session.

To make your teaching sound more natural online use a wireless headset, this will allow you to move around as you teach. Make sure that you have a backup headset and batteries to hand in case of any problems.

If participants have any problems connecting make sure they know who to contact, give out an email address or phone number. This is why you need two people as the second person can be dealing with these technical issues and not affecting the teaching.

Remember that people are less likely to show up to an online session. People may also sign up very late. Tomas found that people were signing up for the same course multiple times, they just need reassuring that this is ok.

Tomas uses WebEx to deliver his sessions, this allows him to record them and make them available later. He suggested that any recordings should be edited before being placed online, or record a session without any participants.

Try not to use a wifi connection as this can fluctuate in its speed and affect how quickly material is downloaded to participants. Participants on slower bandwidths will slow you down as most software will slow to the lowest common denominator. This is a particular issue for Tomas as he is often training people in Africa where the network can be very slow. Using small images and simple slides will also help in the way the material is delivered to participants.

Before you deliver your main training session you can test your equipment and participants equipment by running a 5 minute training session. This will save you time in the real session by hopefully eliminating the technical problems that people face. In this session you could explain something quick and useful such as setting up alerts in Web of Science or why using the human limit is a bad idea in pub med.

Ensure that others around you know that you are doing a live online training session, perhaps hang a do not disturb sign on the door. Tomas cited the classic BBC news interview where the children and Mum rush in. All the others attending the course had seen it!

We looked at some web conferencing software at and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the various options. Most groups felt that WebEx was the best all round option.

The final problem that you have when teaching online is how to end. Tomas suggested turning all the microphones back up and simply saying goodbye then turning your microphone off.

This was a very interesting session delivered in a very fun way. We don’t currently plan to start doing any training like this but it is an aspiration and there were lots of helpful hints and tips during the session. Very few people attending were delivering training online but were in the same position as us in that they were considering it in the future.


2 thoughts on “Synchronous online teaching – keeping virtual classroom students engaged

  1. Thanks – I found this a really interesting, informative and useful account. I have participated in a number of online sessions and have experienced some of the issues highlighted with joining a web session. Whilst I currently have no plans to run a web based session, I found the well considered hints and tips very useful.


  2. As I have only participated as a student in asynchronous online courses I can only comment on the pitfalls of feeling dis/engaged in that situation. One Future Learn course was so unsupervised that the students openly commented on their lack of satisfaction on numerous occasions with no response from the educators! On a current course run by Monash University, Mindfulness for Peak Performance, the educators have responded in a video round up each week to the content of the students’ forum even acknowledging the impact of world events.

    I found the content of your post really interesting by contrast. Thank you.


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