The importance of social engagement in the online class

“I can’t tell who is more frustrated, the teacher or the student”

How do you show friendliness in an online classroom? Now that we’re past the survival stage of virtual learning, we can think about what’s missing in how we teach and what we can do to achieve better quality communication.

I remember those moments, before the pandemic, when a student would walk into my classroom and I’d say, “hey, how’s it going today?” And that student could feel the impact of personal attention, that a teacher is actually “seeing” them. Those kinds of socially intuitive interactions are lost in the online teaching we are doing today.

What’s also missing are the little things that indicate friendliness, like someone getting closer to you when you’re saying something. In fact, students indicate that they miss the tactile aspects of face-to-face classes, like the feeling of having a physical classmate sitting close to them in class.

Immediately, the engagement feels more personal, because active listening means literally getting close to somebody. There’s ego involved in there, too, like when you’re talking and people gather around you because you’re saying something interesting.

On Zoom and other traditional video conferencing platforms, you can make facial expressions that indicate what you’re feeling, but no one knows to whom that is directed. The ability to express emotion in a physical manner in a virtual space would be a dimension that we could all benefit from.

A recent student survey indicated that online classes aren’t as effective as in-person. The biggest shortcoming, from my perspective, is you don’t have enough senses firing in traditional learning platforms. Student engagement is a huge thing.

With a typical online class, when a teacher is asked a question and is in the middle of answering, students who didn’t ask the question start to zone out. They’re checking social media or whatever else they do to distract themselves. They don’t feel agency over their experience, they don’t feel like they’re in charge.

Worst case scenario, they turn off their video, so a teacher ends up addressing a classroom of black squares. So many of us have been there, done that.

I can’t tell who is more frustrated, the teacher or the student. Teachers are restricted by the limitations of their software and spend too much energy keeping track of how engaged their students are. Students are disenchanted by the sameness of their classes, the one dimensionality of how they are learning, every day.

For international students, that lack of engagement is even more significant. One of the reasons why they choose to study at overseas universities is to better understand a foreign country’s culture, the dynamics of the classroom.

With that lack of dimensionality in an online class, their studying abroad experience has been stripped of its potential richness. Add to that the difference in time zones, and the learning is that much tougher.

An MIT study a while ago showed that the best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings. So, would it be a stretch to extend that to a classroom? That informality segment is lost in Zoom, and it’s hard to pick up on social cues in that format.

And even if you could detect cues, how can you act on them? If a student gets bored or fidgety, can you change the screen’s backdrop? Engage them individually and say something?

I’m doing some work in improving that experience, to make virtual learning something that’s not just a poor alternative to an in-person class. As a data scientist and professor, I am able to address the problems I’ve experienced firsthand as an educator.

Call me a dreamer, but I think the key is to view the virtual space as a different kind of society, a new place for engagement rather than a solution to a problem.

We shouldn’t marginalise the social, more intuitive benefits that classrooms provide, both face-to-face and virtual. It’s not only about teaching – it’s overall engagement. And that personal, intuitive touch shouldn’t be lost, simply because we’re not physically in the same place.


About the author: Narine Hall is co-founder of Inspace, a socially intuitive online learning platform. As an assistant professor and program director of data analytics at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, Hall is training the next generation of data scientists while making machine learning more accessible through a series of pioneering initiatives.