Teaching online doesn’t equal a lost audience

  • What keeps students engaged in a virtual classroom?

By Chrishan de Mel

In my career, I’ve been a corporate trainer, facilitator, and lecturer for many years. Is it due to my grandfather’s genes as a teacher for over 35 years or based on my own positive experiences when I taught early on in my career, or a combination of other factors? Though I don’t know the answer to this, I’ve always enjoyed teaching, running team-building events, and delivering training programmes.

If you have followed a course on public speaking or been at a Toastmasters meeting, you would have learned the basics of presentation skills. Aspects like maintaining eye contact, being aware of your posture and gestures, engaging your audience, practising vocal variety, and maintaining energy levels are just a few examples of being more effective as a speaker or facilitator. What happens when everything moves online? While many of the aspects above are still valid, the reality is that you need to master an entirely new set of tools and techniques to facilitate or teach online successfully. In my observations, I notice a gap in our trainers, teachers, and presenters using these tools to increase interaction and engagement.

This article aims to share some pointers on how you can make your next online presentation or training session more engaging than ever before. Much of what I’ll be sharing are techniques I’ve learned from skilled facilitators from Berlin, Barcelona, and Singapore. I appreciate their willingness to explore new ways to interact with the audience continually. Some of these tips will require learning new tools or some initial effort early on. I can assure you, whether you are a facilitator, teacher, or presenter, the outcomes are worth the effort.

Have participants mentally check into the session

When facilitating in a physical setup or classroom, the participants are “in your hands” for the session, free from external distractions. When facilitating online, you must aim to secure this connection by checking in with your attendees at the start of the session or during an icebreaker. While there is no shortage of icebreakers, I’ve found the “sheep scale” a fun icebreaker to assess the level of engagement where no one feels reluctant to respond. Depending on the size of the audience, you may also invite a few people to speak briefly as well. Use this time to set some ground rules relating to muting/unmuting microphones, whether cameras need to be on and how you will handle questions.

Get engagement with chat responses

In a physical classroom, it’s easy to recap a previous day’s session. You can pose a question, scan the room, and invite that eager, friendly face to respond. How can you do an effective recap online, especially if people are on mute with their cameras off – seemingly disengaged. One technique is to use the “chat” feature on the platform coupled with a quiz to see who gives the first correct answer. As an online facilitator, you will see a spike in engagement when you introduce a competitive activity. Be mindful that those using tablets or phones may be limited in how fast they can respond, as some features remain hidden. Cater to this group by allowing some verbal responses as well.

Ask for reactions to keep the session alive

Educate your audience on the features available to convey their reactions. At a minimum, make sure they are familiar with the thumbs up, applause, and using the “Raise Hand” button to respond while the session is in progress. Encourage responses for approvals and applause when participants give correct answers or valuable insights. When you do get responses, acknowledge them and thank participants to encourage continuity of the interactions.

Use audience interaction tools for polls and word clouds

In a classroom, all you need is to ask for a show of hands to get a poll going. When using Zoom or Teams to anchor your presentation, Mentimeter or Slido are helpful tools to poll your audience and present the results of audience responses dynamically. They are simple to configure – just set up the questions and share the access code to get the answers from your audience. The audience can use the browser on any device to access the site and provide responses which are reflected in real-time on the facilitator’s screen. Use word clouds to aggregate short answers from the audience to see a pattern. While Zoom has a built-in polling feature, the tools mentioned above provide a lot more options that are more visually engaging.

Use breakout rooms to enable more conversations

Depending on the size of your audience, plan to enable breakout rooms to allow smaller group conversations and brainstorming activities to take place. In the common forum, convey the expected instructions and outcomes and verify that the participants have clearly understood this. You can also assign a leader and timekeeper for each room or insist this takes place in the breakout room. Make sure the time allocated is realistic for the task at hand. Be accessible to answer any clarifications while the group activities are in progress. You can provide support using another channel like WhatsApp, as some messaging functions could be disabled when participants are in breakout rooms. The breakout findings can be posted on a designated area in a collaboration tool mentioned below, for easy access when shared in the common forum.

Use digital collaboration workspaces to pool insights

The familiar workshop setting, cluster seating with flipcharts for group activities, has disappeared. How can you get the same level of participation and volume of ideas and insights when group activities are online? I’ve found tools like Miro, Mural, and Google Jamboard useful to get all the participants involved and contributing actively with their thoughts. The image below is a screenshot of an active collaboration using Miro at a 99x event. I used Microsoft Teams to host the breakout sessions while participants posted insights on a shared board on Miro. I used a separate WhatsApp channel with the group leaders to handle questions. I’ve seen that the energy and enthusiasm of participants can be infectious, even when using a virtual collaboration board.

Participants actively collaborating in a virtual workspace

Use annotations to bring life to static content

While the tools mentioned above require some familiarisation before use, you can get immediate engagement from your audience by using the built-in annotation features of your online meeting tool. You can pose a question or share a slide and then invite people to respond using annotations. You could also use the virtual whiteboard for participant input where the activity is simple, such as an icebreaker, and doesn’t warrant visiting a separate collaboration tool.

Share only a portion of the screen to maintain focus

I’ve experienced that it’s easier to maintain focus for longer sessions when only a portion of your screen is shared. Zoom supports this within its advanced sharing options. It also allows you to easily switch between multiple applications, moving the relevant area to the foreground or visible area instead of selecting and switching to different applications each time.


Online learning or facilitation does not mean your participants are out of your reach. Go ahead and try some of these techniques the next time you make a presentation or host a workshop online. If you’re a teacher, I believe using even a couple of these techniques will positively impact the quality of your delivery, and improve student engagement and learning. When I had to teach about “Earned Value Management”, a topic in Project Management, many found it hard to grasp; I experimented by using my daughter’s building blocks in class to make it a tactile learning experience. In another class, I used strips of paper of different lengths labelled as tasks to help participants understand this subject. Both these approaches worked well to communicate the message. So don’t be afraid to experiment; try out the new tools and techniques mentioned above on your next event online.

(The writer is the Chief Marketing and Corporate Affairs Officer at 99x and spearheads marketing activities while supporting business development and customer success initiatives. He is an accomplished practitioner with over 25 years of experience in the tech industry, with complementary roles in programme management and corporate consulting. Before joining 99x, he was the Executive Director of SLASSCOM. His industry experience includes banking and financial services and global IT services with Virtusa, Societe Generale (SOCGEN), Nations Trust Bank, and Union Bank of Colombo)