The rules of engagement for virtual learning

It can be a challenge to keep students’ attention from wandering when teaching online. Here Bill Boulding talks through key rules to put in place to keep everyone engaged in the virtual learning environment

Bill Boulding's avatar
Fuqua School of Business, Duke University
12 Oct 2020
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Seven steps to help students stay engaged online
Tips to help students stay focused in online classes

Key Details

This video will cover: 

01:40 Tip 1: Why and how to ensure everyone can see each other when learning together online 

03:07 Tip 2: The same rules should apply in a virtual classroom as would do in a face-to-face classroom 

04:49 Tip 3: Use the virtual learning technology to offer a combination of whole-class instruction and smaller group activities 


Hi, I’m Bill Bolding, dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and I’m happy to share with you some advice around how to maximise student engagement in a virtual environment.  

Now the reality is that a virtual environment covers many different kinds of teaching opportunities.  

One mechanism is a teaching environment where it is static or pre-recorded. And so, if you have that kind of virtual environment for your students, then you need to be sure that you can make the content and delivery itself dynamic and engaging for the students. 

And so for that, it really helps to have the technology infrastructure in place, in terms of studio capabilities, to produce that kind of content.  

For example, I’m standing here in our multimedia studio in front of a green screen, which can be very useful. But, instead of focusing on what I’m calling the static or pre-recorded content, I want to focus on a virtual environment where you have faculty and students simultaneously engaged in live conversation.  

Now even here, there are different domains with respect to what that virtual engagement might look like. It may be that everybody is online in this virtual environment. But now, in this interesting world we live in, we’re also seeing many instances, such as what we have here at the business school, where we have a combination of virtual engagement along with people who are physically in the room. 

Now, on to particular tips, if you’re in this virtual environment.  

The first tip that I would have is to make sure that everybody can see each other. Nothing will diminish that engagement and get people to tune out more quickly than if they don’t see one another. 

And so, what this means is, you have to have rules of engagement.  

One rule is, you need to have a technology set up where the faculty have the accessibility to all of the faces of the students, and so that they can see the students. But the other side of this is that these students need to make sure they turn on their cameras.  

If they go silent in terms of not being heard, but also go blank in terms of not being present, then, all of a sudden, you’ve really taken the energy and the life out of that engagement. 

And so a very simple rule is cameras on for everybody and make sure you have a setup where  everybody can see one another, whether it’s in the situation of everybody is online or in the situation of a classroom where some people are physically there and some people are participating virtually. 

You need to be sure that the students who are participating virtually can see the people in the room, and the people who are participating in the room can see the students are participating virtually, so that there is this sense that we are all in class together, engaged in a dynamic undertaking. 

A second tip that I would offer, that we’ve found helpful in terms of maintaining a really engaging classroom environment, is to tell our faculty and students to imagine that this is a face-to-face environment, and the same rules apply in a virtual environment as would apply in the classroom. 

What that means is people should not show up wearing crazy, distracting clothes, that you should wear what you would wear into the classroom. It’s also the case then that we should not have crazy, distracting backgrounds. 

It’s become kind of a fun game to see what you can put in your background, but we want to be sure that the focus is on the student and the faculty member, rather than what’s in the background, and so it’s very important to standardise in some ways the background that we have in this environment. 

I’d also say that you should have the same rules of engagement in terms of how people interact with one another and, of course, this is a key element of an engaging live virtual environment, which is the ability to have people exchange ideas with one another and to be in conversation. 

Now the way this works really is a function of setting the expectations just like you would in a classroom. 

Do you want people to shout out their comments online, just as you would have them shout out their comments in a live environment? Do you want them to raise their hands before they speak, just as you would have them do so in a live environment?  

And what we found is there are lots of different ways of doing this, just make sure the expectations are clear so that people understand how they can join the conversation.  

A third thing to consider in a virtual teaching environment is, when do you want everybody gathered together to talk about something? To have a lecture that everybody receives simultaneously? And when do you want to break out into smaller groups?  

Now the interesting thing about virtual engagement is it actually facilitates your ability, as an instructor, to put people in smaller groups during the course of a class. This is something which opens up opportunities to have classes that morph between everybody is there to people go out into their small groups, they come back together again. 

And so this is something that is potentially enriching, because the reality is, for many classes, you don’t have the time to send people physically out into small seminar rooms, and you may not even have the space to send people out into those rooms. 

And yet for many classes that we teach, the ability to have these moments when you move into smaller groups to talk about things can be very helpful. And so, this is an instance where we can think about a virtual environment as having some real upside. 

I think that sometimes people mistakenly assume that a virtual teaching environment means that you will, by definition, limit the amount of engagement you can have with your students. 

In no way should this environment be limiting, and in fact we have access to technology that really opens up opportunities to make a virtual class fully engaging, and with plenty of opportunities for faculty and students to have back-and-forth conversations and discussions. 

There just needs to be thought and intentionality behind what it is that you choose to do in managing that classroom environment.  

I’m sure that all of you can be more thoughtful and more creative than me, but happy teaching to all. 


This video was produced by Bill Boulding, dean of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University

Read the contribution from Bill Boulding, dean of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, to our feature article “Teaching intelligence: tapping into business schools’ online know-how.”  


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