13 WAYS TO MAKE YOUR ONLINE EXPERIENCES MORE ENGAGING AND INTERACTIVE

SUMMARY

Although I’d love to have a crystal ball and see into the future, I can’t predict what is going to happen in the next 6 months any more than you can.
Although things are opening up now in some areas, I can’t say for certain that we won’t at some point be restricted in the way we gather and hang out together at some point in the coming months.
And if you work regularly with audiences in-person – whether in a gallery, museum, heritage or outside setting – you need to have a back-up plan for whenever you can’t meet in real life. And this is where feeling confident that you can create an engaging and interactive experience online comes in.
I’m going to share with you a variety of ways that you can make your online sessions – whatever format they may take – more interactive and engaging.

INTRODUCTION 

In October last year I shared a post on Instagram about ‘Amazon Explore’ the new Amazon experiences – a service which allows people to access experts in a chosen field and to enjoy a virtual touring experience.
It’s still in beta version but it aims to offer a different experience from anything already out there – firstly the sessions are always one-to-one between the ‘guide’ and the subscriber. And secondly, there is an emphasis on personalisation, active learning, interaction and engagement.
With Amazon Explore they want to offer a more ‘comprehensive experience’, something different to passive consumption or merely watching something on-screen. ⁠

I shared this because anyone creating virtual sessions, tours or experiences should take note – along with anyone involved in online teaching, course creators and more.⁠

I also shared it because I had heard a few whispers about the death of online experiences and ‘zoom fatigue’.
I shared the information with the quote:
“If you have had any doubts about how long virtual experiences are going to be around for, take this as a sign. “
Virtual experiences are not going anywhere soon. There may be less of them as we start to open up or they may take different formats but they are here to stay.
Over the past year, I’ve attended some fantastic interactive online sessions and I’ve led hundreds of my own.⁠
I’ve also attended some pretty dull one-way presentations and long lectures.
BUT those experiences that emphasise personalisation, active learning, interaction and engagement will be here to stay.
And this is something we should all be offering in our online experiences. ⁠

If you haven’t levelled up your online skills yet, it’s time you took some action.
No matter what type of session you are leading – be it a virtual tour, an online slow looking discussion, an online class or course, you need to keep your online sessions interactive to stop participants from tuning out.
You need to find a variety of ways to engage people throughout the session.
⁠When it’s done right, online sessions are JUST as (and in some cases MORE) rewarding and engaging online. ⁠But how do you make it interactive and keep everyone fully engaged? Here are my 13 tips!

1.LET PARTICIPANTS KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT

You should set expectations at the start of your session so that all participants know what will be happening.
You should explain what you’re going to be doing and what the protocol will be (cameras on/off, muted/unmuted).
As a general rule, ‘cameras-on’ will make people feel more present and involved (but be understanding that there are certain situations in which cameras can’t be turned on).
Tell everyone that yours will be an interactive class and explain how you will be asking people to participate.
Don’t forget that there are an awful lot of passive webinars or presentations out there, so let people know from the start that yours will be an active session!
If your participants are less confident with the tech, how about sending a short how-to video beforehand to get them started?
However, I recommend you don’t start the session with the schedule and the Zoom guidelines. This is a sure-fire way to get people to tune out. I follow the mantra in all of my sessions ‘connection before content’ so I always get to know the group and do a warm-up before I share any information.

2. USE NAMES 

This is probably the simplest piece of advice I can share with you. Refer to participants by name throughout – this helps to establish rapport and makes people pay attention too.
If people aren’t using their real names as their Zoom account names, encourage them to change this at the start of the session (there are easy instructions for this on the Zoom website) so that you don’t have to guess what their name is. When someone makes a comment in the chat for example, you can paraphrase their comment and mention their name too.

3. CREATE AN ATMOSPHERE THAT ENCOURAGES PARTICIPATION 

As you would do in-person, you want to make sure that all participants feel happy to contribute – you want to create a welcoming and friendly atmosphere that encourages participation and involvement from the start. You want to make sure that all participants feel that their contributions are valued and understood by the facilitator – ie you.
Use your facilitation skills and good questioning techniques throughout to make sure everyone feels comfortable about participating and sharing.
Don’t forget to welcome everyone to the session and make sure you find out something about the participants. Not just who they are and where they come from, but what they already know about the subject at hand. My classes may contain a mix of beginners, intermediate and experienced Visible Thinkers – so it’s good to know where everyone is coming from so that you can tailor content accordingly.

4. MAKE IT PARTICIPANT-CENTRED 

Think of your role as the orchestrator or facilitator of the discussion. You are helping participants to discover information for themselves. This is not about providing content and facts. Don’t forget that you are the ‘guide-on-the-side’ rather than the ‘sage-on-the-stage’.
If you’re going to do a lecture, then consider whether an asynchronous format (recorded video) might be a better format for you.
Live sessions are for participation, interaction and connection.
If you find yourself oversharing or monologuing (and we’ve all been there!), ask yourself the question ‘Could the group discover this for themselves if I asked the right questions?’

5. USE THE FULL FEATURES OF ZOOM

And now we’re getting on to the tech stuff. You can easily encourage interaction by using the various features of video conferencing software you’re using. Open up the chat function to invite comments and participation (particularly from those who haven’t said anything yet). Or create a poll that asks participants to share experiences or you can put participants into pairs, trios or small groups in breakout rooms. Breakout rooms are particularly good for quickly reinforcing a sense of community as the group can discuss and relate together.

6. USE SMALL GROUPS THROUGHOUT 

Use breakout rooms to foster small group collaboration and conversations. Give participants certain questions or tasks to work on together. Make sure the instructions are clear (share written instructions if necessary). This encourages quieter or more hesitant participants to take part in an environment where there are fewer participants and it’s easier to interact. Nominate one person to note-take or share their screen if necessary to help the group focus. After a set amount of time, close your breakout rooms and ask participants from each group to share their findings. You can still keep an eye on participants by dropping in to each breakout room if need be!

7. USE COLLABORATION TOOLS

Use a variety of high-tech and low-tech collaboration tools to make your sessions sing. I always recommend participants have paper and a pencil with them (at least) and post-it notes are very useful too. You can also use story cubes, decks of cards with questions (like these here or make your own) and viewfinders. You can use these for drawing activities, writing exercises and more. I’ve experimented with tools like Mentimeter and Miro in online sessions too to offer more digital engagement and interactivity through mind-mapping, brainstorming, idea capturing and more. Use tools like Padlet or Google Forms to gather feedback or ask for an ‘exit ticket’ (your one key takeaway, or use ‘I used to think…Now I think…:’) at the end of your session.

8. USE THINKING ROUTINES

You knew I couldn’t leave out thinking routines, right? Using thinking routines will give your online sessions structure and purpose. Choosing a thinking routine (or more than one) in advance will ensure that you have a well-rounded discussion, rather than a loose muddle of questions to ask. Having a structure means that participants can follow the train of thought for the session and are more likely to stay engaged. Choosing thinking routines also means you can decide in advance the types of thinking that you want to focus on during your session – e.g using See-Think-Wonder means that you will be focusing on observation, interpretation and wondering. The thinking routine will provide some carefully crafted questions to use to which you can add your own open-ended questions to encourage interaction and participation.

9. ASK QUESTIONS

If you take one thing away from this podcast, it should be this. No matter what the subject of your virtual session is, art, archaeology, history, science etc. you can foster participation and interaction by asking good questions. Keep participants busy throughout.
You can vary the way you work, but above all encourage your participants to be active rather than passive. If you’re using objects or artworks in your session, let them be the focus and use your questions as catalysts, encouraging your participants to discover, ponder and reflect.
Use thinking routines as a starting point but also spend some time with your chosen artwork or object yourself and write down a list of questions you might ask about it. Star the ones that are most interesting. By asking open-ended questions, you’ll find that both you and your participants will have a more enjoyable, memorable and unique experience. To work on your questions, see How to Ask Brilliant Questions that Get Results, 10 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Asking Questions and How to Use Artworks to Improve your Questioning Skills.

10. ALLOW THINKING TIME

Ask your question and then wait. Give everyone the chance to respond to your question. If necessary, count to 5 in your head before even thinking about saying anything. Be patient and comfortable with the silence. Think of it as thinking time!
If your session is larger than 8-10 persons, then ask for answers via the chat to avoid everyone ‘bumping into’ each other when they speak.
Or else, tell people to unmute themselves or ‘raise a hand’ when they want to say something. Then you have a signal that they would like to speak. Be comfortable with the silences – there are more of them online – but it doesn’t mean that people aren’t wanting to engage with you.

11. BE A GOOD LISTENER

Active listening involves fully concentrating on what is being ‘said’ rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the message of the speaker. This counts for comments made through the chat too. If you’re not sure that you understand what a participant has said, ask for clarification.
Ensuring that you understand and value every comment that is shared will encourage more participants to join and take part. A win-win.

12. BE A BIGGER VERSION OF YOURSELF

I think you do have to be slightly larger than life in an online session. You do need to look directly at the camera and deliver with enthusiasm. So, you should look to find your own way of really selling it online – maybe by hand gestures or tone of voice or even the words that you use.
Remember the passion you have for teaching with art in-person and transfer that enthusiasm online twofold! Your enthusiasm will be contagious and will make the group even keener to respond and participate.

13. READ THE ROOM

It is harder to read the room and pick up on non-verbal clues in an online session, but with practice you will be able to spot any signs before it leads to disengagement.
Make sure you do a regular scan of faces on your screen to check for furrowed brows or blank stares or for people tuning out (this is one of the reasons why it’s great to have a ‘camera-on where possible’ policy).
Check in with your participants regularly – you can get them to give you an actual thumbs-up if they are ready to start or use an icon (Zoom has a ‘thumbs up’ ‘hand clap’ and ‘raise hand’ feature which are all useful).
I also ask check-in questions throughout the session and gather feedback and reflections via the Chat. A quick Zoom poll is another more formal way to anonymously find out how everyone is doing too.

MASTERCLASS: ZOOM CONFIDENCE FOR EDUCATORS

So, that’s it. 13 quick-fire tips on how to make your online sessions more interactive and engaging.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this and would like to work on your skills more comprehensively, I have a recorded masterclass for you called ‘Zoom Confidence for Educators.
This class is definitely for you if you want to get over your tech fears, learn how to create and lead engaging and interactive sessions (of any kind) and want to learn how to let your personality shine through online (and perhaps feel less camera-shy).
This online recorded class will have you facilitating interactive & engaging online art discussions like a pro in just 90 minutes. When you purchase this class, you will receive the recording, slides and workbook so that you can take the class at a time and place that suits you!
https://thinkingmuseum.com/product/zoom-confidence-for-educators/
ZOOM CONFIDENCE FOR EDUCATORS