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Apr 08, 2014 Jennifer Hofmann

Advice from the Virtual Trenches: 10+ Rules For Virtual Facilitators

Exceed Virtual Learning Expectations

It was a dark and stormy night… and like most nights, I was in a training session – a virtual training session in a virtual classroom platform. The difference was, this time I was a learner, and not the facilitator.

I know that I am a particularly harsh critic when it comes to the quality of virtual training. I have a difficult time participating in a program even when delivered by my closest colleagues – professionals whom I consider to be among the best virtual facilitators in the world – always thinking to myself how I would do things differently regarding pacing, engagement techniques, and interpersonal style. Everyone has their own style, opinions, and perspective, and I do my best to respect them when in their classes.

This particular experience, however, was delivered by a third party training organization. It spanned a total of 12 hours of instruction over several days, and by the end had me ranting during the debrief session. This article is the (much more staid and constructive) outcome of that debrief, and really focuses around two observations.
  • First, the experience strongly reminded me of why corporations struggle to accept virtual delivery as a legitimate training option. Though the speakers were most certainly technical experts with an in-depth command of the material, the various presenters, to differing degrees, ignored not only the best practices of virtual facilitation, but forgot the skills that made them effective classroom trainers.

  • Second, I’ve decided to change my team’s facilitator evaluation approach. Instead of wheeling out the ole’  Level 1 Survey Smiley Sheet at the end of the session, I reduced the evaluation metric to a simple set of rules for the facilitator. If you conform to the rules, odds are your session will at least be moderately engaging and effective. If you don’t follow them, you are not doing a good job. Really, you’re not, no matter what your evaluations are telling you.

So, without further ado, here is a brief description of the new evaluation approach, in the form of absolute Rules (note the capital “R”):

Note: These Rules have NOTHING to do with the material – the technical accuracy and sufficiency of instructional content for the virtual classroom will be the topic for another day.

The InSync Rules for a Virtual Facilitator

  1. Use an instructional designer when developing the material to ensure logical sequencing and opportunities for learner engagement. Match the content design to the environment. Don’t rely on slides and the virtual classroom to ensure success. To paraphrase, “Those who live by PowerPoint, die by PowerPoint.”

  2. Use a virtual producer. No matter how well you know your technology and your content, a producer will make the experience better for everyone, including you.

  3. Learn the virtual classroom software before you deliver. This may sound like a no-brainer, but nascent virtual presenters often don’t realize that transferring from a traditional environment to a virtual environment is not a ‘plug and play’ experience.

  4. When presenting, speak to the learners, not to the computer. The computer doesn’t care.

  5. If the technology fails, it is usually not the fault of the learners. Don’t ask what button was pushed at a workstation 1,000 miles away – recognize the symptoms – or better yet, let your producer help the learner (in a non-intrusive way like private chat) while you go on with the class.

  6. Take the phones/microphones off of “MUTE,” especially when learners are paying for the class. Learners, by and large, want to be actively engaged in the learning process. If you are going to mute them, just e-mail them a URL to the recording – I promise they won’t watch it.

  7. Focus on the chat and feedback indicators (hand raises, emoticons, etc.) Ignore them once, just once, and learners will probably ignore you for the rest of the session AND share their feelings with everyone else in the class. Remember, learners have email, private chat, Skype, and Twitter to come up and slap you around (even DURING the session) – without you seeing it coming.

  8. Eliminate your verbal crutches. (Cool, gotcha, you know, umm, aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh). They make you sound less intelligent then you probably are.

  9. Know your audience, and plan for them. Respect them. If you have an audience that has proven pre-requisite knowledge, don’t re-teach it – EVEN if the Facilitator Guide (you’d better have one) says to cover that material. If something MUST be reiterated, get your learners involved in teaching the group.

  10. Learners need to do something different every 3-5 minutes to be actively engaged in learning. (For more specific information on this, see 5 Facilitation Tips to Increase Engagement in Virtual Classrooms)  And watching YOU do something different every 3-5 minutes doesn’t count.

  11. In the virtual classroom, learners have zero tolerance for what they consider to be ‘nice to know’ information - and perception is everything. So make everything relevant. Even the orientation to the virtual classroom.

And while we’re on the topic of opening a virtual session and first impressions…

  1. If you need to spend an excessive amount of time establishing your credibility, you aren’t credible. Learners expect that whomever arranged this training (boss, the training provider, university, etc.) has already established you as the “expert.”

  2. Don’t rely on your technical expertise to establish your credibility. Rely on engagement and developing a relationship virtually with the learners to establish your “Sync-Cred.”

  3. Don’t go on about your fancy title. I am a “President, Founder, and CEO” myself, as are a multitude of independent 1099’s. Adult learners are there to learn, and are often just being polite in pretending to care.

  4. Remember your own experiences in the virtual classroom. Think of all the negative interactions, and don’t replicate them.

  5. Don’t talk about wanting an interactive and engaging experience at the beginning of a session and then proceed to talk non-stop. Learners often fail to learn because 75 minutes of non-stop lecture in a virtual classroom is a great chance to catch up on e-mail.

Lastly, I’d point out that many (if not all) of the Rules as I’ve set them out are, if you look closely enough, directly grounded in VERY well-researched Adult Learning Principles. You can, by all means, choose to ignore these rules (or ones just like them) and stick with your bad habits in the virtual classroom – just don’t be surprised at the results.

(Article originally published on, 3/11/2011.)

And if you're ready to learn exactly how to apply these ideas in the virtual classroom, click on the graphic below to check out our Virtual Classroom Facilitation Mastery Series certificate course and discover how you can earn your Virtual Classroom Facilitator Badge.

Virtual Classroom Facilitation Mastery Series certificate


Published by Jennifer Hofmann April 8, 2014
Jennifer Hofmann