If your learners aren’t engaged online, it’s not their fault. It’s yours.

I used to spend my time getting frustrated when students didn’t engage in my online teaching.

What was wrong with them?!

In reality, it wasn’t their fault, it was mine.

It often feels like whatever we try, we can’t get their attention or engagement at all.

  • We try to force them to turn cameras on
  • We pick specific people by name to answer questions
  • We often answer our own questions, because they won’t
  • They are DEFINITELY checking their email during the session

It’s hard.

Online learning will never be the same as face-to-face, right?

It’s true. There are some benefits of face-to-face learning that you can’t replicate online.

The main one is connection.

We can community-build online. I’ve done this through Discord, Circle, Twitter, Slack, and Whats App. I do feel very connected to the people I’ve met in these communities, and I’ve made many close friends this way.

But seeing people in-person is a whole different vibe.

We can’t replace that connection. But we CAN still build community, and we CAN deliver killer education online.

It takes more effort to make it great online. If it’s not working well, that’s on us not the learners.

We know that student engagement correlates to their attendance, grades, and general wellbeing. It’s also essential for meaningful learning (see Bond 2020).

So, we tend to focus on engagement and forget to consider disengagement. Disengagement is where the key lies in understanding how to engage our learners.

Isn’t disengagement the opposite of engagement?

In someways they are the opposite of each other. But actually learners can engage AND disengage at the same time.

They might be disengaged in the discussion, but engaged in completing their work. So these two aren’t polar opposites.

Engagement can split in to four categories:

  • Behavioural
  • Emotional
  • Social
  • Cognitive

Behavioural – checking emails during class.
Emotional – feeling isolated and unable to ask for help.
Social – feeling insecure in the group.
Cognitive – not understanding the learning.

Each one of these needs a separate response to encourage engagement.

As educators, engagement is about so much more than simply ‘switching on your camera’. It requires a broader approach and a commitment to tackle it head on.

It’s up to us to do the work.

Why is it worth putting in the effort for online learning?

Online learning offers benefits that face-to-face learning cannot match.

  • Global reach
  • Access to a broader faculty
  • Improved accessibility for learners

So it’s very much worth recognising that it’s us as educators who need to step up and make it work.

7 key ways to ensure learner engagement online

1. Embrace silence.

90% of the time when educators don’t get good engagement, it’s because they hate silence.

When people ask a question they struggle to stay silent and wait for an answer. Often faculty fill the silence with:

“…if someone doesn’t answer I can choose someone…”

Instead, leave ACTUAL silence.

Ask the question, then mute your mic and wait.

Set a timer on your mobile. Have a separate chat channel to share your pain with your co-faculty.

It’s hard the first time, but once you’ve done it a few times you’ll get the hang of it. The longest I’ve had to stay silent for is 45 seconds.

That. Felt. Long.

On average it’s around 20 secs.

It IS awkward I know, but you need to sit with it.

2. Breakouts.

With group sizes of over five, have a breakout session. Even if it’s a one hour session, include a breakout for 10-15 minutes.

Putting people into smaller groups means that:

  • People feel more comfortable
  • You offer a safer environment for speaking
  • They build connection with the other learners

If you need a reminder of how to do breakouts in Zoom then watch my video here.


3. Ask easy questions.

No matter the level of the class, if you aren’t getting engagement then you need to meet the audience where they are.

We do this even at on our Postgraduate Masters Course where we aim for higher level thinking. We always have a couple of students who are very nervous about speaking e.g. worried they will say the wrong thing.

For them we ask them questions related to their personal experience, so:

  • it’s easy to answer
  • there’s no right or wrong answer.

Then we use the answer as a way to support and encourage.

4. Stop showing slides.

The problem with showing slides or a screenshare is that the connection disappears.

As soon as you share a screen, everyone’s pictures disappear into tiny boxes. Learners become disengaged and switch off.

There are times where you HAVE to share an image. But if you do, don’t fall into the trap of forgetting it’s up there.

Make sure someone on the faculty is in charge of stopping the screenshare when you’re done.

5. Talk less.

If you want students to engage, you need to make it beneficial for them to be there in real time.

These things do not need to happen live:

  • Watching you talk
  • Watching you talk to your co-faculty
  • Watching you play a prerecorded video
  • Watching you read sentences off a slide

These should happen in their own time. They discourage engagement. In fact, they discourage your learners from showing up at all.

In a small group tutorial (<20 people): 90% of the talking should be from the students, not the faculty.

Our role is to moderate. It is to allow them to use their knowledge to share and learn from each other (with our support). If we need to tell them a list of facts, we can provide this for pre-reading.

Educators often talk AT students for 40 mins and then ask them a question. They are surprised when nobody is paying attention.

Design your teaching with the focus on interaction for improved engagement.

6. Vary the format.

Keeping people’s attention online is way harder than doing it face-to-face.

Switching up the format every 10-15 mins is a good way of maintaining attention. You can move from:

  • talking to a video
  • a poll to a breakout
  • a quiz to a prize
  • a Q+A to an image

When you plan your content, outline how you keep engagement throughout.

7. Use engagement tools.

There is a wealth of simple tech at your fingertips which allows you to engage your learners.

Polls, quizzes, text chat, whiteboards, and Q+As all help generate some engagement.

The key with each of these is to avoid using them for the sake of ‘engaging’. Make sure they have a specific purpose.

For example, a good poll question might help find out more about the learner group. But for it to be worthwhile, you need to be prepared to use the info in the poll answer to adapt your content.

If you aren’t going to adapt, then it’s a bit of a pointless poll.

It’s time to step up

Online learning isn’t going away. If you haven’t mastered learner engagement, it’s time to step up your game.

Your learners aren’t to blame.

There’s plenty of work for us still to do.

Tell a story with your data

I’ve watched hundreds of people present their data.


  • Professionals presenting project outcomes
  • Scientists sharing research data
  • Businesses pitching for funding

Often I leave feeling confused.


90% of the time, the numbers are simply thrown at me and I struggle to make sense of them.


Each time we present data, we HAVE to be able to do it in a meaningful way.


It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how great your results are. If you can’t convey that to your audience, the message will be completely lost.


We need to find the story in our data.


If an insight or a finding isn’t understood by the audience, the outcome is simple:

No change will occur.


If the audience can’t make it sense of it, nobody will act on it.


So to be able to get action from your data, you need to be able to communicate it effectively.


This is where storytelling comes in.


“Data are just summaries of thousands of stories—tell a few of those stories to help make the data meaningful.”~ Dan Heath, bestselling author

Data storytelling involves 3 elements:

  1. Data – this core information to convey
  2. Visuals – this enlightens the audience to see things in the data they wouldn’t otherwise see
  3. Narrative – this engages the audience to feel connected to and inspired by the data

Each of these elements work together to explain, enlighten, and engage the audience. If any one is missing, then you lose the impact of your message.

Do we skew the data by telling a story?

Surely if the number are good, they can stand alone? Why should we ‘dress them up’ with fancy visuals or compelling storytelling?

The answer is simple: great data presenting isn’t about fudging numbers. Instead, it’s about finding and meeting your audience where they are.

This is the same as with any presentation – finding a great narrative is knowing:

  • Who is in the audience?
  • What do they know already?
  • What do they care about?
  • What decisions to they need to make?
  • What are their goals to get there?

Once you have this understanding, you can pinpoint the data that matters.

Everything in life needs context, and data presentation is no exception.

6 steps to present your data in a meaningful way

Every time you present data, your outcome will be greater if you follow these simple steps.

1. Tell a story with your data.

Presenting data is exactly the same as any other type of presentation. You need to draw your audience in with storytelling.

A simple way to find a story is to delve into these 3 things:

  • Setup
  • Conflict
  • Resolution

Take time to find the story in your data before create your graphics.

2. Never use a single number.

The best presenters know that a single number makes no sense.

A study by Professor Chip Heath (Made to Stick author) found that 63% of students could remember stories, but only 5% could remember a single statistic.

Comparing data can provide more meaning than single numbers.

“865 subscribers” is a meaningless number on its own.

But if you saw that for the last 5 years there were only 10 subscribers and this year there was 865, then things change. You start to wonder what the reason is behind the dramatic increase. And the story starts to appear.

Comparison figures give context and help the audience understand.

3. Provide a focal point.

When we look at a complex charts our eyes dart all over the place while we desperately try to make sense of it.

Instead, when we highlight a specific area of a graph we channel the audience’s attention to the story.

Adding arrows or simple annotations is a bulletproof way to do this.

It tells the audience where to look and what’s important.

4. Use contrast.

99% of the time when I look at a data slide, I have no idea what it’s supposed to be telling me.

Contrast helps draw the eye.

You can use contrast in many ways:

  • Color – making one item a different color
  • Size – making one item larger than the others
  • Orientation – rotating one item

The contrast makes it easier for the audience to make sense of data.

5. Maintain consistency.

Too often slides have charts that are completely inconsistent.

Presenters cut and paste from a range of sources, then combine them all into one presentation.

Instead, take time to create charts yourself and maintain consistency with:

  • Color
  • Font
  • Size

This makes it dead-simple for the audience to read and interpret.

You don’t need to be a design expert to do this. I use Canva because it’s a really simple tool to use to do this well (and my Canva course gives a run down of how to get started).

6. Choose the right type chart type.

The choice of chart is critical.

Most people go straight for a pie chart because it’s the simplest.

Don’t do this.

Consider what type of chart best represents the story you’re telling.

Think beyond the tables

Data on its own isn’t going to make change happen.

It’s all about how we share that data in an engaging and meaningful way.

I will end with this:“The goal is to provide inspiring information that moves people to action.” – Guy Kawasaki, author & venture capitalist

Building connection online – is it possible?

Why should I leave the comfort of my home to attend a face-to-face event?

I was convinced that our community’s conference this year (DFTB22) would be the last we’d EVER run.

I was 100% certain that face-to-face events weren’t worth the effort.

Who needs them when you can learn everything online, right?

Conferences cost a fortune to run, especially when you compare them to online events. They take a massive amount of work to make it all flow smoothly.

The returns simply aren’t worthwhile.

Don’t Forget The Bubbles is our community of healthcare professionals that started 10 years ago. It’s the single achievement I am most proud of in my career. It’s a caring, supportive, collaborative, high-quality, educational community.

When COVID hit, we had to postpone DFTB20. Since then, the conference has been a financial millstone around my neck. But then we ran the conference last week.

And I completely changed my mind.

Because seeing our community face-to-face was a thing of beauty.

I now feel:

  • Connected
  • Energised
  • Inspired

I spent last week hanging out with my tribe.

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Dr Ari Horton
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The final session at #DFTB22 … thanks @DFTBubbles for another incredible few days… bringing us all together… for yet more inspiration! Filling up our cups! Thanks @paedsem @henrygoldstein @andrewjtagg @TessaRDavis and the entire crew!
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August 31st 2022

You simply cannot replace that feeling with online content.

Learning in your pyjamas is the best, isn’t it?

And there are so many good things about them:

  • We can do them in our pyjamas
  • We can connect with people globally
  • We are avoiding the travel
  • We can dip in and out
  • They are cheaper
  • Did I mention we can do them in our pyjamas?

It’s easy to slip into thinking that we never need to attend any events in person again.

That’s exactly how I felt.

But I’ve now been to 2 face-to-face conferences post-COVID. They both reminded me of that feeling and buzz that you can only get at a real life event.

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The Bipolar Doc
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I wasn’t present at #DFTB22 but if there’s one thing that is obvious from afar it’s the incredible sense of community amongst the ever growing network of practitioners. So many smiles. A real sense of belonging. That’s what I call success! @DFTBubbles @andrewjtagg @TessaRDavis
August 31st 2022
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Jenny Proimos
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My heart is full after three days at #DFTB22. So many thanks to the incredible team for all your thoughtfulness and care in creating such a special conference. @andrewjtagg @henrygoldstein @TessaRDavis @kls_kat @BeckyPlatt3 @IanMeducator @paedsem
August 31st 2022

Isn’t the most effective learning done online?

Our DFTB community hasn’t been able to meet together for three years, and in that time the memories of why I did it faded.

I’d forgotten why the conference was such a special place.

Now, in 2022, 90% of my learning happens online:

  • Reading newsletters and articles
  • Attending online courses
  • Watching videos

There is no doubt that online learning is a killer way to deliver education. In fact, 50% of my life is spent delivering learning content to learners in online platforms.

I am a true Online Learning Believer.

I know that connecting with other people in ONLINE communities is possible. I’ve met some of my closest friends through Don’t Forget The Bubbles on Twitter.

But our relationships are always brought closer when we meet.

We’ve tried different ways of connecting people at our online events:

  • DMs
  • Discord
  • Text chat
  • Speed networking software

They all have a place, and as long you have a committed faculty, you CAN build community this way. But it’s still not the same feeling as seeing each other in person.

Where does this leave us?

It’s easy to forget what life was like pre-pandemic.

I hadn’t ever been on a Zoom meeting or attended a live course online before 2020. Cut to 2022, and we’ve swiftly moved on to believing that this is the only way to learn.

It is ONE way to learn, but it is not THE BEST way to connect.

Let’s remember what we lost during the pandemic – that connection with other humans.

So here’s what I’d ask you to do:

  • Attend at least one in-person conference this year
  • Get back into that awkward feeling of networking, it’s a beautiful thing
  • Recognise that meaningful learning can happen online, but meaningful connection is best done F2F

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