Looking for effective ways to engage students virtually?

Virtual Engagement Strategies

In light of COVID-19, McGill services, student clubs, services and associations are rapidly adapting their traditional in-person programming to virtual programming. Below is a compiled list of resources that may benefit your club, association or service. Please don't hesitate to cle [at] mcgill.ca (reach out) if we missed something. 

On this page: Virtual Engagement Platforms | Facilitating Virtual Meetings | Programming Ideas | Virtual Engagement Strategies Using Zoom | Other Resources


Virtual Engagement Platforms 

Name of Platform Description Purpose Notes
Zoom

Zoom is a web conferencing tool. It allows people to easily convene online meetings* with each other, chat with or without video enabled, and deliver presentations while maintaining a good quality connection among all participants. There are also many cool functions available including screensharing, whiteboard, breakout rooms and more!

Check here for Zoom updates including tips and tricks! 

Trainings, meetings, socials, presentations TLS has many resources on how to use Zoom. 
Microsoft Teams Microsoft Teams is a chat-based collaboration space that allows a group of people to communicate and organize information in a single area.  Meetings, collaborating on projects IT has many resources on how to use MS Teams. 
WebEx Cisco Webex is a web conferencing platform that enables you to collaborate virtually for meetings, classes or events. Meetings, workshops, presentations IT has many resources on how to use WebEx.

Facilitating Effective Virtual Meetings 

Facilitating in-person meetings is already something hard to master. Virtual meetings, on the other hand, also comes with challenges and barriers. Campus Life & Engagement put together a list of tips when it's your turn to chair a meeting!

Create Virtual Etiquettes/Group Norms
Some examples include:
  • Turning camera ON: Helps us feel connected and see nonverbal cues.

  • Turning microphone OFF: Save people from background noise and distractions.

  • Turning notifications OFF: Outlook, iMessage, Chrome, slack etc.

  • Using the chat function in different virtual platforms: Add comments without disrupting speakers.

  • Using virtual cues like thumbs up: Help your facilitators understand if you are engaged or not.

  • An example can be found →

Think about the Purpose Prior to Scheduling Meetings

We've been asked to attend endless virtual meetings lately and the Zoom fatigue is real! In order to avoid that, we strongly encourage you to think about the purpose of the meeting and would it be a good use of everyone's time? 

A tool that can help is called IDOARRT.

Tip: Planning meetings backwards may sometimes help! 

Don't go over 2 hours and remember to build in breaks whenever possible! 

The rule of thumb is to not schedule meetings that are over 2 hours. Also, each person shouldn’t talk for more than 5-7 minutes (you will lose people after 7 minutes). 

Tip: Plan stretch breaks! 

Always have a "tech" support person in the room that is not the chair/facilitator of the meeting.

Sometimes, people in your meeting may experience tech issues. In order to avoid taking up your meeting time, assign a tech person to help people who are experiencing audio issues, video issues etc. Don't ask Rex to be your tech support though!  

Continuously check in with the group and use energizers to boost the energy level! 

Check in!

Ask, "Are you with me? Thumbs up if you are."

Build in energizers!

Examples: Hyperisland, Toolbox Toolbox, Session Lab, Liberating Structures

 

Build in some solo reflection time.

Allow participants to come up with individual action items from the meeting and share it with the group. This way, everyone is held accountable and people are less likely to forget! 


Virtual Programming Ideas

It is more important than ever to foster a sense of connection and belonging with people. We must develop creative new ways to engage students through virtual programming. EAB has compiled 120+ digital engagement strategies for students. 

Campus Life & Engagement has also been hosting virtual engagement activities over the summer including summer socials, drop-ins, student panels, live webinars and more. If you'd like to schedule a quick consult, please email us at cle [at] mcgill.ca!


Virtual Engagement Strategies

Music

Empty or dead air time drains the energy and engagement of everyone, and music can help fill the void. Music should be playing whenever people are not speaking or in breakout rooms. Music also encourages movement, however minor it may be, as students “dance” in their chairs.

Music shouldn’t be played on a phone or other external source—they sound terrible—instead Zoom’s advanced sharing options allows for audio-only sharing, which allows for clear, high-quality music be played directly from Spotify, iTunes, or whatever.

A note: If you are sharing music, no one will be able to hear you speak—Zoom will prioritize the music (or other audio source) and your voice will essentially be muted.

"Soft" or "Stealth" Icebreaking

It’s still important to facilitate icebreaker activities at the start of an event, but a lot of people will resist if you so much as use the word “icebreaker.” Instead design activities that pull students into the activities without triggering any backlash. Use language like:

  • You have an opportunity to…
  • You get to…
  • Your challenge is to…

For example, challenge your participants to get up and find the following items in 90 seconds:

  1. Something that makes them smile
  2. Something that represents a new hobby or interest they have
  3. Something that is one-of-a-kind or unique to them

After, we suggest sending participants to small breakout rooms to share what was found with each other, before returning to the larger group for select participants to share with everyone.

Solo, Small, Large

We suggest ordering activities following this order to help warm up everyone, especially more introverted or shy participants. In the above example, you can first challenge participants to perform the scavenger hunt by themselves, followed by small-group (small-stakes) sharing, followed by large-group (large-stakes) sharing, gradually easing students into increasing levels of socialization.

Spotlighting and Spotlight Dance Parties

Spotlight specific participants by focusing on their camera and audio, especially if music is playing! Focus in on others who are dancing in their chairs or encourage others to dance when the focus falls on them! Switch to another person every 15-30 seconds. 

 

The “Spotlight Dance Party” is much the same, but with the group instructed to emulate the moves of the spotlighted dancer.

Some Tips:

  • When spotlighting during discussion or sharing sessions, the facilitator should identify ("volunt-tell") the person who is going to be the focus of the spotlight a few seconds in advance, rather than seek volunteers. This kept things moving.
  • For the dance party, it’s helpful to have a co-facilitator or other support person who is in charge of spotting dancers and switching the camera focus to them.
  • Don’t begin with the dance party—warm everyone up first, including getting them used to having the camera’s focus. It’s a better closer than opener.

Engage the Hands

Keeping the hands engaged is critical when a world of distractions is at our fingertips. This can take the form of a many different little activities that are used frequently throughout a virtual event – answering polls, using the chat, showing the group their pen or pencil, performing a specific action and so on. If the students’ hands are too busy to flip through browser tabs or use their phone, they are bound to be more present and engaged.

Engage the Body

Zoom fatigue is real, and we can help cut through it by getting students to move around. The above dance parties are one way to do that, as is the scavenger hunt. It seems counter-intuitive to have students leave their computer as a part of a virtual event, but they will enjoy it!

Use Appropriate Backgrounds & Lighting 

Some survey responses to how people's impression of you are influenced by your background: 

  • Participants care more about the background you use than the clothes you are wearing
  • Most people (65%) find presenters using real backgrounds (where you can see the details and contents of the room) authentic
  • Some people (31%) judge presenters in front of blank walls to be authentic
  • Only 4% of people find presenters using an image or “fun” virtual background to be trustworthy or authentic

Similarly, it’s important to light yourself from the front for a clearer and brighter image, and to create a more positive impression.

Go Over-the-Top

When facilitating virtual events, your energy doesn’t show or translate as well as it does when in-person, as if “the camera steals 15% of your energy.” Ramp up your energy level to a silly level, because that’s what is needed to come across as “normal” over Zoom or other platforms. This might take some practice!

Use Breakout Rooms Effectively

Tips:

  • Smaller is better—4 or 5 people per room seems to be the best for forming connections in a 10-minute conversation breakout
  • Use clear discussion prompts— Set specific discussion topics (i.e. share the items you find in your scavenger hunt, or share what they hope to get out of session on a personal, professional, and institutional level)
  • Use break-out rooms frequently, but don’t reuse prompts. Using lots of small breakout rooms gives students more opportunities to connect with others, and having a new prompt each time keeps these interactions from feeling stale
  • Give participants a rule to figure out who speaks first. We’ve all been in a breakout room where no one speaks for the first minute, and these rules cut down on that dead time. Rules' example include “whoever’s birthday is closest to today goes first” and “whoever is the furthest from Chicago goes first.” The best rules are ones that require sharing little details that help create connections, such as where you are, when your birthday is, etc.
  • Message the breakout rooms—Hosts can send messages to everyone in breakout rooms, and use this feature to do the timekeeping for them or remind them what the discussion prompts were. 

Create Opportunities for “Selfless Moments of Kindness”

There is a need for re-creating, virtually, the time and space for the random “in-between” moments and interactions that are at the heart of making meaningful connections—things like talking to a classmate while walking between classes, or in the minutes before class begins. Participants may feel isolated, and the positive impact a kind word or interaction can have on others who are struggling to feel part of the community is invaluable. 

Using breakout rooms is a major way you can create a space for allowing these interactions to occur. It’s still more structured than that “in-between” time, but it’s as close as you can get during a virtual event.

Another thing you can do is specifically train your volunteers to spot students who are having a harder time socializing and provide these moments of kindness.

Finally, sessions can end by prompting students to flood the chat with messages of thanks or compliments for specific students whom they learned something from or had something in common with.


Other Resources

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