Online Professional Learning Will Remain After The Pandemic Passes So How Do We Make It Engaging And Effective?

POSTED: April 26, 2021Category: AISA ArticlesBY: AISA Admin

By Graham Watts, Deputy Executive Director, Association of International Schools in Africa

AISA professional learning (PL) events will remain online in the first semester of the new school year. The uncertainties of the pandemic such as access to vaccines, the need to quarantine when arriving at a new country or returning home, third waves and new variants all mean online PL remains the norm for now. But what of the future? The evaluation surveys conducted at the end of the annual AISA Conferences show participants value the opportunity to learn collaboratively with their peers as much as they value the role of external, expert facilitators. We know that onsite PL offers the buzz of human interaction and that participants value the sharing of ideas and experience with each other. There will be a return to onsite events as soon as it is safe and practicable to do so. But the variant of online PL will continue and flourish alongside its onsite precursor.

Kendall Zoller recently stated on the Learning Forward blog;

“Virtual professional learning will continue to be part of our landscape for a variety of reasons, including ongoing health concerns, convenience, and the opportunity to connect with people outside of our immediate geographic area. We should leverage this opportunity, not because we have to, but because it’s the right thing to do”.

In addition to these reasons, there are some that are specific to our region.

  • The high cost of travel between some African nations means onsite PL can be cost-prohibitive.
  • The need for visas and vaccines to travel to parts of our region adds to the overall costs of attending onsite PL.
  • Some schools simply do not have the PL budgets to cover event registration fees and the travel and accommodation required to accompany an onsite event.

Formats are already changing from a full conference day of five or six hours to shorter, online workshops complimented by time for asynchronous learning and application wrapping around the live component. Some of the key facilitators we have grown to love and look up to may not make the shift to leading online professional learning that is effective and engaging. There will be opportunities for new facilitators to step forward and dazzle in this new digital space. From August, the AISA PL Programme will include Deep Dives for groups who have not traditionally had the budget to travel to PL events, whether they are in the same country as the school or further afield. For example, we will offer our first Deep Dive specifically for Teaching Assistants and with online PL registration fees being less than half of the onsite fees, we hope many of these key colleagues will be able to access PL in a way they have not been able to do so before.

Returning to Zoller’s (2015) work, he offers generalizations rooted in Communicative Intelligence that help us identify what makes online PL effective and engaging. His work has the potential to support facilitators as they plan to lead online PL and offers those arranging online PL for their school, a framework for quality assurance.

Effective components of online PL include:

  1. The camera is the person. Eye contact is one of the most important ways to establish rapport. To make that connection virtually, we need to look right into the lens. When we look at others’ faces on the screen, we may feel like we are making eye contact, but from their view, we are looking away.
  2. Pausing can look like a frozen screen. Pausing is powerful. It supports thinking, places people in a space of calm, and allows for think time. However, when we pause and do not move in a virtual environment, participants may think the computer froze. One strategy is to announce that you are going to pause, or to let people know you’ll be calling on them after a few seconds.
  3. Camera angles and lighting can make it feel like we are in person. Tips from television and movie productions can help us be seen on camera as if we were in person. Place your camera at eye level or slightly above. Consider balanced lighting from the front as opposed to the back or above. And although you don’t have the same amount of space as you do in person, use the space you do have. For example, shift to camera left or right to anchor information; move forward to emote; move back to think or pause.
  4. Animating your presence makes a presentation come alive. If the camera is the person, and the audience’s view of you is a small boxed image, then the audience is looking at an animation of who you are. This means that you should smile wider, open your eyes larger, laugh louder in order for viewers to accurately decipher what you are trying to communicate. Make your facial expressions larger, use gestures intentionally, and vary your position relative to the camera.
  5. Virtual visibility is ephemeral. What others see on the screen lives only when it is visible. When face-to-face, we can post the agenda or content notes on an easel, flipchart, or wall. Since you can’t do this online, identify what you want participants to remember and create signposts for it. Consider having the image of the agenda on screen every time you refer to it. For example, if it is an hour session with 5 agenda items, think about having the agenda on 5 slides throughout your virtual meeting – placed strategically after each content segment.
  6. Agility is your ally. When presenting in person, many of us find standing powerful. Consider standing when virtual, too. You will find you breathe more effectively, more oxygen goes to your brain to support your thinking and processing, and you will be more agile and fluid in your movements and gestures. Before you begin, choose when you want to stand or sit and ensure your positions on camera are visible and show your gestures.

As we move forward with a new partnership of online and onsite PL opportunities, we will need to find a balance that works for our PL budgets as well as our preferred adult learning styles. This new partnership offers more opportunities to learn with others and not just in our region, more cost-effective PL for groups who may only have had limited access to PL before and endless opportunities for learning innovations that combine onsite and online in ways that add value to our professional growth.


Zoller, K., (2021). Virtual professional learning is here to stay – how to make it stick?. Accessed 21.4.21

Zoller, K., (2015). The philosophy of communicative intelligence in cross-cultural collaboration. In N. Erbe and A.H. Normore (Eds.), Cross cultural collaboration and leadership in modern organizations (pp. 303-320). IGI Global Publishers.

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