Inject Active Learning with Follow-Along Lessons

Credit: Productions
Credit: Productions

Nearly all teachers today use PowerPoint or Google Slides presentations to accompany their synchronous lessons. At the same time, students have laptops, tablets, or smartphones open during face-to-face classes. This offers teachers the option of adding interactions to their lessons by inserting slides with questions, polls, or other activities after each new idea. A 50-minute class might have eight to 10 interactions that will help students retain the information. Plus, the teacher can read the class scores in real time so they know when students did not understand the topic well enough and should go back over it.

While there are several audience-response apps that an instructor can use to poll students, a better method is to broadcast the presentation with interactions to each individual student’s device. Then when the interaction comes up, students can respond within the presentation without having to enter information just to get to the interaction. This also allows students to zoom in on the presentation, making it easier for them to see visuals with a lot of information, such as an Excel spreadsheet, or read text they have a hard time seeing on the screen at the front of the classroom. Plus, these systems give students continuous class content on their devices, which might help keep them from doing other things during class.

These “follow-along” systems (my term) do not require students to register for an account, the instructor simply gives students a URL and code at the beginning of class to open the presentation, and the students do not go anywhere else afterward. The student view will advance with the instructor view. These systems also allow instructors to add a wide variety of interactions to their presentations. Best off all, these systems allow instructors to add interactions to their current slide decks rather than having to build new lessons on a learning management system.

Nearpod and Pear Deck are by far the best follow-along systems for education. They are widely used in the K–12 realm and come in both a free and premium version. Here I compare the two.


Nearpod works by having teachers upload their slide deck to the Nearpod website and add interactions to it. It can run in either a live or a self-paced mode. The self-paced mode makes it good for delivering lessons for a flipped classroom, where students go through the content outside of class. The instructor can see individual student responses by name and so know who is participating. There are a variety of possible interactions, such as multiple-choice, fill in the blank, and drawing. The instructor can also see graphs that aggregate all student responses, which will alert them to problems that confuse students. One helpful feature is the ability to share a student’s response with the class with or without the student’s name. This is a great way to motivate students to participate. Another helpful feature lets instructors add questions to videos; answering them will greatly improve students’ retention of the information.

Pear Deck

Pear Deck is very similar in functionality to Nearpod. The instructor runs their lesson while students follow along on their devices, they can add a variety of interaction types within lessons, and the lesson can be run synchronously or asynchronously for students to do on their own. The big difference lies in setup. Pear Deck lessons are built in Google Slides or the online version of PowerPoint (not the desktop app); the instructor uses the Pear Deck add-on along the side to add the interactions. Nearpod presentations, by contrast, require the instructor to upload slideshow content to the company’s website. The one major advantage this gives Pear Deck is that since the lesson is on Google Slides or PowerPoint, there is no limit to its file size. By contrast, the free version of Nearpod has a limit of 40 MB per lesson and 100 MB for all lessons as well as a limit of 40 students viewing a lesson at a time. This will force an instructor using it for a larger class or with videos that take up a lot of space to pay for the premium version. It also means that the instructor can modify the deck without having to do it outside the system and then upload the new one, as is needed with Nearpod.

Beyond that, there are some smaller differences:

Advantage Nearpod

  • Voice response from students is an option.
  • Its free version includes more question types than Pear Deck’s.
  • A Padlet-like option enables students to post digital sticky notes to a board for the entire class to see.
  • Seeing individual student responses is a free function
  • Instructors can add interactions to videos.

Advantage Pear Deck

  • Instructors can give life feedback to individual students with the paid version.
  • Instructors can overlay multiple student responses and show the result to the class. This allows instructors to show, for example, which parts of a photo most students tagged or the class results of drawing a math function.
  • Unlike Nearpod, it has a drag-and-drop interaction.
  • Instructors can toggle between the synchronous and asynchronous versions on the fly. This allows them to start with a synchronous presentation and then have students work on their own for the rest of the class while the instructor provides help with problems—the essence of the flipped classroom.

The choice between Nearpod and Pear Deck resembles that between Toyota and Honda. It really comes down to personal preference for specific features. Either will provide a way to foster interaction during live lessons without students having to switch screens to visit outside websites, and that makes them great tools to inject active learning into your live lessons.

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