Many instructors and some students dread the blank grid of empty Zoom or Meet squares. While having cameras off can be difficult, there are fun, easy strategies you can use to help students engage and come together — and some of them have the advantage of being more inclusive for introverts or accessible for students with disabilities that make videoconferencing difficult.

  • Chat: Most videoconferencing tools have a built-in chat function. It can become a lively forum for side conversations and comments. It’s also a great way for quiet students, or students who are struggling, to participate. Some instructors have found such “backchannel chat” to be a transformative element in their classrooms.* Encourage students to help each other out in the chat! You can also activate your platform’s Q&A function to enable more participation. Learn more about leveraging videoconference chat.
  • Emojis: Zoom has a limited range of emojis available for students to react to what’s going on in the session. Google Meet doesn’t have emojis built in, but this Chrome extension allows students to post emojis to indicate their reactions to things others are saying in a Meet session. You can download the extension here. Note that only people who have it installed can see or post emojis. People will have to leave the Meet and come back for the extension to work if they install it during a Meet.
  • Polls: Polling is for more than assessing understanding! Try setting up a poll about something fun that students can take as they join the session, or use polling to involve them collaboratively in choosing the direction of your class time when possible.
  • Games: Games can be a great way to build community among students – or at any meeting. In one such game, “the rock”, a secret code word related to the class content, is chosen by the students. Every time the word is mentioned during class, the students do a coordinated move, like scratching their heads or high-fiving the side of the screen. The goal is for the instructor to figure out what the code word is. A nice bonus of this game is that you can use it to assess engagement – if students respond to the code word, you know they’re paying attention to the discussion. This works best with cameras on, but you can also play it using the chat or emoji reactions.
  • The greatest not-so-secret weaponbreakout rooms! Small group time can be an extremely powerful way for students to get to know each other and you. Incorporating breakout time into every class session encourages engagement and personal connections. Students report that they are more likely to turn on their cameras during a breakout session with peers than during full-class lecture or discussion. Enhance breakouts by doing some activities with consistent working groups, so students repeatedly spend time with a small set of their peers, and by popping in and out of each breakout group to engage with them less formally. Joining a breakout room for a few minutes is a great way for students to get to know you as a person in the learning community who listens to each of them, and for you to feel like you are not teaching to a void.

* Chat is getting a lot of attention these days for its community-building and introvert-supporting capacities. See “The Backchannel: Giving Every Student a Voice in the Blended Mobile Classroom” and “Turns Out You Can Build Community in a Zoom Classroom”.

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