Data. The Non-Verbals of Online Learning

Teaching in the same physical space gives you an opportunity to gauge and innately understand your students. In these face to face interactions, you can use your emotional intelligence to guide the situation and build proper frameworks for learning. A teacher’s ability to correctly read the body language of their class and use that information to support teaching and learning will provide students with a higher chance of success. It can be assumed that students will not generally be forthcoming with what they need, and they may also not have the vocabulary to describe what it is they need. Being able to see that a student is confused and needs additional support is a wonderful tool for teachers to use in the classroom.

Sometimes students be like…

I work in a virtual classroom (online school) and we, unfortunately, can’t see our students. In the virtual space we largely rely on alternative forms of communication (email, phone call, instant messaging, etc), leaving us with a large chunk of what is being said staying invisible. To also note, these alternative forms of communication do sometimes offer up different non-verbal cues that require a different perspective and sometimes extra professional development to uncover. We must, therefore, rely on non-traditional strategies and cues to fill in these non-traditional narratives. This means that data plays a critical role in helping us understand and intervene in the virtual classroom.

The Non-Verbals of Online Learning

With a lack of non-verbal signals in online learning, we need new ways to gather similar clues about student learning and engagement. As Patrick Griffin (2014) says in Assessment for Teaching, data is what we can observe a student doing, making, saying, and writing. In the online space we can gather what students say, make, and write. We need other information to gather what a student is actively doing, more specifically what cues can we use to translate non-verbal signals and how this relates to teaching and learning.

“Proper analysis of these factors will show you the progress of your students, their engagement level, and the effectiveness of your learning program.”

This is where data becomes critical. Data are the non-verbal of online learning. Data does not lie and this includes:

  1. Time spent on an activity
  2. Login frequency
  3. Session times
  4. Reattempts and revisits to activities
  5. Reflections on tasks
  6. Page clicks

This is what the student is doing on a day to day basis. Proper analysis of these factors will show you the progress of your students, their engagement level, and the effectiveness of your learning program. This is especially true when you are not next to the student.

By using data and the alternative communication channels we spoke about above (email, phone call, instant messaging, etc), teachers can build data-driven narratives around their students. It also alleviates the disadvantages of not being in the same physical space as the students, a huge issue for virtual schools.

In some instances, the data is better at telling you what is happening with a student than our own judgement at a moment in time (sometimes we are not always on our game!). We all have our own biases and we may interpret the same situation much differently. With data and various visualization techniques, the bias may still be present but the data will be consistent. If a student keeps reattempting an activity, they may not be getting it and an intervention is in order. If a student is not logging in, they may have lost their motivation and a re-engagement strategy may be in order. With non-verbal cues, it is largely dependent on my ability to be tuned-in to that moment. Data does not need me to be on, it does it’s thing and when you have the opportunity and the right frame of mind you can take the time to analyse it.

This data is not just for virtual schools. Traditional teaching now relies on online technologies as it becomes more integrated into many learning programs. This means that face to face schools will also be able to gather this data and use it. With more data, we will become more dependent on our abilities to use it. Gone are the days of data-free practices. Embrace the 1s and 0s.


Griffin, P. 2014. Assessment for Teaching.


Originally published at billsimmalavong.com.