Delivering Engaging Online Learning: The Three Ps of Preparation

Betha Gutsche, WebJunction Program Manager /

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

This article is the first installment in the Delivering Engaging Online Learning series on strategies for cultivating dynamic, engaging online virtual learning experiences (see also Part II: Enlivening the Virtual Environment). Libraries of all types—K-12, public, university, and more—are exploring various forms of online engagement with their communities. For many, the newly expanded scale of virtual programming can present a significant learning curve for all involved. If thoughtfully prepared and delivered, however, virtual learning can effectively facilitate learning, peer sharing, and community building. Online engagement comes with many challenges: it is completely dependent on access to a reliable internet connection (see more on the digital divide); it requires digital literacy skills; and it requires new design and delivery skills for actively engaging learners and building community through our computer screens.

Part I: The Three Ps of Preparation: Participants, Presenters, and Producers

In the live-online environment, some of these challenges can be addressed through thoughtful preparation for all stakeholders: participants, presenters, and producers. Here, we’ll discuss how to prepare these three groups for online learning to help foster an engaging virtual learning environment. Keep in mind that an event is set in motion as soon as it is conceived and announced. The more you can help all players anticipate what to expect from the event and how to prepare for it, the more positive the experience will be for all.

Prepare Participants

Rather than assume participants will just log on and know what to do at an online event, prepare them for success ahead of time to set up their technology, understand the functions of the virtual platform, and know what behaviors are appropriate.

Set expectations

Make sure participants know what to expect from the live online event.

  • Provide an agenda ahead of time to show what topics will be covered.
  • Provide information on the format (e.g., presentation vs. discussion, solo or multiple presenters, anticipated size of audience) and about the presenter(s).
  • Provide prework discussion to collect ideas, such as prompting the use of a discussion forum to facilitate pre-meeting engagement.

Logistical preparation

Support participants to set up their technology and learning environment.

  • Suggest ways that participants can set up their physical space to minimize distractions and maximize comfort.
  • Provide information about equipment that will be needed. Do they require a headset, for example?
  • Provide participants with a test link for the virtual platform, where they can test their equipment beforehand
  • Provide information on the main functions of the platform that users may need, such as where to adjust their audio settings, how to mute/unmute their mics, or how to “raise hands.”
  • If you are planning a presentation series or a succession of meetings, one strategy to address both logistical and community-building needs is to schedule a casual pre-meeting session without any formal curriculum planned. Use this session to:
    • Test equipment
    • Orient participants to the virtual learning space
    • Have participants introduce themselves to cultivate more warmth and familiarity with each other

Build Community Connections

Create an asynchronous virtual space. This “learning community” space extends the virtual engagement beyond just the live events. Use this space for:

  • Discussion forums, such as an “introduce yourself” thread, since it’s a good idea to have the group introduced to each other before the first official live session to start to build a vision or idea of who participants will be engaging with in the virtual space.
  • Collection of resources related to the topics
  • Links and login information for the live online sessions

Clarify “netiquette” guidelines. Netiquette establishes generally accepted norms of online behavior. Appropriate netiquette expectations may vary depending on your audience and group size. Are you meeting with colleagues? Are you in a classroom with grade school children? Are you in a classroom with high school students? All these scenarios will require different behavior practices in order to be successful.

Here are a few netiquette details to explicitly clarify before the meeting:

  • Should participants keep their microphone muted during the meeting—generally a good practice, but this detail is the sort of thing that you want to be very clear about upfront and ahead of the meeting.
  • Do you want participants to use the chat function? And what purpose do you want the chat function to serve? Is that where you want them to post questions of the presenter, casually engage with each other, or both?
  • How do you want people to “speak up”? Should they use the “raise hand” function if your platform provides this, interject in the chat, or simply unmute their mic to contribute?

If you clarify these practices before everyone is in the online space, you won’t have to spend a lot of time during the live session defining these norms and can minimize confusion for participants.

Prepare Presenters

Photo by WOCinTech Chat, on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Here, we use the term “presenter” broadly. This could be someone leading the live session (solo or co-presenting with colleagues), serving as the moderator with guest presenters, or facilitating a discussion among participants.

There is an assumption that someone who is a dynamic speaker, presenter, teacher, etc. in an in-person setting will be equally as compelling online without any additional preparation. This is not necessarily the case; live online presentation happens in a very different environment. The more you can prepare a presenter (whether yourself or someone else) for this new environment, the more easily they’ll be able to transfer those skills to an online presentation.

These general principles apply whether presenting solo, as a team, or in a support role:

  • Trim and simplify content. Sessions that are too long, cumbersome, and are pressed for time can overwhelm participants and prevent opportunities for reflection and processing.
    • Help a presenter trim content to its essence and not try to cram too much into one session.
    • Additional supplemental or detailed information can always be delivered via handouts or links to other sites where people can deep dive in their own time. This will provide a richness of material while keeping the actual presentation content light.
  • Performance tips and tricks. Many presenters struggle performing to a computer screen, feeling like they are speaking into a void, addressing nobody. It’s hard to get energized. One simple remedy for this is to put a physical object in your view or right next to the computer camera. A teddy bear, doll, photographs, stickers, or anything physical that you can rest your eyes on and speak to directly can go a long way to energizing a presentation and adding a level of comfort for the presenter.
  • Encourage presenters to practice ahead of time. If you are a solo presenter, practice by getting into your chosen platform and delivering the presentation to yourself to see how it feels. If you’re presenting with another speaker, arrange a practice session ahead of time to ensure you both understand how the platform functions, what the flow between speakers will be, and how you both plan to accommodate questions.

Prepare Producers

The producer role ensures all the logistical details unfold smoothly. If you’re lucky, you’ll have someone else in this role to support presenters and participants. But more often than not, you’ll be both producer and presenter. There are still things you can set in place to make that experience as successful as possible.

Secure the platform. First, identify what online conferencing tool is approved by your institution or school district to leverage existing resources. It is also important to understand the options participants have for using the tool (can participants download as an app?) and to confirm that the security settings required by your employer are in place when in use.

Start early.

  • As producer, plan to launch the meeting 30 minutes before the official meeting start so that you can upload slides.
  • Ask presenters to join up to 20 minutes early to confirm that their audio and video are working. An early start will allow you to troubleshoot most issues before any participants join online.
  • You can also encourage participants to join 10 minutes early for an audio test and to review platform functionality and netiquette protocol. When you have a producer in place, or a plan of action should things not go according to plan, your response can be led with confidence.

For some additional tips for a successful virtual presentation, check out this blog post from Sharon Streams (Director, WebJunction) on OCLC Next: “36 tips for making webinars that don’t stink.” And read the second installment in this Delivering Engaging Online Learning series, Enlivening the Virtual Environment, focused on creating an engaging virtual environment.

This content was originally delivered as a virtual presentation to US school library staff and administrators as part of the Institute of Museum and Library Services Accelerating Promising Practices for Small Libraries (APP) Initiative. For this project, WebJunction is mentoring a cohort of 10 small, rural US school libraries as they redesign their school libraries for 21st century learning, advancing staff skills, strengthening partnerships with stakeholders, and enhancing programs and services that will prepare their students for success. APP Transforming School Library Practice is made possible by support from OCLC and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (project number LG-00-19-0289-19). Learn more at