A while ago someone sent me this picture and I posted it on my Twitter feed. In jest, I commented that the high school teacher was doing something right: at least her students were turning their videos on! Virtual and blended education has been a challenge for thousands of teachers around the world, and anybody professing to be a guru of student engagement in an online environment should do so cautiously. I have had my share of frustrating moments while trying to deliver effective online lessons for my students but with eighteen weeks of virtual school last academic year and at least seventeen weeks of blended learning this academic year, I have picked up a trick or two that I’d like to share. Think of me as a curator, not a guru!

Student engagement is a topic that has come into sharpened focus since the global pandemic accelerated schools’ virtual and blended learning provision. However, as a recent study shows, there is still a lack of consensus as to what ‘student engagement’ means. That said, all teachers know it when they see it.

The engaged student...

The disengaged student...

completes work

does not complete work

regularly joins video calls

may be conspicuously absent

answers questions

seems quiet and/or passive

takes part in activities

lets others lead

communicates with you promptly and proactively

doesn't ask for help/doesn't reply to your communication

demonstrates 'behaviour for learning'

demonstrates poor behaviour and/or disrupts others

demonstrates enjoyment from participation

does not appear to enjoy participation

You might find it useful to audit your classes, to get a picture of general student engagement and to try and identify how disengagement manifests itself. This simple audit tool may be a starting point.

One major challenge facing teachers during virtual schooling is that even spotting disengagement has become more difficult. This great five minute video by educator John Spencer about Schlechty’s levels of engagement helps us identify the issue. Few students are disrupting lessons, but many are ‘ritually compliant’ and while they attend video lessons, their attention and commitment to the lesson and work are low. The videos suggests that high engagement comes from a blend of meaning, choice and challenge to the work set.

Finally, be sure that the issue is indeed one of student engagement, and not something else:

Technical reasons
Family reasons
Cultural reasons
Emotional reasons
SEND reasons
School-related reasons
Technical reasons

Some students have no device, no internet at home, or a poor internet connection. This isn't a problem of engagement, but if you do not adapt the delivery of content and tasks they may not be able to participate.

Family reasons

Some students may have to share devices with their siblings. Or, older students may be in a carer role (for their parents or younger siblings). They may always be able to attend your lessons. You may find asynchronous learning is the way forward.

Cultural reasons

You may find some students do not join lessons or will not turn their video on. Before you frame this as an engagement issue, consider whether there may be a cultural issue at work. For instance, in Bahrain (and other Muslim countries) mothers who ordinarily remove their hijab or other clothing while at home may instruct their child not to put their video on.

Emotional reasons

Many students have found virtual schooling very stressful and frightening. They may be struggling to engage due to their feelings about the pandemic, the nature of virtual schooling, or something else. If in doubt, talk with your pastoral leaders before taking action.

SEND reasons

There are countless reasons why SEND (special education needs and disabilities) students may struggle with virtual schooling. Here, strong inclusion/SEND provision is vital. Check your learning support registers, read through IEPs (individualized education program), and talk with those involved with inclusion.

School-related reasons

Consider how flexible your school is being, and what provision is in place. Expecting all students to attend timetabled online lessons sounds great in theory, but may be impractical. Keep internal discussions going about how the school should define engagement, and what can be done to help students cope with these challenging times.