Lessons Learned for Leaders and Educators for Long Online Sessions

I’m not the only one who has encountered this problem:

We are told to keep online video sessions short.
We need to cover a lot of material, and it can take several hours.

Since mid-March, I’ve spent a lot of time studying and researching virtual class best practices. I’ve also been part of long Zoom classes and meetings led by others, and I have led many of my own. After a few months of experimentation, observation, and study, I’ve come up with four basic ideas for leaders and teachers who need to be online with a group for an extended period of time:

  • Stay low-tech, but… (see number 2)
  • Use multiple engagement tools, but… (see number 1)
  • Be thoughtful and intentional with timing of breaks.
  • Do nothing for longer than 4 minutes at a time.

Some elaboration:

1. Stay low-tech, but use multiple engagement tools.

Many students or people who are working from home have inadequate technology, low-speed internet connections, and/or multiple users and workers on the same connection. It’s important to acknowledge these potential issues and avoid using tools or processes that assume everyone has the same capacity as you. Two big examples are video-streaming and complex web-based tools. If you have the ability to have a “producer” or assistant, that person can handle all technical questions and trouble-shooting. And there will be issues. Leave that to someone else so you can lead/teach.

Also, provide crystal-clear instructions ahead of time, assuming that the participants have never been a part of an online session before. Leave nothing to assumptions.

2. Use multiple engagement tools, but make sure they’re low-tech.

After experimenting with fancy interactive tools with lots of razzle-dazzle, I settled on these specific tools:

  • Zoom for the meetings. (I think Go-To Meeting is also decent. There are several I don’t like.)

Within Zoom, I use these tools:

  • Reactions from the participant window.
  • The Chat box (I leave private messaging available.)
  • Breakout rooms.
  • Screen-sharing for my PowerPoint slides
  • Menti for polling. (Main site is mentimeter.com. Poll Everywhere is okay, but I’m sold on Menti.)
  • (I do not use Zoom’s polling or Whiteboard, because they don’t work well for everyone.)
  • Google Docs for everything else interactive—shared documents, Jamboard for a whiteboard, handouts and outlines people can copy to their shared drive.

If you have images or documents you want people to see while in breakout rooms, ensure they are online somewhere, then share the link in the chat box before going to breakout.

3. The timing of breaks.

I had heard it said that people can’t handle more than 2 hours in front of Zoom for training purposes in a day. The problem for me was this; I had clients expecting 3-6 hours of training in one day. How can people have that endurance? Multiple substantial breaks. Study and experimentation led to this formula:

For a 3-hour session in which no segment is longer than 50 minutes, this works pretty well:
50 minutes on
10 minutes break
40 minutes on
15 minutes off (I call this the “intermission” between two acts.)
35 minutes on
5 minutes off
25 minutes on

For a six-hour session, do the above schedule twice, separated by at least 90 minutes.

I’ve kept teenagers engaged over a six-hour day with this approach, so if they can do it, anyone can do it. You can experiment with your own schedule, but here’s what to note:

Over the course of the session, the “on” segments get progressively shorter as people have less and less capacity to stay attentive. There is a need for a long break at just past the halfway point, and shorter breaks to break up each of the halves. If you go 2 hours or longer, I highly encourage 3 breaks.

4. The four minute rule.

Do nothing for more than 4 minutes at a time. If you have a lot of material to cover, break it up with interactions, polls, or chat window responses at least once every four minutes.

One exception is breakout conversations: If your breakout groups are chatty and engaged and on-topic, they can go for up to 10 minutes. I usually do 3-5, then check in.

Whether it’s poll interaction, quiet reflection, hearing an illustrative anecdote—whatever—make it last 4 minutes or less.

Your mileage may vary, but again, I’ve arrived at this after much experimentation, study, and participation in the sessions of others. It really seems to work. What works for you? 

  1. Rusty Raymond
    | Reply

    Outstanding and timely information, especially as many of us have to consider online instruction for the future.

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