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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Six Tips for Creating Strong Virtual College Experiences

By Guest Blogger — August 17, 2020 3 min read

Aimée Eubanks Davis, the founder and CEO of Braven, takes over the blog this week. Previously a 6th grade teacher, Aimee has also led Breakthrough New Orleans and held various leadership roles at Teach For America over the course of her career. Aimee’s work at Braven focuses on helping underrepresented college students develop the skills, confidence, experiences, and networks that prepare them for success after graduation. In the coronavirus economy, these things may be more important than ever. She’ll spend the week explaining why transparency in higher ed. has never been more important, sharing tips for strong virtual learning for college students, and passing the mic to a first-gen grad who will share a bit of insight regarding what it’s like to jump-start postcollege life in the midst of the pandemic.

—Rick

College students today are dealing with a lot of uncertainty about their futures. The pandemic has shifted the type of learning instruction most of us have ever known, while also bringing about a national unemployment rate that is higher than it was during the Great Recession. The pressures on many college students are daunting, especially if they come from humble beginnings. Some college students are worried about balancing family responsibilities, while others are trying to figure out how to pay their way through school.

As universities and colleges resume this fall, we need to ensure that equality of opportunity exists for those students who have clearly demonstrated their talents and drive to knock down lots of barriers to earn college degrees. For at least two decades, they have done everything right. Everything we’ve told them their hard work should afford them is hanging in the balance at the 11th hour. Our job as educators is to restore the American Dream by giving them equal opportunity to build connections, skills, and experience that will enable them to land jobs worthy of their degrees.

Here are six tips to deliver strong virtual learning experiences that will help achieve this.


  1. Create a welcoming learning environment for students. Start class with a routine like an icebreaker or whip around that allows for authentic peer connection for the first few minutes of class. At Braven, fellows start every class with “Roses & Thorns,” which provides them with the space to share their highlights and challenges from the week and connect with one another.

  2. Help students build social capital virtually. While students may be used to building their networks via college events or coffee dates, building social capital online is possible. Find opportunities to bring in guest speakers, especially those who’d be willing to connect with students interested in their career field. Do not cancel all events; rather, figure out a way to host them virtually and then use breakout groups to foster small-group discussion.

  3. Optimize the time you have together for lively discussions and encourage all students to participate. Send prep materials in advance and let students know what you plan to discuss. Encourage students to turn their cameras on, while also understanding that not all students will feel comfortable given their surroundings. If they do not feel comfortable, encourage them to use a virtual background, like a scene from their college campus. Also be sure to utilize the chat function and encourage students to do the same, allowing for real-time dialogue and more participation from the get go.

  4. Check in on your students. Virtual teaching and learning is still a new territory for many. Check in on your students to see how they’re doing. Try to prioritize at least two one-on-one meetings per semester. Utilize whole-group polls to ask students about ways in which you could improve the course. Take the learnings and adapt as needed.

  5. Weave essential professional competencies—self-driven leading, working in teams, problem solving, networking and communicating, and operating and managing—into your lesson plans. Find ways to incorporate these into your class projects, even if your course is in no way related to career readiness. For instance, assign project managers and other roles for group projects. Help students understand how to talk about these experiences in job interviews.

  6. Utilize functions like breakout rooms to create small groups of students that meet weekly during class. This will help students get to know each other on a deeper level and help them develop a sense of belonging, which is associated with increased persistence and graduation rates.

By implementing these tactics and others like them, you can help recreate the community college students are missing, while helping to prepare them for the future that they have earned.

—Aimée

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.