When schools transitioned to online learning during the pandemic, it sped up an existing trend of education adapting to the digital world.
On the one hand, the enforced changes highlighted the challenges of online learning, such as fostering the camaraderie and connection that are crucial to learning. Yet educators adapted their lesson plans for the internet, especially in high-income countries (see chart below). They had to try new activities to recreate meaningful connections and authentic community in the virtual classroom.
Drawing on some best practices, we share seven virtual classroom activities that every educator should use to enhance their distance learning.
One of the main advantages online educators today have at their disposal is a range of virtual classroom platforms. The best tools come with bells and whistles that support collaboration and enable interaction to keep students engaged. You can even use them for your virtual training sessions, where you go over how to plan classroom sessions and create individual learning plans to help students get the most from virtual learning.
These tools that empower virtual classrooms also open up opportunities to move towards blended learning or flipped classroom models. These more student-centered approaches allow students to read or watch lectures at their own pace and in their own time and minimize teacher workload (podcasts on 1.5, anyone?).
Read on as we break down fun and creative online activities that will help you increase student engagement.
1. Virtual scavenger hunt
This is enjoyable for the kids. The teacher gives the students an item that they should find. And the first one to share it on screen is the winner. A simple idea, but also the possibilities are endless. This activity works for younger kids and can introduce a fun and collaborative element to a curricular theme. Teachers can invite kids to collect an artifact they can find around their home (say, striped items).
Host scavenger hunts as a one-off activity, or you can provide one checklist item for students to find each day. Scavenger hunts can work well with older students, too. For example, get them to submit images of items they found that illustrate the different types of power in a global politics project.
Encourage students to present and explain their choices, and you can even turn the hunts into competitions where students decide on which team or student best captured the theme of the day’s scavenger hunt.
Tools and apps can facilitate these activities. Or you can use different types of barcode to design a digital scavenger hunt where you hide some codes on websites or social media pages and get students to scan them once they’ve figured out the clues or riddle.
2. Virtual icebreakers and games
Virtual icebreakers are a welcoming and fun way of connecting with students, creating that online community. On the first day of school, they provide the silliness to help classmates get along.
One classic example in a virtual classroom is two truths and a lie. Have students write a couple of true statements and one false statement on a relevant curricular topic. Perhaps about a famous historical figure or the result of a scientific experiment. Students then share their statements. The class must then identify the true facts from the false information.
3. Polls, quizzes, and questionnaires
Polls, quizzes, and questionnaires are an excellent way to encourage active participation and help students retain their learning. You can’t go wrong with a classic multiple-choice quiz. And virtual questionnaires are a fun way of helping students share and discover what they have in common and building classroom morale for the upcoming school year.
Get them talking about their favorite bits of popular culture or sharing aspirations or things they want to try out. Another use of questionnaires is “Who said it?”, in which you send over a questionnaire through Google Forms in advance with fun questions and then share one answer per question for each student to share with the class and have them guess who said it.
During the pandemic, many schools adopted the video conferencing solutions that businesses use to manage small business communications. And these interactive tools can help you transfer school schedules online and also help keep students engaged. The ability to perform quick polls and interactive quizzes and share files during sessions will help educators enhance their virtual classroom.
Some software platforms will have additional features to support these activities, but you can also use plenty of free apps and educational resources online to create them.
4. Virtual field trips
Who wasn’t jazzed the first time they took a stroll on Google Maps Street View? Virtual field trips are even better. Watch videos, follow interactive tours, or teachers can even go out to a location and stream the session from the wild with their smartphone.
Virtual field trips allow you to take your class on informative, exciting, and interactive tours to brand new and far away places with fewer safety concerns and with no permission slips or expensive travel needed.
Some ideas include virtual zoo day to enable younger kids to take in the sights and sounds and learn more about charismatic animals, their habitats, and conservation. National parks and online exhibits from world-famous art galleries tours are other great educational options.
And virtual walking trails on the other side of the globe will provide escapism and learning opportunities galore.
5. Digital escape rooms
This favorite in-class activity is a surefire way to enhance the online classroom experience. And they can be just as immersive in a virtual setting as a way of building team spirit and helping students develop their skills in communication and problem-solving. Most virtual classroom software solutions enable breakout rooms and allow you to translate this activity for distance learning.
Students need to solve the cryptic riddles and puzzles to unlock the door to the digital escape room you can build with Google Forms. Hide the visual or word-based clues in uploaded files and folders and your tools’ digital whiteboard. Transform your virtual classroom into exciting settings and remember the time limit is everything!
6. Write and show
This is an ideal daily closing activity, but you can weave in the general idea anywhere to get student contributions. Invite students to describe their reaction to the session on a written sign that they hold up for everyone else to see.
Maybe you could ask them to pick one word that sums up how they were feeling. Or ask them to find a suitable headline, image, or GIF that captures their response to the lesson to get a sense of their emotional well-being or gauge their grasp of academic content.
7. Virtual brain breaks
The above activities can be a corrective to the otherwise impersonal nature of virtual schooling. Still, just as virtual mental wellness programs can help remote teams thrive, screen breaks are a critical aspect of keeping students energized and virtual learning sustainable.
Let’s face it, sitting at a screen for so long can be draining and physically uncomfortable. Fortunately, there are plenty of ideas for modeling self-care for students. Let kids choose between some activities that help them recharge.
Anything from a simple stretch to yoga videos or even online chats centered on discussion prompts (what’s your favorite food?). Brain breaks break things up and keep kids receptive to learning more.
Two key tips for a better virtual classroom experience
Make use of free resources
A couple of free must-have virtual resources to enhance your online classroom:
TedEd is a fantastic and specifically designed resource for multimedia you can integrate into your educational material.
Google Classroom is a free resource for remote learning that allows educators and students to communicate, create classes, and keep organized. It provides access to tools like Google Docs, a platform that lets you get students to submit a virtual journal or take it one step further and encourage a classroom blog to promote virtual class discussion and year-end reflections and Google Drive for saving assignments.
This product, along with these handy tools, can be found in Google Workspace for Education. There, you can also create your entire Google account using a custom domain name so that your domain Gmail inbox will be accessible in the same one-stop-shop resource for the virtual school.
Why create email with custom domain names? Small private schools might use them to make their brand more recognizable while giving parents and students a better understanding of who to contact. Way to make your virtual classroom feel like home!
Designate communication guidelines in advance
Another best practice for enhancing the online learning experience is agreeing on how you intend to communicate with students. Let them know the types of communication channels you have in mind and the purpose for each:
- Email for your weekly schedule
- Social media for community discussions
- Video meeting solutions for office hours
- Compliant instant messaging or phone for time-sensitive messaging such as emergencies outside office hours
Over to you
Regardless of your unique challenges as a teacher this year and whatever grade level you teach, it’s fair to say that virtual learning will continue to be an ongoing reality.
We hope these seven virtual school activities help serve as an antidote to some disadvantages of remote learning because the online genie is no longer in the bottle.
They should help teachers foster the authentic relationships and sense of community of the traditional positive classroom culture. And they’re ideal for getting students thinking creatively and critically engaged in the hands-on way that research shows is vital to the comprehension and memory that supports their academic work. Fun and games aside, what could be more important than that?