Changed by Our Journey: Engaging Students through Simulive Learning

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The first article in this series argues that instructors who successfully engaged students during the coronavirus pandemic adapted their thinking, mustered courage, and put heart into their teaching. In this article, an instructor explains how she took an alternative approach to teaching—simulive learning—and discusses the benefits that have extended to her in-person classrooms.

Drawing of a landscape with the heads of a scarecrow, lion, and tin man floating over it.
Credit: Sarah McRury © 2023

Articles in this series:

Spring break 2020 ushered in new course design parameters for instructors who had been teaching in person on college and university campuses. Screen perimeters replaced classroom walls. Muted microphones replaced unraised hands. Black boxes replaced blank stares. In this new environment, faculty were asked to figure out how to engage students.Footnote1

Like other faculty members at the start of the pandemic, Penn State Associate Teaching Professor Megan Costello learned in March 2020 that she would not be returning to a physical classroom. Although videoconferencing was popular and widely used at the time, Costello used her course development expertise and other skills to challenge what a remote synchronous course looks like.

She was determined to join students wherever they might congregate comfortably in a remote synchronous course. After all, she reasoned, students use online platforms such as Twitch, Discord, or Instagram to communicate all the time. On these platforms, short-form communication is the norm. Brevity and informality are common features of students' everyday writing.Footnote2

Costello adapted her thinking about teaching and learning and asked herself where in the new remote synchronous learning environment could she find a communication forum that most closely resembled what students were accustomed to in other synchronous and asynchronous forums. Costello concluded that chat might be the solution. But how could she participate with students in this medium while also sharing the content she had prepared for her course?

This question coincided with another question in Costello's mind: How could she make her course more accessible to students who were out sick or had returned home to time zones that differed by four, six, or more hours? While the Penn State policy was to hold class at the regularly scheduled time in the Eastern time zone, Costello wanted to make the class available at additional times so her students who were sick or participating in class from different time zones were not so inconvenienced. She put heart into her teaching decisions—sympathizing with the additional hardships these students were experiencing—and searched for an option that would allow her to invite all students to attend class during the regularly scheduled time and provide an instructional experience for students who could not attend at the designated time.

Mustering courage, Costello devised a novel way to (1) share the course at times other than when it was regularly scheduled and (2) fully engage with her students in the chat channel during the scheduled class meeting time. Her solution, which she calls simulive learning, required her to record her lectures and watch them with her students. (Courageous, indeed!)

Below, Costello and I discuss what simulive learning looks like, how it works, and how Costello has taken her version of remote synchronous teaching forward into current semesters.

Lisa Lenze: I've heard that you and your students have had novel and productive experiences with your version of a remote synchronous course. Could you explain what simulive learning means?

Megan Costello: I took a different approach to remote synchronous online learning at the start of the pandemic. Instead of using traditional videoconferencing software to hold class, I prerecorded, edited, and uploaded videos of my lectures to a streaming website. This website allowed me to specify a time and date to broadcast my lectures to my students. Because the lectures were already prepared, I could watch and participate in the chat with my students as we encountered the materials together during the scheduled class time. I drove conversations in chat, asked questions, and got students engaged as we covered materials for the day. The students had my full attention.

Although I've been using this teaching method since the start of the pandemic, I didn't find out until much later that this event format is referred to as "simulive." This catchy term is a mashup of the words "simulated" and "live" because of its pre-recorded and live elements. I had seen this event format applied in the entertainment industry and to online conferences, but I had never seen it used for teaching. Because I was using simulive in an educational context, I called my implementation "simulive learning." Since inventing this term, I've become aware of others who have implemented similar teaching practices. Some call it "watch party lecturing,"Footnote3 and others are still looking for an appropriate term.

Lenze: Where did your inspiration to use simulive learning come from?

Costello: Around the time the pandemic started, one of my favorite bands tried out a new streaming experience to debut its latest music video release worldwide. As the video stream played, the audience and the band used live chat to connect in real time. I was familiar with "live tweeting" events and even live-streamed virtual events, but this took the experience and connection to the next level. The simulive experience gave audience members access to their favorite band and allowed participants to share their immediate reactions in real time. Although the band and audience members were separated by time zones, it felt like we were encountering the performance in the same room.

The experience was so positive that it immediately sparked my interest in different applications. If this could work for a music performance, could it be applied to an online lecture? I am happy to report that simulive learning works very well and has become one of my favorite modes of teaching. Even though I am teaching in-person courses again, I use simulive learning for a portion of the class.

Lenze: Can you describe a typical simulive class period, including what you and the students do during class time?

Costello: During class, I post a special home page on the LMS that contains a link to the simulive classroom. This page includes the live-streamed lecture and the class chat. I open the chat a few minutes early so students can get situated and chat with each other and the teaching team.

When class is ready to begin, I remind students to click the play button on the lecture video for the day. The program that runs my simulive broadcast has a countdown that synchronizes everyone at the start of class. During the video lecture stream, I ask questions based on audio cues from the lecture and discussion points from the chat to get students to participate and ask questions of their own.

Students can access the recorded lecture immediately after class. Lectures are archived on the LMS for quick access for students to review and study. I used simulive broadcasts every day during the first few semesters of the pandemic, but currently, I use simulive learning on designated "special session" days for a portion of the in-person semester.

Lenze: How do students participate?

Costello: My simulive classroom provides students various ways to engage with class materials synchronously and asynchronously. As I mentioned, a live chat session is open during the lecture broadcast. Students are prompted in the chat to "play along" with review questions pertaining to the lecture materials. In my cybersecurity course, for example, when we focus on learning the basics of encryption, I watch in real time while students solve encryption puzzles in the chat during the simulive lecture. It's pretty cool.

Interactive activities like these offer a great, low-stakes way for those joining live to review materials on the spot with the teaching team. If students miss a key concept or need clarification, they can ask the teaching team questions during class. The chat is like holding live office hours during class. It is a place where we can all interact consistently and effectively.

Speaking of office hours, I also hold regular drop-in office hours and schedule meetings with students who request one-on-one support. In addition to the live chat, students can email me before, during, and after class with questions or comments. Those who can't make the lesson can also use email to ask questions. Not only do I answer individual students, in subsequent lectures, I expand my planned discussion to address the key questions I receive. Each class is unique, and each student encounters the materials differently. This flexibility allows me to tailor the class to meet the individual needs of each student as well as the needs of each section overall. It is amazing how many unique twists and turns the semester takes based on these questions and the talking points I receive in the chat and via email. It makes things much more engaging and personal for everyone involved.

I still offer simulive learning in my in-person classes, although not every day. On the days when we engage in simulive learning, students have—and use—all of these options to participate.

Lenze: Why did you choose to incorporate simulive learning over something more traditional like videoconferencing software?

Costello: When the pandemic started, videoconferencing was an unquestionably necessary and valuable tool for instructors and students as a one-to-one replacement for in-person lectures. Penn State had strict requirements to hold remote synchronous classes during the regularly scheduled class time, and videoconferencing made that happen.

Although I needed to ensure my lectures ran live during class time, I was fortunate to have some flexibility to decide what specific delivery method fit me and my needs best. At first, I thought about using videoconferencing tools to teach my classes, but I had a lot of unique concerns that I found were better addressed with a simulive format.

For one, I needed a teaching tool that was familiar and reliable to me so I could maintain the momentum I had built in my pre-pandemic classroom. I had previously designed several online courses for my college, so I have years of video editing and recording experience. When stress levels were at their highest—with less than a week to prepare for teaching operations after spring break—I chose to take a path I was familiar with. I felt most comfortable using video editing tools and drawing on that skill set to make quality and engaging content for my students.

Another must-have for me was the ability to create an archive of materials quickly and seamlessly for students. Although some students remained in my time zone and could access class without issue, others were dispersed across the globe. I also had many students who were ill (or had family members who were ill) and could not be present for substantial portions of the class. Pre-recording my lectures gave students a rich backlog of materials to review. Students who could not attend class during our scheduled class time could engage with the same material immediately after it had aired.

Lenze: Has anything surprised you with this teaching method?

Costello: Absolutely! This teaching method has come with many welcome surprises. From the outset of the pandemic, my favorite benefit associated with this teaching style has been the ability for the teaching team to connect with students consistently and meaningfully, despite being virtual. While I suspected that a chat channel might be an easy form of communication for students, in the beginning I still worried that it might feel less personal or more "detached" for them. I was relieved that it ended up being a comfortable and exciting platform for collaboration.

Students already use texting applications and services like GroupMe as their primary tools for communication. Online spaces like Twitch and Discord have chat communication tools that can be used to communicate alongside video streams and other activities. Streaming services like Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video are getting on this bandwagon, too, with simultaneously streamed videos and live chat. A chat tool was a natural and familiar match.

During the pandemic, using this communication medium helped me to be more accessible to my students overall. To this day, the chat tool is a fantastic way to understand students' questions, concerns, and interests throughout the semester. I've noticed that students are more open to sharing their thoughts with the rest of the class. In addition, my participation in chat gives me a new inroad with my students. I learn more about who they are and whether they understand or have misconceptions about the course content. Joining them in chat adds a new layer to my teaching.

Lenze: Overall, how do you think this type of course offering works for your students?

Costello: I have to answer in two parts because the student experience and benefits differ slightly depending on 100-percent or partial use. With 100-percent use of simulive learning, the class is like a "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" learning experience. People learn in diverse ways and need different things when learning synchronously or asynchronously. Simulive learning accommodates each person's unique learning style and instructional needs.

Just like in my face-to-face courses, I had some "frequent fliers"—students who attended the video sessions, chatted with the teaching team in the live chat, and fully engaged with the materials—in my simulive learning courses.

There were also many students who watched the videos and learned from the materials asynchronously. They engaged with course materials and asked questions when they needed clarification. I was still able to provide a lot of on-the-spot feedback and mentoring without doing it live. These students appreciated the flexibility, consistency, transparency, and—most of all—the organization.

I feel strongly that simulive learning helped reduce significant anxiety associated with online teaching and learning. The students who attended my lectures live were incredibly open and forthcoming with ideas and answers because they had a low-pressure way to provide them in chat.

Regarding students' performance on course assignments and the course overall, students' performance in the remote synchronous course was on par with students' performance in the in-person version of the course. I was pleased with this outcome!

Fast-forward to today. I am teaching in-person courses again, but I still make use of simulive learning. These classes are designated as "special sessions" and occur periodically throughout the semester. Although we don't utilize simulive learning every day, I find that students who are reluctant to talk in front of their peers in a large classroom setting are more willing to communicate (sometimes even enthusiastically) in the chat. In addition, simulive sessions provide a welcome change of pace for what can otherwise become a stale routine. Our special sessions keep the class interesting.

As a bonus, my simulive offerings continue to help students who miss class due to illness keep up with their studies. Initially, the format helped offset absences and isolation periods during the pandemic; however, this format works particularly well for students during the cold and flu season. Students appreciate the ability to continue attending class and participating from home.

Regardless of when or why I use simulive learning, I have experienced a deeper connection with my students because I use technology to meet their needs. I have had great participation in all modes of communication: the live classroom chat, office hours, and asynchronous email communication.

Lenze: This type of teaching takes a lot of work. What benefits keep you going?

Costello: I won't sugarcoat the process. Simulive learning takes a lot of time. On average, I estimate that it takes at least double (if not triple) the number of hours to prepare a simulive lecture than it does to prepare a more traditional lecture for an in-person course. Instead of prepping a lecture and running it live in class, simulive sessions must be managed beforehand—with time to spare (in case of any last-minute issues). If you multiply this by the number of sections you teach, it adds up. However, after teaching in this format for multiple semesters, I can confidently say that simulive learning works well if you're willing to put in the work to make it happen.

For me, the benefits of front-loading the course materials outweigh the shortcomings. Teaching under normal circumstances is stressful enough. When the pandemic started, simulive learning made me feel much more "in control" of an already stressful situation. It gave me peace of mind that I had covered everything I needed to for the day. I also didn't have to worry as much about technical difficulties on class days. Most importantly, I can't stress enough how meaningful it is to give my students my undivided attention in class for the things that matter most: their questions, concerns, interests, and ideas. Balancing these things is much more challenging in a face-to-face course than it is in a simulive class where you can speak with students in real time as they experience the content with you.

I've also picked up a lot of production tips and tricks, and I have a new appreciation for what it takes to make a full-length production from start to finish. I now have an unapologetically nerdy obsession with everything in my home office setup—from lighting to microphones and everything in between. It's unlocked a fun learning experience I never thought I'd have! Experiences like these keep me going.

Lenze: Given these benefits, where do you hope simulive learning will go?

Costello: From a technology perspective, I would love to see colleges and universities invest in more sophisticated technology tools to support simulive learning. My current simulive classroom is cobbled together using several different technology tools. However, enterprise-level software solutions built specifically for hosting simulive events already exist. Given the opportunity to use these more professional tools, I could be even more efficient and engaging with my teaching than I am today.

Providing access to more sophisticated tools could lower the barrier to entry to this modality of teaching for faculty. I envision so many uses for simulive learning during an in-person semester. It could offer instructors a contingency plan for managing an unpredictable semester. It could provide students who are sick or quarantined a way to keep up with their studies, give faculty members a way to host a meaningful class period when they are away at a conference, and supply a virtual place to teach and learn when weather emergencies (like snow days) keep students and faculty off campus. These are just a few of the many scenarios that come to mind. The possibilities are limitless.

From a personal perspective, it's amazing to see how this teaching format has evolved for me over the last two years. The most surprising discovery I made during the pandemic was how valuable communicating through our backchannel during class time could be. By abandoning the "sage on the stage" or "guide on the side" modalities of teaching, I became a "teacher in the bleachers." I aim to keep that role going forward.

I am committed to finding ways to engage meaningfully with students, and simulive learning helps me do so. Whether the teaching and learning environment is 100-percent virtual or blended (virtual and in-person), the simulive learning modality helps build trust with students, engage students who are reluctant to speak in front of the class, and promote meaningful conversations between students and instructors. I look forward to continuing to innovate in this space and hope to learn from others who do the same.


  1. See, for example, Derek Bruff, "Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms," Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University June 11, 2020; Rachel Toor, "Turns Out You Can Build Community in a Zoom Classroom," The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 23, 2020; and Beth McMurtrie, "The New Rules of Engagement," The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 7, 2020. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Alexa Dagostino, "Here Is How Gen Z Is Changing the Way We Communicate," Forbes, August 9, 2021; Nell Geraets, "Call Declined: Why Get Z Won't Pick Up the Phone," The Sydney Morning Herald, "September 24, 2022. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Andrew Francois, "Watch Party: A Way to Boost Student Engagement of Your Video Lectures," LX Blog (blog), University of Technology Sydney, August 28, 2022; Carolina E. Kuepper-Tetzel and Emily Nordmann, "Watch Party Lectures: Synchronous Delivery of Asynchronous Material," Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education (forthcoming); Emily Nordman and Carolina E. Kuepper-Tetzel, "In Praise of the 'Watch Party' — An Update to the Flipped Learning Model," Times Higher Education, November 5, 2021. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.

Lisa Lenze is Director of Teaching, Learning, and Assessment in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at The Pennsylvania State University.

Megan Costello is an Associate Teaching Professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at The Pennsylvania State University.

© 2023 Lisa Lenze and Megan Costello. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.