Explore how to invite virtual guest speakers to engage and inspire your students.
We have long used guest speakers to help engage and inspire our students, from early childhood through postsecondary classrooms. As teachers, many of us continue to value and enjoy listening to guest speakers at workshops and conferences. Inviting guests to share their experiences and stories is highly effective because they can be used for a variety of purposes:
- Create novelty.
- Spark student interests on a new topic.
- Affirm and reinforce new learning.
- Make real-life connections that add relevance to the learning.
- Expose students to other insights and perspectives.
- Inspire students to consider vocations or avocations for their future.
As impactful as guest speakers can be on learning, it can be challenging to get them into our classrooms. Expert guests may not be available or within driving distance from our schools. There may be costs associated with travel along with speaker or honorarium fees. Even when guests are nearby and willing to volunteer their time, we need to navigate school security protocols that ensure our students are safe from outsiders. While many of these considerations can be addressed, given our workload and limited resources of both time and money, few teachers leverage this opportunity. Instead, we might take an easier path and substitute this experience by having students watch recordings from TED-Ed, YouTube, TikTok, or other video collections. While these are excellent resources that we will want to continue to leverage, they lack the benefit of a live guest where the learning can be more directly targeted and our students can engage in spontaneous questions and answers.
Technology can help remove many of the barriers of inviting guests to our classrooms. While videoconferencing tools have been around for over a decade, it is only recently due to the pandemic, that a much larger number of us now have the skills and confidence to leverage this resource. As educators, we have learned how to successfully navigate Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet, and more. While each tool has its unique setup, they are very similar, and the skills we gain with one are transferable to other videoconferencing tools. The same is true for our guest speakers. Until recently, only a limited number of people had experience using these tools. Now, many in our communities have this experience because of working remotely and supporting children in distance learning. This community of workers and families is where we often recruit our guest speakers, and now, this community that we can tap into is also global. Technology helps remove the barriers of location and costs associated with physical travel, which means our opportunity for speakers is much broader than ever. This is an ideal time to invite virtual guest speakers to your classroom.
Identify Your Purpose
It is important that we are intentional in our planning for virtual guest speakers, so they add meaningfully to our students’ learning. With careful planning, we can select a guest and facilitate an experience that aligns to and meets our academic standards. By inviting virtual guest speakers from our global community, we also have an opportunity to support students’ social and emotional learning. By hearing varied experiences and stories, our students can gain greater and broader perspectives about the people, places, and things in the world around them. This broader perspective can help foster greater understanding and empathy.
There are many ways that guest speakers can support learning. They can serve as a spark activity at the start of a new unit, they can be integrated within a unit to weave authentic experiences into the learning, or they can be invited at the end of a unit as a celebration and culminating activity.
Locate Virtual Guest Speakers
Once you have identified your purpose and outcomes, the next step is to locate a guest speaker. You can do a web search, reach out to your professional learning network (PLN), or use one of the resources or ideas below to help locate and connect with speakers.
- The Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC) offers free, live programs for students of all ages every weekday at 1:00 pm ET. These interactive programs are typically 45 to 50 minutes and provide opportunities to “visit” museums, national parks, zoos, aquariums, and science centers.
- DART Connections from the New South Wales Department of Education’s website “allows teachers, parents and students to find incredible Live, By Request, or On Demand learning experiences offered by museums, galleries, research institutes, scientists, writers, athletes, artists, musicians, zoos and many more.”
- Nepris helps connect K–12 educators with over 46,000 industry professionals. Their goal is to bring “real-world relevance and career exposure to all learners.” With a subscription, your class can join daily, live virtual chats, schedule a virtual guest speaker, and watch recorded presentations and conversations. Key questions and lesson templates are also provided that you can use to engage your students.
- Skype a Scientist is a free program that connects scientists for a 30- to 60-minute Q&A session. The mission of Skype a Scientist is “to make science accessible and fun through personal connections with scientists.”
- Microsoft’s Flipgrid Live Events has replaced Skype in the Classroom and can be used to connect your classroom with “weekly live events featuring authors, experts, and amazing sites from around the world.”
- Speakers for Schools from the United Kingdom recently launched their free Virtual Talks and Broadcasts Programme. These are live broadcasts that students can join via a link to engage in virtual Q&A chats.
- FieldTripZoom is a cost-effective subscription service that offers classrooms one-on-one live connections with subject-matter experts. They also have a calendar of livestream events, where experts present from unique settings and locations.
- OpenStage is a service that you can use to book world-class speakers. Booking fees can run into the thousands but might be of interest when hosting districtwide or regional events.
- Many zoos, parks, and museums also host live virtual visits, where zookeepers, park rangers, and docents engage directly with groups of students. For example, the San Diego Zoo offers live virtual programs guided by wildlife experts, the National Park Service has a number that you can call to set up videoconferencing with a ranger, and you can schedule a docent to provide a virtual tour of the San Diego Museum of Art.
- Some universities offer virtual classroom visits and resources, such as the CSE K–12 Virtual Classroom Resources and Virtual Guest Speakers from the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering.
- More and more authors have moved to virtual visits as a result of the pandemic. Search for and visit author or publisher websites to see if those of interest are offering virtual visits, like Penguin Random House’s live author events or Kate Messner’s virtual author visit webinars.
- Former students, school alumni, and families are also excellent resources. They may have expertise and be interested in being a virtual guest speaker. They may also be able to help connect you with a friend, colleague, or family member who would also be an ideal virtual guest for a topic being discussed in your classroom.
Prepare for Virtual Guest Speakers
Once you select your guest speaker, connect with them to find out their needs and to share your instructional purpose and expectations for the experience. Here are some things to consider as you prepare for a virtual visit.
- Date and Time: Coordinate a date and time that works best for the guest speaker as well your instructional timeline and classroom schedule. You can plan for any time zone differences using a tool like Time Zone Converter from Time and Date AS.
- Length: The length of the visit may be predetermined by the guest speaker you select. If not, determine the length of the virtual visit so that it best meets your instructional needs and their availability. A typical visit is 30–60 minutes. However, since no travel is required, they could be as short as 10 minutes or last all morning, afternoon, or even the entire day.
- Presentation Format: If this is not predetermined by the guest, work with them to develop a format that is both comfortable for them and also most effective for your students. Is the speaker comfortable teaching and engaging the students rather than just speaking? Is there an opportunity for open Q&A? Is there an opportunity to build in offline activities along with the on-screen time with the virtual guest? Can breakout rooms be leveraged to engage the guest speaker with small groups after the whole-group presentation?
- Video Format: Determine the format for the virtual visit. Your guest may request that you use a particular videoconference platform, such as Zoom, or they may have a preference for which tool they would like to use. Consider how you can leverage the features of the selected tool to best engage your students. Is there a Q&A, poll, or chat feature that the guest and your students can use to interact with each other?
- Tech Check: Practice using the technology in the setting where you will be hosting the guest speaker.
- Is the technology working as expected and needed?
- Check the Wi-Fi and Internet connection.
- Test the camera, microphone, and speaker system.
- Make sure that the device is fully charged.
- Reboot the device before presenting.
- Close all extra windows or tabs.
- Consider backup options if you should encounter technology issues.
- How can you set up and leverage the equipment so that the guest and your students have an engaging experience?
- Can students see and hear from wherever they are participating? For example, can they hear from the back of the classroom or connect from their remote location?
- Will the presented text be readable and the visuals viewable?
- Test the screen sharing to be sure that the guests and students can see materials presented.
- Be aware of backlighting issues. Adjust the space so that light sources, such as windows and lamps, are in front of the camera.
- Consider pinning the speaker’s camera in the videoconference platform so that it’s large on the screen when they are speaking.
- How can you adjust the camera so that the guest can see as many of the students as possible?
- Will you project the videoconference on a panel or screen in your classroom to view as a whole class, or will each student connect on their individual devices? Consider bandwidth when making this decision.
- Where can you place your microphone so that your guest can hear your students as they ask questions? Consider the logistics related to students coming up to the microphone to be heard most clearly. You might even consider purchasing an omnidirectional microphone that better captures the sound of the room. These can be quite inexpensive and greatly improve the ability to capture sound in a larger space, like a classroom.
- Are you familiar with the features that you and your guest will be using, such as chat, Q&A, and polling features?
- What backchannel can you set up so that students can submit new questions as they listen to the guest?
- Is the technology working as expected and needed?
- Budget: While travel costs are not an issue with virtual guests, some may charge a professional or honorarium fee. You can write grants or work with your administration and parent organizations to fund these fees.
Maintain a Growth Mindset
Maintaining a growth mindset is also key as you prepare. For your first experience with virtual guest speakers, keep it low stakes. Consider inviting a familiar guest, such as a colleague or family member who can visit your class for 10 minutes. You can use their short visit as an opportunity to experience and experiment in order to learn how it works.
You can let students know that it’s the first time you are doing this. It is an excellent and authentic opportunity to model that we all learn by trying. Let them know that you prepared well and are hoping for the best, but that it’s okay if things don’t work out exactly as expected because you will try again using what you learned from this first experience. And if things go well, celebrate your success and invite in other guest speakers for longer visits. It is powerful to model for your students that new learning is sometimes messy. Modeling your vulnerability will help foster a safe learning space for your students to take the risks necessary for them to learn and grow. For more on growth mindset, see the AVID Open Access article, Start the Year by Fostering Your Students’ Growth Mindset.
Before the virtual guest speaker joins your class, it’s important that your students know the purpose, the protocols, and their role during the visit. They should know why the guest is joining their class and how to interact with their guest.
Establish the Purpose
Rather than telling students what they should learn and expecting them to be passive listeners during the visit, it is more effective to spark their curiosity and encourage them to generate the questions that they will ask their guest.
You can start by sparking their curiosity about the guest by sharing a fitting statement, quote, picture, video, comic, cartoon, experiment, object/artifact, joke, music, map, primary document, or story. New learning is built upon the connections we make to our previous knowledge or experiences, so the “spark” should also activate their prior knowledge as well as be something that is intriguing and thought provoking. The goal is to connect the guest speaker with their current knowledge and experiences as well what they are learning in class.
In the process of sparking their curiosity about their guest, ask your students what they are wondering about the guest speaker. As they share their wonderings, empower them to generate their own questions to ask the guest. As teachers, we can be tempted to provide the questions because if we generate them, we know that they’ll be aligned to our learning objective. However, it is more powerful for students to generate their own questions. When they “own the question,” they will then be more likely to “own the learning.” By owning and asking their own questions, our students will feel more empowered and be more engaged in the virtual visit.
Although this means giving up some control, we can still ensure that questions align to the learning objectives by guiding students through a process like the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). This guided process can help students generate thoughtful and effective questions. For more details and ideas for how to spark student curiosity and guide them in generating their own questions, see the AVID Open Access article, Spark Curiosity and Ask Questions for Inquiry Learning: Step 1 of the Searching for ANSWERS Inquiry Process.
Set the Protocols
Before the virtual visit, it is also important to establish the expectations for how your students will engage with the guest. Setting protocols is another opportunity to empower your students. Rather than giving them a set of expectations, guide your class to work collaboratively to generate the protocols that will ensure a welcoming, engaging, and successful visit. Generating and practicing protocols is also another opportunity to develop your students’ social and emotional learning skills.
If this is their first attempt at generating protocols, you can have them look at the SLANT strategy as a model from which to build upon:
S = Sit with proper posture
L = Listen
A = Ask and answer questions
N = Nod your head “yes” or “no”
T = Track the speaker
To help them generate the protocols, have students fill out a Y-chart that describes what the visit should sound, look, and feel like. You can use these Y-chart templates: Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or Fillable PDF.
Identify and Assign Roles and Responsibilities
Along with establishing protocols, students can also generate and assign individual roles and responsibilities for the visit. For example, they can determine who will introduce the speaker, who will serve as the room host, who will ask the questions, who will monitor the chat, who will set up and test the equipment, who will facilitate the Q&A session, and who will confirm plans with the guest. You can use and modify this Group Roles and Responsibilities template to create role cards. These cards can be given to students to serve as visual reminders of their responsibilities during the visit.
The best way to engage your students is to empower them both before and during the visit as noted previously. If they generated the questions and protocols, they will be more intrinsically motivated to engage with their guest during the visit. As the teacher, your role should be to serve more as the facilitator of their experience.
As students listen to their guest speaker, they should be expected to both process and document the information that they are learning. The following digital tools can help them capture this documentation and process their new learning.
- Mind Maps: Show connections between ideas by using mind mapping tools, like MindMeister, Mindomo (Tips), Bubbl.us, Creately, Diagrams.net, Canva, MindMup, or Coggle.
- Graphic Organizers: Organize the information using the draw features in Microsoft OneNote, Google Drawings (Tips), Google Slides, or Microsoft PowerPoint.
Guest speakers are a powerful way to engage students in more authentic learning experiences. However, they should not be stand-alone experiences. Students should take a moment to pause and reflect upon their experience. After the guest’s visit, students should be expected to demonstrate what they learned from the experience as well as how they learned. They should also follow up and thank their guest speaker.
Demonstrate What They Learned
Students should create something that allows you to see what they learned. This evidence of learning can be used to share and celebrate their learning as well as to provide them feedback on their learning. It is also another opportunity for them to make connections between what they knew prior to the guest visit and what they know now as a result of engaging in the experience. You can empower your students by encouraging them to be creative in how they show what they now know as well as by giving them some voice and choice in how they share what they learned. For ideas, see the AVID Open Access collection, Empower Students Through Creativity and Choice.
Reflect on How They Learned
It is also important that students take time to reflect on how they learned. Taking time to do this reflection will help them develop their metacognition skills. The following questions, sentence stems, and resources can be used by students to support their reflections.
- Reflection Questions:
- What did you hear that surprised you the most?
- What new questions do you now have?
- How has your understanding changed?
- What new perspectives or insights did you gain?
- How will you use what you learned?
- Reflection Stems:
- Something unexpected I heard was _____.
- During this process, I have become better at _____.
- The next time I do something like this, I will be sure to _____.
- I used to think _____. Now, I think _____.
For more ideas that foster student reflection, see the AVID Open Access collection, Facilitate Effective Student Reflection During Remote Learning.
Thank Their Guest
As part of the debrief, students can also plan how to thank their guest. Along with a thank-you note or email, the guest might appreciate seeing what students created as well as some of their reflections. For example, students could create a Padlet (Tips), a digital book through Book Creator (Tips), or a Flipgrid (Tips) to share both their appreciation along with their key takeaways. As teachers, we know how good it feels to realize that we made an impact; our guests will also appreciate seeing evidence of the impact they made.
As you wrap up a virtual guest visit with your students, you will want to consider how you can increase the impact of the experience by intentionally weaving your students’ new learning into future learning activities. This is also a great time for you to pause and reflect on the experience. Ask yourself the same questions that you ask your students: What worked well? What would you do differently next time? What have you learned from this experience that will inform how you plan for and facilitate your next virtual guest visit?