Maximizing Engagement and Learning When Working with Students Online

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Photo by John Benson, CC BY 2.0

Ed Tech is everywhere, and it's making education easier for teachers and students. Technology opens up an entirely new realm of possibility when it comes to convenience and problem solving, but it also has its challenges.

Over the last few years, supplemental educators — tutors, therapists, special education teachers and college prep consultants — have been using online technology to work with students living in geographically diverse areas. For the most part, the online format works really well with high school students, who are mature enough to manage their supplemental education services and show up on time while in the comfort of their own homes. However, the independence of online education can be problematic when working with younger students who don’t yet have well-established time management skills.

Connecting Over the Internet

Keeping middle and high school students engaged is a consistent struggle, which gets more challenging in an online setting. Technology can pique students’ interest, but it can also end up being a brick wall if they aren’t comfortable with the technology or don't know how to use it.

If I live in the same town as a student, I visit the home to set things up and make sure everything is working properly. But when students are located in different cities or states, I need the help of a teaching assistant or parent to solve technological problems in person. Even with the best preparation, it seems like the Internet is always crashing or Skype wants to do a ten-minute update just as a session starts.

Whether working in an online setting with pre-teens, older teens or adults, similar questions arise. How do I know if they’re paying attention? How do I know if they’re learning anything if I’m not in the room with them?


Fortunately, there is a lot of interactive software available that allows me to view what students are doing in real time and provide visual elements to their curriculum. However, I’ve found that even once students are comfortable using the technology, I still face the task of keeping them entertained and motivated. Young learners are big on achievement, so I started researching apps and games that have varying levels of achievement or offer other reward systems that help them concentrate and build confidence. Students of any age have to view working on the computer as a positive element of their education.

When working on a tight budget (like I do), utilizing cost-effective technology is a must. Skype and Google Hangouts have their technical difficulties, but they are both free and easy to use. Originally meant for business, Join.Me is free and great for keeping track of a student’s computer screen. And YouTube provides great one-way communication for circumstances when my students and I can’t meet in real time. In fact, I can sign up a whole classroom of kids in different places and keep track of who watched what by looking at the View Counter on my private YouTube channel. Google Docs allows me to see what my students are writing in real time, and I can loop parents in when necessary, and Self Control cuts out social media so students can concentrate.

Building Rapport and Developing Maturity

Building a positive relationship between online teacher and student is important to overall success. Although instructional minutes are important, it's also essential that a student and teacher develop a good rapport so they can engage in conversations as they would in a traditional classroom environment. If students feel that the person on the computer is “real,” they are more likely to follow directions and take advice.

Although traditional study tactics can work well with older students, if I ask young kids a closed-ended question, I find they're not fully participating in the session. They start looking around the room or disconnect mentally from the session. Instead, I try to encourage them to figure out the best way to use the technology based on their independent learning habits. They need to play an active role in their sessions, whether it’s something as simple as rearranging their work spaces, or something more complicated like researching new apps or finding information that will help them learn proactively. Many young students are great with technology and can actually show me ways to make our sessions more effective.

Common Pitfalls

One of the most common pitfalls when working with elementary school kids online is their ability to deflect away from the task at hand. They know that their teacher isn't actually in the room with them, so they look for ways to avoid completing tasks. In many cases, students spend more energy stalling than they would have if they jumped right into the assignment. For me, managing a one-on-one session is a lot more challenging online unless the student has developed the maturity to be a self starter.

When working with a high school student, I can get by talking to a parent on the phone once a week — after a regular schedule and set of goals are determined. College prep students should transition to independence at this point anyway. But while a 16-year-old can reasonably concentrate during an online SAT session, a third grader is more likely to leave the session or avoid paying attention to my instructions. When working with younger kids, a parent (or any other responsible adult) can help them get situated and check in periodically during the lesson.

Nevertheless, even with educators and parents working together, patience and practice are both key elements to making online supplemental education work — for students of any age.