Engagement is not easy, so which is better: classroom collaboration or interaction?
The virtual classroom has been around a lot longer than most of us realize. In 1995 I worked for a health insurer in Connecticut, and we were using a now-defunct platform as part of our "Distance Education" initiative.
That's almost two decades of virtual events, and a global pandemic that forced us into more virtual training than we were ready for, and our industry still struggles to design successful programs.
Virtual classroom platforms now include a wide variety of tools meant to encourage learner participation. We have whiteboards, breakout rooms, polls, and text-based chat. Live video for everyone is now the norm. Including them appropriately in our programs positively impacts our modern learners’ experiences.
Use them poorly, and Zoom Fatigue sets in.
We are looking to these tools to help encourage learner engagement. We need to remember that we can ask for different levels of engagement, and each level, interaction and collaboration, has a different type of outcome.
Let's sort through virtual classroom collaboration and interaction, and examine their impacts on engagement.
Debunking an Engagement Myth
When InSync Training designs virtual classroom events, we follow our rule, “Ask learners to do something every three to five minutes.”
This approach, when used correctly, generates interaction. Learners must put fingers on the keyboard to contribute something to the event: contribute an answer in chat, respond to a poll question, put a green mark next to their name if something applies to them.
Some people apply this rule without thought: for example, they might think that running a poll every three minutes like clockwork results in learner engagement.
Not true – anyone can press a button, but that doesn’t mean they’re engaged.
(This type of routine activity can actually be emotionally disengaging by making individuals think their level of participation doesn't impact the experience in any way.)
Engagement through Interaction
We talk a lot about boosting interaction in the virtual classroom. Interaction is communication between learners, facilitators, and technology.
The purpose of interaction in a virtual classroom is to keep the program moving, make sure participants are paying attention, and clarify misunderstandings. Interaction provides feedback to all involved and focuses on data/information.
Learning objectives that fall into a 'knowledge' category (recite, recall, list....) can usually be taught using an interactive approach. In the virtual classroom, interaction can be accomplished in many ways, including polling, web scavenger hunts, and Q&A sessions.
These types of interactive activities don't include practice of a new skill or application of new knowledge. They simply confirm knowledge.
Interaction should be the primary engagement technique during events with titles like "Webinar" and "Presentation." As we move into events with training goals, interaction is used to ensure the transfer of baseline information before participants need to practice skills or apply knowledge.
Interaction provides learners with the opportunity to communicate during the event amongst themselves and with the facilitators, often through technology. We can use chat, emoticons, polls, and whiteboards, The point is to create a level of environmental engagement and maintain interest. The point is not specifically to ensure content mastery.
Interaction keeps our programs moving. It facilitates understanding. It makes the environment more interesting.
While it keeps individuals emotionally connected to the experience, it doesn’t mean they’re learning. Including interaction is important, but isn’t sufficient to generate deep learning. Deep learning needs a new approach.
Engagement through Collaboration
In training, we want genuine classroom collaboration. If we make the effort to bring people together, we want them to learn from one another.
Collaboration builds on baseline information and is one of the factors that, in my opinion, moves an event from being a presentation to being true training. The purpose of collaboration in a virtual classroom is to ensure learners achieve the desired level of content mastery while working with others. (If they could have learned it on their own, why bother sending them to a live class?)
Collaboration is exemplified by the practice of new skills and application of knowledge by the participants. We can achieve collaboration in a virtual setting by using breakout rooms, sharing whiteboards, and facilitated discussions, all the while moving up the Bloom's Taxonomy ladder. Generally, collaboration can best be achieved with small groups and supplemental learner materials to support the learning process.
Training incorporates both interaction and collaboration when engaging learners.
In short, learning happens during collaboration. It allows our learners to build on baseline information that they may have gotten through course content, like readings or videos. Learners get to practice through collaborating. It gets them to higher-order thinking, like problem-solving.
If interaction keeps learners interested, collaboration stimulates intellectual engagement and encourages true learning. Both engagement techniques are important components of the InQuire Engagement FrameworkTM and should be considered when you want to maximize emotional, environmental, and intellectual engagement.
The Crucial Question: Are You Hosting a Webinar or Virtual Training?
Ask yourself, “If a learner watches a recording of the session, will they have the same experience as they would if they attended the session live?”
If you answer, “Yes,” you’re presenting a webinar. It may be a super interactive webinar with meaningful content that captures learner attention, but it’s not a full-blown training event.
If you answer, “No, learners won’t get the same impact from a recording of this session,” then you have created virtual classroom training.
For example, when you design lessons using Zoom and send learners to breakout rooms, you create the opportunity for them to collaborate with and learn from each other. This design stimulates intellectual curiosity and creates collaboration similar to what can be achieved in the face-to-face classroom. In these situations, recordings become less useful, as you’ve created a true training event that impacts on-the-job performance.
Too Much of a Good Thing: Are We Collaborating Simply for the Sake of Collaborating?
If you want to move out of content-focused webinars which share information, even in an interactive way, collaboration is critical - as long as you don't go too far.
So many technologies are invading our lives that it is starting to feel strange when we aren’t tweeting, posting, or participating in group work. In this age of interconnectedness, people wave the banner of collaboration regularly. However, collaboration is often seen as the desired outcome, and we focus on this engagement strategy rather than the true learning outcomes.
There are several issues with providing too many collaboration opportunities in learning situations:
We know that a requisite “technical literacy” in the information age is the ability to collaborate on-the-job (for example, an organization may have a design team assigned to create a curriculum). An unfortunate consequence of pervasive collaboration is that stakeholders often fail to differentiate this technical literacy from the objectives of the instructional program, to their peril.
The consequence is a requirement for collaboration in the learning process where it might not belong. So, when we teach instructional design using a group model, we might assign different people to be in charge of analysis, design, development, instruction, and evaluation.
The issue with this ‘jigsaw’ approach is that an individual develops expertise in one part of the process, and doesn’t fully master the steps for which he was not responsible.
The reality is, to be an effective member of an instructional design team you need to practice and eventually master every step of the process, not just the step you have been assigned.
Not Focusing Learning Outcomes
If improving collaboration skills is not a stated learning objective of the program, we can be wasting time focusing on the wrong outcomes.
Being able to collaborate, as an independent skill, may not be a desired outcome of your program. Group work provides, among other things, the ability to work with people - a skill that employers value.
Therefore, collaboration should be taught of course, but it should be taught as a skill in its own right and not at the expense of your learning outcomes.
Process Over Product
There can be a lack of accountability in group work. Who’s in charge, anyway?
In today’s overly collaborative environment, we sometimes don’t attempt to accomplish any real work until people get together to discuss and come to agreement with the rest of the group. And then we are more concerned with the collaborative process than with creating any work product.
(How many meetings do you go to in a day?)
At some point, projects, whether work focused or learning focused, need leadership and decision making. Too much focus on collaboration can too often lead to indecision and not meeting the goal of the exercise.
The Right Level of Classroom Collaboration
We need an appropriate level of collaboration in a learning environment. Once a base level of knowledge has been obtained, program designs should allow for collaborative participant interaction so that participants can practice skills and exchange ideas.
But these experiences need to be tightly designed, well-moderated, and focused on meeting learning objectives. When the exercise is complete, the facilitator of the learning experience needs to take charge and move forward, and each learner needs to be responsible, at least in part, for their individual learning outcomes.
Collaboration is a means to the end. When the appropriate emphasis is placed on the learning objectives, the learner will be successful by actively mastering the learning objectives, not by trying hard to be a collaborative team player.