When I accepted the Marine Education Fellowship at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant in the middle of a global pandemic, I was not sure what to expect. Usually, educators rely on in-person dialogue and exchange to effectively engage with our audiences and hopefully inspire long-term behavioral changes. This is already a tall order on its own, but the recent pandemic and almost complete shift to the virtual world has added a whole other hurdle to the equation. Our only access point to the public is through a computer screen, the same computer screen that they are likely staring at all day either for school or their job. While this was a daunting space to enter, it was one filled with opportunity. The shift to a virtual setting exponentially increases accessibility. Educators are no longer spatially limited; we can spread our message as far as possible. With this in mind, it was time to rise to the challenge and inspire the next generation of coastal stewards in new and exciting ways.
One of the first tasks we were given as fellows was to design a public program on a given topic to present over Zoom. To no one’s surprise, I was given the topic herpetology, which is the study of reptiles and amphibians. I knew my passion for the topic was there, I just had to make sure it came across in the virtual space. One key thing I tried to keep in mind was making sure that I held people’s attention. Enthusiasm can only go so far if you are doing the same thing for an hour. I made a key decision to not have a section of the presentation that lasted more than 15 minutes. This introduced a level of variability and dynamics that I believe is vital in keeping a virtual audience engaged. About every 10-15 minutes, there was a transition to the next section, allowing for anyone whose attention had wandered to tune back in. Asking as many questions as possible was another tactic I employed to increase engagement. Anything that can be done to switch the spectator’s role from passive to active is a big help, especially in the virtual realm. Keeping an audience engaged is vital to deliver your message as an educator, but gauging audience attentiveness is practically impossible when teaching virtually. This new paradigm allows for some imaginative freedom on the educator’s part.
Teaching to an audience you can’t see was an interesting scenario to adapt to. Usually, educators can very easily pick up on an audience’s level of attention and adjust accordingly, but with virtual lessons and webinars, our audience is a list of names on a screen. It was certainly a new dynamic to get used to, but one of the best practices that I found helped me as an educator is to assume that your audience is as engaged as possible. For all you know, every person on the call is glued to their screen soaking up every word you give them. Having this attitude increases your confidence and excitement, just like a responsive in-person audience would. Confidence, excitement, and staying animated make you a much more interesting presenter and help keep the public engaged. Infectious enthusiasm is always an effective way to inspire stewardship and action, which is even more of a necessity in an environment where keeping an audience’s attention is a bit of an uphill battle.
When preparing for the second virtual lesson I designed, I was given some advice by our public program coordinator, Kayla Clark. She suggested limiting the lecture slides as much as possible and have the live animal and whiteboard portions be the main focus. I took that advice and ran with it. While I did have introductory slides with basic information on them, most of my teaching was done standing in front of a whiteboard, with drawn examples, physical graphics, and live animals and demonstrations. The slides I did have were filled with pictures and videos, and light on text, giving the audience something engaging to look at. I was given feedback that watching someone in front of a whiteboard is much more preferable to watching a slide show presentation in terms of staying engaged and attentive, so it was nice to learn that my approach was working.
Shifting my educational style to the virtual realm was daunting but employing a few techniques to increase engagement and attentiveness really helped bolster my presentations and hopefully inspired action. From my time here with Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, I’ve learned that a virtual lesson filled with energy, variability, opportunities for participation, and live demonstrations is a great way to inspire stewardship in your audience. I’m confident in my ability to take the skills I’ve developed here to implement effective and engaging educational virtual programs in the future!