Tips for Creating Virtual Programs

In Small Hinges Swing Big Doors, I stated that the key to effective virtual instruction, like in-person EE or E-STEM instruction, is to find the core of your topic and focus almost exclusively on it. This is not a new idea; it’s been around for a long, long time. However, in my 20 years as both a formal and informal educator, I have met very few educators who consistently apply it in practice. One reason, I think, is because topic and core get conflated, as if they are one and the same. That’s like saying that the body and the heart are the same. The universe of any given topic is large. To be most effective, your lesson has to hone in on the core and stick faithfully to that.

Another reason could be that it takes practice and discipline to approach program creation in this way if you’re new to it. With perpetually long To Do lists, it can be hard to commit to spending extra time to do something in a new way. But with our usual way of doing things disrupted, now is the perfect time to shift into using this approach as we move instruction into the virtual world. Plus, it gives you a place to start if you’re feeling unsure in this unfamiliar territory.

Here are a few additional tips for great virtual programs:

  • Passion does more to draw your students in that anything else. Let your passion for your subject come through and your audience will respond.
  • Practice! Practice your program or lesson before you present it and keep practicing until you have the kinks worked out. For virtual instruction, you’ll need to practice not only presenting the content but also navigating whatever digital platform you will be using.
  • Incorporate elements that are aesthetic or surprising. Choose beautiful or funny pictures and facts that are surprising to create memorable lessons.
  • Allow for audience participation at regular intervals. This is important, though often overlooked, for in-person classes. It’s essential for virtual. The interval will vary by age group. For younger elementary, the ideal interval is probably 5-7 minutes, for adults maybe 15-20 minutes.

Here are some suggestions for incorporating audience participation in a virtual program.

  • If your lesson is live and your audience numbers about 30 or less, you can simply ask for a show of hands or to show something you told them to bring to class, like a seed or leaf. Especially for younger kids, incorporating even a little movement and an opportunity to see their peers can up their engagement dramatically.
  • Ask a question and invite the audience to state or choose an answer using a polling app. You can embed a factual multiple-choice question into your presentation or let your audience vote on a relevant question, like which example to go over as a group or what their favorite mammal is. A polling feature can be used to give you vital information about your class, like what they already know and where they are struggling, or it can just give them an opportunity to interact, to feel like they are included and involved. Zoom has a polling feature, and Poll Everywhere is another popular option.
  • In addition to posing questions for the entire group, you can ask individual students to do something for the class. For example, in Zoom, you can send a message in the chat window to one individual participant. It’s also a great idea to incorporate a game by, say, asking the student to act something out that relates to your lesson. Virtual charades is fun and engaging, and helps alleviate how challenging it can be for young children to sit in front of a screen by themselves instead of being in a classroom filled with life. Lots of games used for in-person settings can be taken virtual with a little tweaking. Older audiences enjoy games too; just match the game to the audience.
  • In Zoom, you can share your screen or use the Whiteboard feature, along with the Annotate feature, to allow your participants to mark on the screen. Multiple whiteboards can be shared at once, giving you the option to have all students marking on one board or a board for each student. You can use Annotate without Whiteboard to allow students to mark on whatever you are sharing on your screen, like PDFs or a PowerPoint presentation. With Annotate, you can write, draw, stamp and spotlight. Other apps that allow for on-screen interaction are, and Google Jamboard.

How are you incorporating audience participation into your virtual programs? What has worked for you, and what challenges are you having?