Virtual classrooms | Secrets for keeping participants highly engaged in online training

Secrets for keeping participants highly engaged in online training

People like to come together to learn. We thrive on talking with others, sharing ideas and having a chance for social interaction as part of learning.

But how this happens is changing. Following the rapid shift to online platforms for live training over the last year, it has become clear that virtual classrooms are set to have a permanent role as a larger component of learning delivery. Organisations are reporting benefits including higher attendance, lower carbon emissions, less time away from work, lower costs, and easier access from multiple locations.

Nevertheless, the move to live online learning has been challenging for many facilitators, finding themselves in an uncomfortable new context. In surveys and research run by Acteon at different points over the last year, many facilitators have reported feeling cut off from their participants in virtual classrooms, lacking social and emotional connection.

So how can we address some of these challenges? How do we make the most of virtual platforms, and find ways to create meaningful human connection for live online learning?

Distracted learners?

First of all, we need to think about the different physical context, and how this affects how we plan and deliver learning. Participants in a virtual classroom may be sitting at their own desks, perhaps with their email still open, perhaps with their phone next to them. If they’re at home, maybe they will get interrupted by the doorbell, have their dog barking, or perhaps they’ll just slip off to the kitchen to make themselves a cuppa.

Expectations may also different: some participants may be thinking they will half listen but might just have a chance to write that urgent email at the same time - things that people wouldn’t consider doing if they were coming into a face-to-face training session.

Distractions are pervasive. So how can we use the virtual environment to our advantage to keep learners engaged?

Three considerations for active engagement

Here are three areas to consider for keeping participants focused, actively engaged and ready to learn…

1. Designing for engagement

When planning a virtual learning session, start by thinking about tactics for keeping engagement. How can we design to prioritise holding the attention of participants and keeping them actively involved?


  • Including an interaction every 3-5 minutes, even if something very simple like using chat.

  • Planning more content than you actually need, such as extra activities or explanatory materials, so you can be responsive and adapt to the ‘digital body language’ of your participants. If you are picking up that the group needs more background on a topic, you can provide it.

  • Making good use of the platform features. Activities don’t have to be super-complicated – for example, breakout rooms are a straightforward way to encourage discussion in pairs or small groups.

2. Setting expectations

We need to create safety so that people feel comfortable and open to sharing their experiences. This starts with helping them know what to expect when they join.

Pre-session information can set out what people need to know, including helping them with basic questions about the technology so that there is more chance they are focusing on the content than on technical problems.

Also let them know if you have particular rules or expectations – for example should everyone be at a desktop rather than joining from their mobile while they are out and about? Do you want everyone to have their webcams switched on?

If you’re asking participants to share discussion points or stories, it might be useful to let them know in advance so they can think about preparing and you avoid putting them on the spot.

3. Holding participant attention

Throughout the session, it is then our challenge to keep participants engaged and actively involved.

Some tips for achieving this include:

  • Engage early. Get people actively involved right from the beginning, with them using the chat and other tools as soon as possible, ideally as they join.

  • Begin with ‘warm up’ activities to create a comfortable atmosphere and put people at ease.

  • Keep content bite size and highly interactive. Include some kind of interaction every 3-5 minutes, even if it’s something very simple to check understanding.

  • Make spoken sections short and snappy, and change the pace regularly. Avoid too much one-way communication – that is, presenting for long periods of time.

  • Try giving participants an individual activity or task to complete themselves during the session, such as a self-reflection form, so that they have something to do to occupy them. This reduces distraction, and can also become a resource that they take away from the session.

  • Use videos, audio, images and screenshots to keep content appealing.

  • Consider using external tools like Mentimeter or other platforms with collaboration features.

We explore these further and provide five strategies for ‘humanising’ the virtual classroom in our new whitepaper.

Download our full report here

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The success of your organisation depends on the everyday actions of your people. We help you to identify the actions that underpin success, and co-create inspiring solutions to change actions for the better. Our highly experienced team draws on behavioural science and advertising techniques to reinvent learning and communication formats with engagement and impact.