Making virtual more human: What can it look like in practice?

Walk through of an example class flow for educators teaching students virtually

Glenn Fajardo
Mar 19 · 5 min read

This is a companion piece to Making Virtual Feel More Human, published on the Stanford d.school’s Medium, and if you haven’t read that yet, it might make sense to start there first. We discovered that there’s to a lot that we can learn from the context of in-person that we can apply to virtual. But it requires deconstructing and remixing… and getting curious about the context of virtual.

Here are the Cliff notes of the main piece:

  • By understanding why virtual work can feel awkward, we avoid feeling trapped and monotonous, and we can begin designing the structure of our virtual interactions for human needs.
  • There are multiple ways we interact in-person and by understanding those interactions we can creatively use a combination of tools to activate different styles of learning virtually.
  • The fact that virtual is voluntary adds an extra challenge, but if we can embrace it, it’s an opportunity to foster everyone’s intrinsic motivation to make virtual…work. One way is to help people make something together that they want to give attention to.

In this companion piece, we’ll get more tangible and concrete. We’ll walk through an example of a class for educators teaching students virtually. You’ll see how you might use a combination of tools. You’ll find examples of how to get people warmed up, dive them into immediate activity, play around with ideas, bubble up key points, and reflect to capture key learnings.

Students interacting in multiple ways online (photo credit: Kal Joffres)

Let’s say we have a virtual class with 16 people, where we were using Zoom as our video call and a MURAL digital whiteboard as our “everyone edit digital space.”

And let’s say that the main topic for this class session was this: “How can we keep living life to its fullest, during this coronavirus situation, when many have to stay at home and practice social distancing?”

Here’s what we might do:

Warm-up. We’ll play a game called “Name Tag” to get everyone warmed up, loosened up, and into the flow. This is entirely in Zoom — everyone is asked to be in gallery view, and unmute your mic because it’s going to go fast. Instructions to the group: 1) The person who is “it” tags someone by saying their name out loud. 2) The person who is tagged “receives” the tag by raising both hands in the air and saying “woooooo!” 3) Now that person is “it.” Go to step 1).

Idea flare. This is a short, individual writing exercise for everyone to get ideas out, so everyone starts actively engaging from the start. The prompt is this: “With the coronavirus situation, it’s changing the way we can interact. Is there something that you feel like you’re missing out on with this class, in terms of how you interact with your classmates? Think of at least five different ways you could fill in this blank: ‘I wish we could ______ together.’” This is done in MURAL, with each person having a designated spot, with sticky notes. Time limit is 3 minutes, and participants can see the time remaining at the top of MURAL.

What an idea flare can look like in MURAL

What’s most interesting? We have a lot of possibilities now! The facilitator tells the group we’re going to pick a few ideas that we’d like to dig deeper into. Each person has four votes, and is voting on which sticky notes look most interesting. Voting is done individually, using a voting session in MURAL. Time limit is 3 minutes. After time’s up, we look at voting results. The top four ideas are moved into another section of the MURAL canvas, where students in small teams will work on the ideas.

Quick build. Now we’re going to get tangible, together. The facilitator puts students into four small teams, using breakout rooms in Zoom. Now instead of being in the Zoom main room with 16 students, we now have more intimate discussions with 4 students each, where people can grow stronger rapport with each other. Each team is assigned one of the four top ideas to work on. Students quickly introduce themselves to each other in their Zoom breakout room with their name and favorite flavor of ice cream. Then the team has to come up with four different possible ways to address the sticky note they were assigned, with the constraint that we’d have to be able to do ______ together in a virtual way. Teams have 12 minutes to do this.

Share out. Teams have built tangible concepts to share! The facilitator brings all students back into the main room in Zoom. Each team has 3 minutes to summarize what they came up with and their biggest a-ha’s. The “audience” is encouraged to write questions on sticky notes in MURAL, and provide silent body motion feedback in real-time so it can be seen on the Zoom call (e.g. silent cheering, mind blown motion, etc). We’ve been building to think, and getting inspired by each other’s explorations.

“Pops” reflection. The facilitator asks students to reflect and think about, “What popped out most for you today?” And why?” Students have 3 minutes to write their reflections in MURAL. Then students have 1 minute to silently browse their classmates’ reflections. Then the facilitator calls on 3 students to share their reflections with the class. After that sharing, the facilitator summarizes major themes that emerged from this class session. Reflecting helps us process and more deeply encode key learnings into our memories.

Closing high-five. At the very end of class, at the count of three, everyone gives each other a high five on camera in Zoom. It’s a simple closing ritual reinforcing esprit de corps.

Participants warmed up, actively engaged from the start, made sense of things together, built out ideas, shared what they made, reflected on what they learned, and closed with a moment of community. We helped people make something together that they want to give attention to.

This is one example. What virtual learning experiences might you craft?

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