Collaboratively confronting challenges in virtual learning

We know that higher education demands more than a one-way transfer of knowledge. Along with learning content, students are developing capacity for professional collaboration, cross cultural communication, and socio-emotional connections and confidence.  Educators know this, and this is why many are employing flipped classroom models, discussion based small group activities, group work, and more. However, how to incorporate and facilitate the socio-emotional connections that enable group formation in an online setting is a different challenge.

The norms we can take for granted in a classroom setting often get lost in cyberspace, and a virtual setting brings with it the opportunity (and challenge) to rethink them. While it can feel like needing to learn how to swim again, we don’t have to drift in unknowns. We still know a couple of things: 

  1. Collaborative and participatory decision making for adult learners generates more inclusive decisions, ownership of the process, and accountability to outcomes. 
  2. Developing new norms requires being plain and direct, making the implicit explicit when assumptions and interests differ.  

Remembering these two things, we can anticipate and respond to emergent challenges in virtual learning and engage students in the process. We’re including discussion guides for 3 key challenges below. 



By now, no student is a stranger to online learning, and they’ve likely experienced a gambit of different expectations for audio and video participation. Some professors require video on, some don’t. Others require muting until talking, and still others require staying unmuted unless there is a disruptive noise. Open this conversation with the following questions: 

  • What are reasons for having our videos on? (relationships, group work, attention, etc)
  • What are the reasons we would want videos off? (bandwidth, privacy, family members, etc)
  • What do you want this learning environment to look like, or feel like? What are creative solutions that could meet all of these interests? 

💡 If videos are off, how can individual students, and the rest of the group, compensate for lack of visual presence (for example by profile photos, greater activity in the chat stream, turning on in small group activities)?

I ask my students to create an avatar using an avatar maker and set it as their profile picture. They are allowed to change it over the course of the semester as they wish to represent how they developed their skills and knowledge during the programme. It is really interesting to see how they are more comfortable and confident as time passes and they start changing their avatars.”R. Tahboub, Lecturer at Hebron University


Retention or passive participation

We’ve all had the experience of biting off more than we can chew, possibly including the specific experience of signing up for an online class and not being able to follow through with it. Discussing expectations, needs and motivation with your students set the scene for a deliberate and positive learning experience. You can use these prompts as starters:

  • Knowing that there are many other things competing for your time and attention, what is your ‘WHY’ for signing up for this class? 
  • Knowing that online classes can slip through the cracks for anyone, what would be a supportive way to nudge you if we notice this starts to happen? (An email after 2 absences? Required office hours appearance?)
  • As the professor, I believe this course is worth your time for xyz reasons, and I’m doing xyz things to support you staying engaged. How else can you as students support each other to succeed in this course? 


Tech issues

There are fewer more frustrating things than trying to accomplish something and facing a tech-related problem that is preventing you. Set your learners up for success by discussing the tech requirements needed for the course and crowdsourcing solutions for common technical issues:

  • These (xyz) are the times that technology will be used to participate or submit assignments. Can we take a few minutes now to make sure we personally have all the required downloads, updates, etc. that will enable this? Where will you have wifi access? Are there any other issues you foresee that you can inform me of (privately)?
  • XYZ are the tech support resources we have as an institution. What are other ways to get support you know of? How could you support each other as a student group if questions or issues arise? 

💡 Compile the tech tips and support resources the students bring to the table into a ‘tech first-aid kit’. Valuable for present and future cohorts! 


Are you facing additional challenges in virtual teaching? And do you see ways to address them collaboratively? 

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