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Mar 19, 2014 Jennifer Hofmann

Participant Guides in the Virtual Classroom


An announcement by Encyclopedia Britannica concerning its decision to cease the production of print versions of the encyclopedia gave me pause.

Of course, it makes sense. Why spend thousands of dollars and yards and yards of wall space to store content that can be found on the web? Especially when print becomes outdated so quickly. (I remember back to about 1980, when my brother was frustrated trying to write a report about John F. Kennedy. It took a long time for my family to realize the problem was not a lack of research skills, but the fact that the household encyclopedia was published in 1959.)

There are a lot of opinions out there – some understanding but nostalgic – others waving the “ABOUT TIME” flag. In a recent blog post, Megan McArdle of The Atlantic shared the following:

The NYT post mentions that several school libraries will continue to stock print encyclopedias, for kids "whose teachers require them to occasionally cite print sources, just to practice using print." Because when the apocalypse/Rapture/Mayan End Times comes and the power grid goes down, we might need to look up how to knap stone tools in the Macropedia (or is it the Micropedia? I never could keep them straight). Fair enough, actually. But when your best selling point is as a post-apocalyptic insurance plan, it's probably the right decision to call it a day.

Post-apocalyptic insurance plan? Sound a little over the top? Maybe, but I do remember my father using those 1959 encyclopedias for firewood that winter, so maybe he had the same idea way back when. If a media has outlived its usefulness, why keep it around for the sake of nostalgia?

But let's talk about the role of print materials in a far less majestic sense - OK, maybe totality of world knowledge is no longer appropriate to be housed in 32 volumes weighing a total of 129 pounds, but is there a role for paper in less all-encompassing works? Like, for example, a customer service training program?

I say - and my answer might be surprising - an emphatic "YES." At least for now.

Individuals learning a new skill need a way to take notes, reference content, and participate in activities. Our memories are simply not agile enough to retain everything a trainer says. So we need a reference that can be force-fit into our own styles. Maybe John writes down every word, while Michael writes key points only. Jane may keep track of 'trigger words' that help her recall larger concepts. And there are probably note-taking styles for Karen, Vickie, Kathy, and David that I haven't even addressed.

We need something for participants to use for capturing ideas, but what should it be?

Let's start with what it should NOT be:

  1. Participant guides should NOT be detailed technical manuals that contain every word a trainer will (or might) say. Detailed technical manuals are great reference materials for use after the training program, but during training, they can actually disengage the learner. If everything is documented (or participants think it is), they may be more likely to take phone calls or check e-mail during class. Instead, make these reference materials available online after class; participants can easily look up facts, and content owners can easily update content and fix errors.

  2. Participant guides should NOT be simply a copy of PowerPoint slides. We have effectively convinced several generations of learners that if it's important, it's on a slide. Therefore, their perception is that they need only a copy of the program slides. Some of your learners may look askance at this omission, but refraining from sending slides to them ahead of time is for their own good. If you feel you must send a copy of your slides, do so after class.

So, in this high-tech/ed-tech world, what SHOULD the print materials look like? Here are some options:

  1. Old fashioned print-based workbooks/participant guides. Exactly of the same type that you would use in the traditional classroom - or would have, before PowerPoint slides took over. In the K-12 world, these are the textbook supplements -- where learners complete exercises, practice, and take notes. In the world of the virtual classroom, these will probably be emailed to participants. Send them in Word (or other editable) format so participants can type notes instead of having to write notes by hand. Even participants who do type notes should have a printed copy of their materials so they can quickly identify where they should be whenever trainers reference page numbers.

  2. Group Guide. In the spirit of collaboration, some organizations are experimenting with "Shared Group Guides" in which participants collaborate in a Wiki or other shared collaboration space (like GoogleDocs) to create a meaningful set of notes. The facilitator would create a document/Wiki with just topic headers, and participants add key points and observations as a group. This provides an interesting way for the facilitator to see what learning points the participants think are important.

  3. Learning Journals. A learning journal is a modern, e-learning take on a participant guide. provides the following explanation for moving to learning journals (also called reflective journals):

    A hundred years ago, distance education didn’t exist, and textbooks were very expensive to buy. Therefore, students had to attend lectures and write notes while they listened. Most of those notes simply recorded the contents of the lecture. The act of writing the notes, and deciding what to write, was a major factor in students’ learning.

These days, you don’t need lecture notes for online courses, because (a) there are no lectures, (b) the notes are already on the web site, (c) books are relatively cheap, and (d) because you are doing an online course, you must also have access to the entire Web. So instead of lecture notes, we use reflective journals. The emphasis is different, but the purpose is similar: to help you make sense of what you’ve been learning.

Visit The Rapid e-Learning Blog to learn how to create a learning journal.

Ready to learn more? Check out our Virtual Classroom Design Mastery Series certificate course and discover how you can earn your Virtual Classroom Instructional Designer Badge by clicking on the graphic below.

Virtual Classroom Design Mastery Series Badge

What to do with those old encyclopedias?


By the way - wondering what to do with those old encyclopedias besides keeping them for kindling? For fun, check out Brian Dettmer's ideas.



Published by Jennifer Hofmann March 19, 2014
Jennifer Hofmann