Engaging Your Virtual Learners

Learner engagement isn’t unique to virtual environments or “elearning”. It’s a problem in classrooms, training centers, and seminars across the world. For a long time, the rule has been: the Learner will get out of this what he/she is willing to put in.

I can’t refute that logic. One needs some kind of buy-in or commitment from a Learner. But there are ways to increase the likelihood of engaging these learners — and some that do so specifically in a virtual environment. Let’s chat about a few of those that might not be as well documented as others.

Promoting The Peer Environment

Learners are people. People want to connect. Some writers built their careers writing about this. Teachers should dedicate some real thinking time to how their content promotes, or disables, this basic instinct.

In a virtual environment, peers can be thousand miles away. Peers can be from different age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc…But what they have in common is being in the same “place” at the same time. In this way, your job is to remind them they are peers. It may not be immediately obvious. Remind them they’re in this together. Create an environment dedicated to their belonging, even if there isn’t so much tying them together outside of your content.

If you can attach the content to the connection (the actor to his cast), engagement will grow simply because its at the core of the relationship. Think about it this way: when you’re out with a friend of a friend, or an in-law, what is most commonly talked about? Your shared friend or family member. It’s the object that ties that remains at the center. Make that your learning content.

‘How’ not ‘What’

If you’ve Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People, this idea might sound familiar. If you want a real response from a Learner, ask a ‘how’ question not a ‘what’ question.

What I do mean by that? Ask for the bigger picture. Don’t stop at “what would you do here?” Instead, ask “how would you solve this?” Let Learners start completely anew. Have them talk about their thought process before the actual doing. This will have them engaged in the process, because they are intuitively tying themselves to it. A ‘what’ question can separate the person from the action. That’s disengagement. We’re not here for that.

We ask about personal systems in our Training program. Instead of asking what a Learner’s system is, we ask how they designed it, how it works for them, and how they see it scaling in the future.

This gives Learners an opportunity to talk about their own creation. Not the system itself; but how it came to be, challenges along the way, and ultimately the success of it emerging. You can see some love and beaming in their responses. This is a good thing.

Let Them “Cheat”

I often wonder if schools could take a different approach to “cheating” (by which I mean copying or collaborating on answers or homework or tests). There are some tactical positives to it. A focus on the results and not the process is one. And while that’s not what you want an education system based on, it’s certainly not an automatic “bad”.

Ultimately, in corporate learning, we want problem-solvers who produce something good or valuable. How that’s done, in certain situations, is an afterthought. Still, cheating has a dirty name in the education system and children are discouraged from thinking outside the system. Add to this that as education has gotten more competitive, cheating is on the rise. What if we embraced it somehow instead of outright discouraged it?

And let’s not ignore the possibilities it has for engagement – the topic of this blogpost. There’s still some interaction that has to come from cheating, and these interactions can range to full-on learning endeavors. Sometimes, increasing engagement means giving up some control as the ‘trainer’ and letting peers teach peers.