How to Make Your Virtual Classroom More Intimate

Patrick Watson
March 22, 2021

Since early African hominids gathered to discuss flint chipping techniques, teachers have worked with their students in shared physical spaces. Being in a shared physical space enables us to have a shared focus of attention: what researchers call “common ground.” For example, a teacher might say “take a look at this diagram I drew on the board.” This allows everyone to move the diagram from the shared physical space of the classroom into their shared mental space. Now everyone has their own internal copy of the diagram which they can mentally edit. It’s this shared attention that enables teaching more than one person at a time.

Creating Common Ground in a Virtual Space

Virtual spaces lack common ground. We aren’t all on the same page. In fact, virtual teaching platforms scramble attentional focus: many platforms don’t even show all participants the same video streams! A classroom’s shared physical space allows for efficient communication because we participants can watch each other draw, sing, point, build, dance, role-play, calculate, smell, taste… really do anything that humans can do! What’s more, we get social feedback. If we space out for a second, we can just look at the place where everyone else is looking when we tune back in. One of the biggest mental shifts from teaching in person to teaching over the internet is the necessity of actively managing attention. One of the biggest pitfalls is the assumption that people who are looking at a screen are all paying attention to the same thing that you are. Teaching in virtual spaces requires thinking critically about where the focus of attention is, and how this common ground affects communication.

This has tremendous consequences for how one teaches. It’s possible to explain how to cook soup verbally. It is far better to watch someone do it. Better still to actually chop the vegetables, add the salt, and taste the result. In fact, it is so much better to learn how to cook soup by doing, that it’s not reasonable to say that someone knows “how to cook soup” if they haven’t yet carried out the procedure. While there’s many ways to teach, content needs to be conveyed via an appropriate communication channel. There is no amount of reading or watching that really conveys all the critical information about soup-making. Some of this information can only come through the channels of taste, smell, touch, and body position. Online communication technologies like Zoom or Skype fool us into thinking that we’re in the same space together, but a huge part of the experience we call “seeing someone” is actually something closer to “being with someone.” Being able to point to things in common ground, read body language, to see where the group is looking, summon attention, and respond in real time with a nod -- these are much bigger contributors to high-fidelity communication than just being able to see a video of someone’s face. In a classroom, everyone shares an ongoing dialogue of common experience. A Google Hangout is more like watching TV.

It’s not a pedagogical failure to identify something you just can’t teach over Zoom. For example, I can’t imagine teaching math without a shared space to draw plots and equations. The pedagogical failure is in choosing channels of communication that can’t convey the information you intend to teach. Virtual spaces often have effective alternatives. For example, Ziteboard is an excellent shared online whiteboard that can display equations and plot data. If Ziteboard seems like overkill, use a shared google document where all of the students can collaboratively edit, comment, and ask questions. Or just aim your camera at a sheet of paper on your desk. Do whatever it takes to be sure there’s a shared resource that grounds the group conversation.

Using Virtual Spaces

While shared physical spaces are good for having a common focus of attention, virtual spaces are better for working in parallel. When I moved to teaching primarily online, I realized how much of my teaching relied on the group’s careful orchestration of attention. I realized how my own attention was subject to group dynamics, and the physical limits of the classroom space. When I taught in a physical classroom, I often wanted students to discuss things with their peers, but this would lead to escalating volume and low quality interactions. I wanted students to communicate with their peers and not just the ones who they chose to sit next to. But rearrangement burned through a few minutes of class time. Because these activities relied on physical presence, they tended to reward the most able, loudest students. Conversely, students who wished to be invisible had more ways to subtly direct group attention away from themselves.

  1. In virtual spaces, every interaction has the intimacy of individual attention.
  2. Virtual spaces are quiet, and the camera makes it appear that we are sitting close together. Mics or speakers can be muted if anyone tries to shout down someone else. Anonymity is hard with our names written on our profiles.
  3. In a virtual classroom, doing things simultaneously or in parallel is easier.
  4. In virtual spaces, parallel, breakout study groups are easy to create. Breakouts create a semi-private space without the weight of the full group’s attention. Ironically, these features make virtual spaces more conducive to direct, personal, conversations. Even my shyest students have much to say when they’re in a breakout with only one other student. When I’m teaching on Forum, I often give a breakout instruction such as “I’m going to send you into a breakout with one other student. Introduce yourselves, and then the student whose birthday falls earlier in the year should explain the homework to the other student.”
  5. Virtual instruction has more in common with tutoring than lecturing.
  6. Individual, tutorial instruction is tremendously more effective than either traditional classroom instruction or large lectures. Attentional common ground is great for ensuring everyone is exposed to the content of the class, but it’s far less effective for confirming that that content has been understood. Group attention improves teaching efficiency, but not fidelity. It’s easy to confirm if the class on average understands, it’s far more challenging to confirm if the most quiet student understands.

Think back to the cooking example, in order to learn how to cook soup, everyone needed to actually make soup. Being in a group and watching someone make soup wasn’t enough. Virtual spaces can’t benefit from being in a shared physical space, but neither are they limited by physics. The task for a teacher working in a virtual space is to find topics and techniques that benefit from being taught in active, one-on-one ways. The natural affordances of virtual spaces can sometimes make them a better space for revolutionary, student-centered pedagogy. Virtual spaces will require a shift away from pooled group attention, but that’s ok, because a classroom with shared attention was always a compromise--one that helps certain students and leaves others behind.

The classroom and the lecture hall put pressure on teachers to create a performance that works well “on stage.” This means never teaching cooking. Never teaching anything that requires individual practice or one-on-one feedback. Never fully understanding the experiences and contributions of quiet students. Teachers moving into virtual spaces should be aware of the kind of digital common ground they are creating, and how they can use it to help every student learn.


Learn more about common ground:

Darren Gergle, Robert E. Kraut & Susan R. Fussell (2013) Using Visual Information for Grounding and Awareness in Collaborative Tasks, Human–Computer Interaction, 28:1, 1-39, DOI: 10.1080/07370024.2012.678246

Rubin RD, Brown-Schmidt S, Duff MC, Tranel D, Cohen NJ. How do I remember that I know you know that I know?. Psychol Sci. 2011;22(12):1574-1582. doi:10.1177/0956797611418245

Learn more about small-group active learning:

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25, 85–118.

Scager, K., Boonstra, J., Peeters, T., Vulperhorst, J., & Wiegant, F. (2016). Collaborative learning in higher education: Evoking positive interdependence. 15(4), ar69

Patrick Watson, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Computational Sciences at Minerva University.

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