Creating Successful Online Learning Experiences
With the rise of Covid-19 many organizations and people are rushing to conduct as much business as possible online rather than face to face. This includes moving training events from a traditional classroom to an online forum. Many people will tell you that this is a sub-optimal arrangement, but our experience has been that it is possible to design a learning experience that is in many ways better than the classroom.
The learning experience will of course be very different from what many people are used to, but we believe it is actually a mistake to try to replicate the traditional classroom too closely. The online environment has a different set of strengths and weaknesses than the classroom and as designers it is up to you to leverage these strengths and work-around the weaknesses.
We have been designing and delivering online learning events since 2010 and they have ranged from one to one coaching up to globe-spanning knowledge sharing events reaching more than 20 countries and 150 people at a time. The success of an online training session depends on four basic elements – The Design, The Facilitator, The Participants, and The Forum.
It takes a bit more time to prepare an impactful online learning experience. One of the main reasons for this is that the facilitator has a decreased influence over the audience’ experience. A good classroom facilitator can often take poor content and still create a decent learning experience through the sheer dynamism of their delivery, and various on-the-spot interventions. However, in an online forum, the training content is very much front and center, while the facilitator may just be a voice in a participant’s headset. So poor content will be obvious to everyone.
- Virtual learning events are usually designed as a series of short sessions rather than a single one-or two-day event. We do this because it is too tough for participants to sit and focus on a virtual classroom for a full day. But this does not have to be a negative – with longer duration trainings we can then take advantage of the off-line time between sessions to ask participants to do research, on-the-job practice, or prepare short presentations that they can share when they come back for the next session. Also, it has been proven that spacing out learning increases our retention, so the ROI will be better too.
- To best take advantage of the structure of a serial training event, it is important to make sure that each of the sessions has a single theme with clear learning objectives and outcomes. In this way, practical assignments will align with the breaks in the program. We know that adults learn best from solving problems on their own terms and that immediate practical application is one of the best ways to increase retention of new information.
- It is easier to lose track in an online environment, so it is best to build in more milestones to show participants where they are in the program. Learning roadmaps, section agendas and recaps help people to re-orient themselves if they get lost.
- More and shorter breaks should be built in too. A 7 – 10-minute break every hour or so will allow everyone to refresh and focus again.
- Death by PowerPoint can happen online too. Normal classroom presentation material has to be modified for the virtual environment. A live presenter can deliver his/her message quite dynamically and engagingly and thus a single PowerPoint slide can remain on the screen in a classroom for 5 – 10 minutes and the audience will remain engaged, drawn in by the charisma of the presenter. Not so with a virtual environment. It is better to have more slides that change frequently rather than few slides that remain static.
- Each slide should only have one simple message, with very little text so it can be absorbed quickly. Change your slides as the story progresses, thus continually re-focusing the attention of the audience on the next piece of information. This will help keep their eyeballs pointed at the screen and not at their smartphone or out the window.
- Create each sequence of slides so they lead quickly to a clear point. Keep the sequence fairly short: 5-6 slides at the most. The end of each sequence should have some opportunity for interaction: a quiz or Q&A or an activity.
- Your slide deck needs to have many more resting points built in to it for review and Q&A. Unlike in a classroom, where you could turn off the slide and walk over to a white board or flipchart, the stopping point should be built in. The presenter should never be forced to speak for more than 10 /12 minutes without stopping or the audience will lose interest and begin reading emails and shopping on Amazon.
- Have you ever sat through a presentation where the presenter showed a series of densely packed slides full of text and simply faced the screen and read the slides to you? Imagine that happening in an online training. If you create text-based slides, your trainer will probably read them to the audience. And the audience will read them to themselves. A whole lot of reading going on. Make graphical slides, so that the trainer needs to explain what the audience is looking at. The audience will be thinking;” What am I looking at?” And the trainer will be helping them understand.
- Too much PowerPoint will get old very fast. So, add a little variety by using other types of media and delivery modes. Short videoclips or audio clips are a great way to add variety to your training.
- Make sure you introduce the clip and give the participants some questions to answer while they are watching / listening.
- Always follow a clip with a debrief or lessons learned discussion.
- Since you can screen share, any document, application or website can become part of your training.
- Listening to a lecture is proven to be one of the least effective ways to learn anything. And listening to a lecture while staring at a static PPT on a small screen is even worse. So smart course developers integrate interactivity throughout every course session in the form of quizzes, games, group chat, breakouts or group whiteboard activities. Without these opportunities to switch modes, virtual training will become boring.
- It is best to add some form of interactivity every 5 – 10 minutes to help break up the monotony, reinforce lessons being learned, and trigger audience engagement throughout the lesson.
- Breakout Rooms – In a live classroom we schedule activities to allow participants to discuss and work with new concepts. In the virtual classroom we can do the same thing: participants can be assigned to small groups of 2-3 people to discuss ideas and prepare presentations in the same way that they would in a normal classroom. This gives them the chance to speak freely and think how new ideas might actually be implemented on the job.
- Whiteboards – Stimulate thinking by asking the whole group or each breakout room to brainstorm ideas on a virtual whiteboard. Many forms of annotation are available: text, drawing tools, symbols, emoji, all in full color. These can be saved for later or used as a debrief.
- Text Chat – Take questions using the text chat feature. Some people may be shy about speaking and sometimes microphones do not work.
- Quizzes – Check comprehension and have a little fun using the online polling feature. Start each session with a short quiz to see what they remember from the last session and then use that to kick off a review and Q&A session.
- Homework – Assign homework (and Pre-work) to reinforce learning between multi-part programs.
- Non-Verbal Feedback – Many virtual classrooms allow participants to give feedback to the presenter via emoji – like symbols: thumbs-up, raised hand, smiley face, etc. Ask your participants to use these now and then to signal how they are feeling.
Designing for engagement can enrich and revitalize dry course material. If you must create an e-course for something basic and possibly boring, such as corporate on-boarding or compliance, adding engagement reinforces learning and reduces boredom.
Facilitators need to work a lot harder to maintain engagement and achieve learning objectives in the virtual classroom. It is too easy for participants to become distracted by Facebook or Twitter or some other attention vampire, especially if they know they are not being watched by management or HR. And most tech-savvy participants have a low tolerance for boredom or inept delivery. This means that the facilitator needs to be very knowledgeable, very competent with the technology, and very responsive to the engagement level of the participants.
- Facilitators must know the system well enough so that they can take advantage of the features they will use most. It is a good idea to practice alone until you feel comfortable and then present a full lesson to a test audience before facing a real audience. Many online tools have a record function, so you can record a session and play it back to yourself to see how well you did.
Subject Matter Expertise
- Many online audiences are much harsher critics than they would be in a face to face setting, so you should be prepared for criticism or poor evaluations if you are just “Winging it”. Sometimes people will just drop out if they feel the trainer is not delivering as expected. Know your content very well and be prepared for challenging questions.
- Often there will be a gap between what the audience expects from an online learning session and what the course designer has created. This can be due to overly optimistic advertising, or simple mis-perception. Setting expectations at the beginning of an event is therefore critical to achieving satisfaction. Be very clear about what the learning session will cover and what it will not. Or be prepared for harsh reviews.
- Online training can be a lonely experience for the trainer - imagine sitting alone in your (very quiet) room and presenting information to people you cannot see or hear most of the time. Some facilitators can become very discouraged without any feedback from the audience. And this is always a possibility. If you have watched the American late-night talk shows recently, you will have noticed this effect – most of them looked very uncomfortable and even a bit frightened without the constant laughter and applause. So this means that every facilitator has to be prepared for presenting into silence.
- You will need to develop some tricks for getting the audience involved: Prepare some ice-breaking activities; Call on people by name to ask for their opinion; Ask for members to make a self-introduction; Conduct pair interviews in breakout rooms followed by reporting out what they learned; Play a little game; Do a poll; Form teams and ask them to come up with a team name and mission statement, etc.
- Most on-line training events are delivered by a facilitator showing PowerPoint visuals and talking about them. Can you imagine listening to some presenter simply reading a series of text-based PowerPoints? Now imaging listening to a monotone voice reading a set of slides on compliance. Zzzz. Your vocal delivery is your only weapon for jazzing up the delivery a little and generating some energy. Some presenters will do it by standing up while they speak, others try to emulate their favorite radio talk show host. Whatever you do, you must get some energy and dynamism into your voice while you present. And you must do it even when there is nothing but silence coming back to you from the audience – you are responsible for the energy level of the event.
- Having said that, you need to preserve your own energy too, so frequent breaks will help you to maintain the right energy level. And always have a glass of water near-by.
- Facilitators need to pay attention to the signs that people are engaged or not. Some applications can show if a participant has opened another window on their PC, and this is very useful. But sometimes we must just check in with the participants more frequently to ensure they are still there. It could be as simple as asking them to give a “Thumbs up” sign if they are ok.
- If everyone has their video on, then it is easy to see who is paying attention and who is not, so it is a good idea to switch to this mode from time to time. Schedule some key moments in the program for “Video Forums.”
- A large part of the time, the participants will be looking at a static PPT slide, and listening to the presentation, so not a whole lot going on to attract attention visually. Facilitators can create a little movement by using the annotation tools to direct attention at the slide, focus on key points and so on.
- Switch from one-way delivery to two-way discussion often.
- Some attendees will be very comfortable about speaking up in a virtual class and others will become very passive, so the trainer needs to be monitoring who is being a passenger and to engage them directly. Call on people by name if they do not speak up voluntarily.
- When people do speak, facilitators must really listen, rather than pretending to listen while preparing the next activity. Active listening is key for all facilitators. People will disengage quickly if they feel they are not being listened to.
- Smaller groups are easier because the feeling is more intimate, and the participants will quickly develop a rapport with each other leading to much more enjoyable sessions and high participation. In the best cases, the participants will begin to support each other and engage with each other asking each other questions and connecting off-line.
- If you notice that some participants have become disengaged, try these coping strategies:
- Ask participants to stand up and stretch their bodies quickly.
- Give them a short break to get a drink or snack (or just some fresh air).
- Change up your delivery methods if you notice you’re giving them too much input and not enough time to process, digest, and feedback on the content.
- Add more breakout conversations to get people to talk to each other in smaller, more intimate groups.
- Check with your participants on how they would like to use the remaining time to make sure it’s valuable for everyone. Don’t be afraid of cutting the session short if there’s no enthusiasm for it!
- Because you are not there in person with your participants, it may be more difficult to monitor their emotions and to know what they are experiencing during the virtual event. So it’s important you find other ways to check on the group, for example: by doing more frequent “mini check-ins” (thumbs up / down), or by speaking directly to people by name so you can evaluate by the tone of their voice.
- The size of your group will impact participants’ level of engagement. Smaller groups allow for more participation, as long as you foster trust so participants feel safe to take risks in the group. We recommend 10 – 15 people as a comfortable size.
- When it comes to interpersonal relations, the atmosphere might be quite different depending on whether your participants know each other already or are total strangers. Some kind of ice-breaker / self-introduction is essential. This is especially important if you are doing some type of technical training – people want to know what kind of background and experience the other participants have.
- If you have especially knowledgeable people in the group, it is good to bring them into the discussion by asking for their opinion or how they do things at their company. People are always interested in how other companies solve the same problems in different ways.
- On the other hand, if you have someone who talks too frequently or too long, you may need to wrestle back control by signaling that it is time to get back to the agenda and turning off the microphones.
- It’s important to state from the beginning a few rules you’d like everyone to respect when it comes to interacting with others. For example: Confidentiality; No talking over others; No personal attacks; Practice active listening; Not talking too much or too long, etc.
- It is a good idea to ask the participants if they have any rules they would like to add – you can ask them to use the text annotation on your rules slide to do this.
Luckily, many people are quickly becoming familiar with video-conferencing and other online collaboration tools these days. This makes it easier for people to quickly adapt to the online learning environment.
Virtual Classroom vs Teleconference Tools
- There are many different options for online training software. To best connect with your target audience, it is important that you select the right medium for your message. Some common tools, such as Webex or Skype, allow you to communicate easily and share files securely. But are these platforms ideal for teaching? Not really. These platforms may work for one-on-one training, tech support, executive coaching, or online face-to-face communication. Yet it is difficult to use these tools effectively for long-form online training.
- If you are now suddenly required to move a course designed for a classroom to an online forum, then you will need a tool that makes that transition easier. This is where the Virtual Classroom is your best bet. Purpose-built Virtual Classroom tools like: Adobe Connect, Vitero, GoToTraining, Zoom, etc. give you features that allow you to do most of the same things you would do in a classroom in an online forum. So this makes converting your content a lot easier. The breakout rooms and the virtual whiteboard functions allows for nice intimate small group discussions in which the participants can get their hands on the content. The polling feature allows for testing comprehension as you progress through your material. Most of these tools also allow for recording, which is good if people cannot attend every session. And they give the presenter a lot of control so they can manage the conversation.
- These days most platforms are much more stable than they were 10 - 15 years ago, so technical support is usually not a big issue.
- It is a good idea to send out a pdf in advance of your training event with simple instructions how to log-in, where the basic controls are and what the environment looks like.
- Remember that for some people, this might be the first time they attend a virtual training and the first time to use that particular online platform so it’s important to give them a quick tour around the space. Design a few fun activities for the orientation / ice-breaking part of the program that require everyone to try out the controls: Get them to give the Thumbs up sign if they can hear you; Ask them to turn on their video and microphone and do a self-introduction; Give them a multiple choice poll with very easy questions; Get them to type their learning objectives onto the whiteboard: Send them into a breakout room to assign a team captain and come up with a team name and so on. Once the brief orientation is finished, everyone should be quite comfortable with the environment.
As I mentioned before, we believe that if the course is designed well, the facilitator is experienced, the participants are well-prepared, and the forum is appropriate, your learning experience can be just as good or better than a traditional classroom. We just have to use our imagination and leverage all of the available technology.
Please feel free to contact us if you would like to talk about moving your training or other events online, we would be happy to help.