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Pedagogies to engage learners online

How do you engage learners online when teaching at a culture and heritage institutions? Find some useful tips and tricks in this article.

All the aspects of effective pedagogy mentioned in the previous step are applicable in online learning. But for culture and heritage educators used to teaching students in dynamic physical environments, the online learning space can be more challenging.

Teaching in an online environment can feel like talking into space.

This comment was made by an educator who had recently adapted their programme for online learning because COVID-19 restrictions meant a class could not visit their museum.

What is different about teaching online?

A visit to a culture or heritage site to take part in an education programme, is usually an exciting experience for students. It is often something students will look forward to. It is not just the education programme itself that is exciting, but the build up, the planning, packing a bag, the journey there, the dynamic physical environment of the site, the lunch break etc.

Creating an education programme for the online environment is different from teaching face to face. Depending on the online platform being used, the educator may or may not be able to see their students. Not being able to see students can be off-putting for educators, they can not ‘read the room’ or respond to body language and facial expressions which would otherwise let them know how well their students are engaging.

Other factors that can negatively impact online learning are:

  • Technology can fail.
  • Students may have other tabs open on their device and be engaging in alternative activities.
  • Students can feel more reluctant to take part in discussions when online.
  • Learner attention can wain more quickly.
  • Managing behaviour can be more challenging.
  • It can be harder to promote interactivity.

Useful strategies for culture and heritage online learning

Test technology

Before teaching online it’s important to familiarise yourself with the technology you are using. Ensure your setup is working. Test all programmes you intend to use. Make sure all links are working. Practice navigating between programmes. Carry out a dry-run test of your lesson with a colleague, and ask them for feedback on the experience.

Lesson plan

As you would in a face-to-face learning environment, write a lesson plan with clear learning intentions. Include the strategies you will use to facilitate shared learning and interactivity, and what you want your students to reflect on at the end of the lesson.

Build excitement

Consider how to factor in the fun and excitement of a face to face visit. Can you build in a ‘reveal’ moment, looking inside, behind, underneath something? Can you zoom into an exhibit to reveal something they might not be able to see had they been there in person? Can you introduce an expert to the students – for example a curator, conservator, exhibition designer? Could there be a surprise moment within the online programme for the students? Is there a way for you to enable student choice to direct the online programme?

Clear boundaries

To create a supportive learning environment it is important to set clear expectations for student behaviour online. These could be negotiated via the class teacher ahead of the online programme, or set out by the educator at the beginning of the online programme. Behaviour expectations might include:

  • Keep cameras on or off.
  • Mute microphones when not speaking.
  • Use the raise hand function when invited to do so.
  • Use the chat function for comments or questions.
  • Contribute to discussions.
  • Participate in interactive tasks.

Positive environment

One way to create a positive learning environment online is to begin your lesson with a brief mindfulness activity. Mindfulness means paying full attention to something, or slowing down and really noticing what you’re doing. Mindfulness activities can help promote student wellbeing. Mindfulness can also help students to calm their bodies and minds. This can benefit behaviour, communication, and emotional regulation, to help create a positive relaxed environment. Examples of different types of mindfulness activities are: mindful breathing, mindful observation, mindful awareness, mindful listening, mindful appreciation. Check with the classroom teacher what might be suitable for their class.

For more information, check out Best Practices for bringing Mindfulness into Schools.

Making a connection with your students

In te reo Māori, whakawhanaungatanga is a term used to describe the process of getting to know each other. And whanaungatanga describes a close relationship between people, or kinship. Creating authentic connections between teachers and students in a virtual learning experience can be challenging. But making a short amount of time at the beginning of a lesson for introductions and forming connections with students will benefit their engagement in the learning. Whanaungatanga promotes a feeling of belonging. Preparation for whanaungatanga could take place prior to the lesson, e.g. students could create a virtual background image for themselves which represents something about who they are, their family, or where they are from or students could prepare a short mihi or a personal greeting. This could be a couple of sentences that introduces who they are and where they are from. They could paste or type their greeting in the chat box as they arrive in the online lesson. You can then use these prompts to form meaningful connections with your students.


Make every minute count. Shorter lessons online are more effective. Thirty to no more than forty-five minutes is a good length of time to ensure students maintain their attention. The pace of an online lesson can be faster, with more frequent changes between activities than a face to face lesson.


Stimulating student interaction can be more challenging in an online learning environment than when you are teaching face to face, however it is important to provide different ways for students to interact. Interaction can be with the content of the lesson, with you, and / or with each other. How can the teacher and the students ask and answer open or closed questions? You could use various tools, such as a poll, chat box, Padlet, AnswerGarden etc. Breakout rooms can also be used for small group discussions.


Reflection on what has been learnt is an important part of any lesson, and time needs to be allocated to this within online learning. A pre- and post-lesson question might be helpful for this purpose, e.g. I used to think … I now think …. Students could be invited to write or draw something which reflects what they have learnt and hold it up for all to see, they could take part in a quiz or poll. Alternatively they could pose new questions, e.g., Now I know…, I want to learn more about …, or they could write an intention for an action they would like to take.

Pre-visit activities

To encourage effective thought and action, consider creating pre-visit activities for your learners to complete in advance on their online education programme. These can be useful for scaffolding their learning and making connections to prior learning while you are teaching online. These might also help to build student excitement for participating in the online programme.

Post-visit activities

To encourage reflective thought and action, consider creating post-visit activities which enable students to demonstrate the learning that took place during the online programme. These activities could give students opportunities to respond creatively, or to undertake self-directed learning related to and as an extension to what was taught. You could encourage students to share their work via social media channels, or a blog post or website gallery.

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Learning During and After COVID-19: Developing Online Education Programmes

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