Firstly, let’s start with a definition. By virtual on line learning we are discussing an instructor led on-line training session using Adobe Connect or similar tool. This is about small groups of training not webinars nor the self-directed e-learning one might use for compliance training.
Why the definition? Well a webinar is a useful tool for presenting information to a large audience but it is an instructional broadcast. For a small group of learners in a virtual class room, then we need to talk learning not instruction. It is a classroom not a lecture theatre.
So what works for virtual on-line learning environments?
The biggest criticism of on-line learning rather than face to face is that you cannot see your audience nor read their body language. True you can have the cameras on, but not all the time. Unlike the real classroom you cannot see if your audience is with you as opposed to doing their emails and attempting to multi task.
So it is vital that the facilitator of the session ensures there is delegate engagement through interaction and involvement. The modern virtual tools like Adobe Connect and Webex Training have many ways this can be done – polls, chat, breakout rooms, Q and A. Involving the participants as much as possible to retain focus. Best practice suggests an interactive engagement every 3-5 minutes. This may seem a lot but it is not compared to the classroom where eye contact and body language responses are constant.
The engagements and interactions do not have to be long – a quick poll or question to the chat area – but they do need to be frequent. This is not just for the benefit of the delegate. Without constant feedback the presenter needs the energy of these interactions.
As well as interactions – think about your slide deck. Having a slide with three to four points can work in a classroom but beware of this on line. Your audience will read the three points in around 10-15 seconds and then switch off. One point per slide – yes that will mean a lot of slide potentially one every 30 seconds but movement creates engagement.
2. PLANNING AND DESIGN
Given the first point about engagement the second naturally follows. A virtual training class requires a lot of planning. Best practise suggests 6-10 hours of preparation for each hour of session. Planning of content and learning outcomes, but also planning and design of the use of the technology. Planning and designing a variety of presentation methods and interactions. Do not use the same materials and slide deck you would use for face to face training. The face to face course needs to be deconstructed and re-built for the new medium.
Next comes the choice of technology. Clearly engagement requires the maximum amount of tools within the software but clearly the software should match your individual requirements and of course budget. The established system include:
- Cisco WebEx Training Centre
- Adobe Connect
- Microsoft Skype for Business
- Citrix GotoMeeting
- Saba Classroom
But there are others worth exploring such as WizIQ, Readytech and Cloudshare.
The one thing that is super important is that the instructor is familiar with the technology and comfortable enough to handle any glitches/that are going to happen. Another good idea is to have two facilitators, with one acting to control the technology and presentational tools, and potential handling chat responses, leaving the other free to concentrate on the presentation of materials.
Another good idea is ensure the delegates are familiar with the technology. Use pre-course material to ensure they can log on and that internet connections are working. Start the course with 15 mins of introductions and technology familiarisations and use of chat and whiteboards etc.
4. THE TRAINING ECO SYSTEM
Finally, we believe that the virtual classroom is not a standalone device. It needs to be part of a wider learning experience, just like the face to face class room. Think about pre-course work, additional materials and training manuals, post course on-line follow up Q and As and e-learning exercises. Building the instructor led element within a blend of tools.