5 Recommendations to Move Your Training Programs to the Virtual Classroom, and what Virtual Learning Experts™ Need to Know
This is part of an ongoing column by Virtual Learning Expert™ Jennifer Finan. She’s exploring trends that impact virtual classroom trainers and designers with the goal of improving learner engagement in the hybrid virtual classroom.
Over the last few years, many learning professionals had to quickly move training programs to the virtual classroom. In 2020, as many organizations rapidly switched to a work from home model, training teams around the world had to follow suit – sometimes with only enough time to arrange the Zoom links they needed. We did it because we had to – and we did it! So what now?
What do we mean by ‘moving programs to the virtual classroom’ and why is it trending?
Now, many organizations are still taking great face-to-face training programs and moving them to the virtual classroom, but not for the same reasons, and (thankfully) not at the same speed. If you’ve been asked to convert your classroom training to the virtual classroom, you may be worried that it won’t continue to get the great reviews and results it did before. Perhaps you’re worried that the content just isn’t right for virtual or if it doesn’t work, you’ll get the blame.
Many organizations are taking a ‘virtual first’ approach and embracing hybrid working and learning. Learning professionals in those companies may be keen to take the programs that were thrown into the virtual classroom, review them and continue to do them virtually, but even better. Now that they know it can be done – and can be done successfully, they want to take them from good to great.
But there is some resistance.
As organizations around the globe open their doors again and encourage their workforce back to the office, learning professionals are being asked to return to traditional training rooms. However, their people are resisting. They want options. Employees want to be able to go to the office, sure, but they also want to work from home sometimes or work from wherever sometimes. If people want options on where they work, they will certainly want options on where they learn. With all these changes, isn’t it just as well that as learning professionals, we love learning and developing our own skills?
There are some other economic and workplace trends that impact our work. Budget constraints may impact training, leading to pressure to deliver a greater return on investment. This may drive decisions on where training should be taking place, but it also leads to training having to improve performance and productivity.
The ‘great resignation’ and ‘quiet quitting’ have led to lots of conversations about employee engagement or ensuring people are happy at work. In Harvard Business Review, Annie McKee writes, “To be fully engaged, people need vision, meaning, purpose, and resonant relationships.” We can follow her advice to ensure learners are engaged in our training programs as well as at work.
Wherever our people are, and whatever pressures we’re under, we, as learning professionals need to up our game. We need to make virtual and hybrid training even more engaging, more relevant, valuable, and more available to our learners where and when they need it. We need to ensure the content is a good fit for virtual delivery and that we’re converting face to face activities into engaging virtual formats.
So let’s stop just taking content designed for one environment and throwing it into another. Let’s ensure learners have quality learning experiences, wherever they are.
What impact does converting programs for virtual delivery have on learner engagement?
We know that learner engagement is key to learning outcomes, so it’s important to make sure that when we take programs into the virtual classroom, we’re focused on engagement.
Just as Annie McKee mentioned, employees need ‘resonant relationships’, we know that learners are engaged when they feel they’re part of the learning community. To build that community and enhance learners’ emotional engagement, we need to bring them together at the same time to share experiences that help the other learners in their group. They’re building relationships inside the classroom that will support their careers outside of the classroom. They also need to enjoy the experience and feel that the training is a valuable use of their time. Managers and Facilitators can help reinforce the value of virtual training by ensuring it’s not portrayed as ‘less than’ other training methods. Let’s hold our heads high and say that virtual or hybrid training is what we’re doing because it’s the best solution – not because it’s cheaper or quicker than another method.
Learners also need to be intellectually engaged, so let’s make sure that when we take training programs intended for traditional classroom-based delivery and convert them to a blended, hybrid program, we keep this in mind. No matter how the training is being delivered, we need to ensure it aligns with adult learning principles and uses inquiry-based and brain-based learning techniques to encourage learners to really think, make connections between the content and their own work and that they get the opportunity to practice applying their learning in a safe space.
The environment is probably the biggest difference when we take training programs intended for the traditional classroom and move them to the virtual classroom. All of a sudden, we have technology to manage. Microphones, webcams and new software to figure out. But, we also have a whole new suite of tools to use. Embrace these tools and consider how to use them to encourage collaboration and interaction from all learners. For example, instead of relying on learners to speak up and share verbally, we can invite them to use chat or share their ideas on a whiteboard. This is a great way to encourage everyone – not just the loudest – to contribute. With smart use of the virtual classroom tools, our learning programs can be even more inclusive than traditional training methods.
5 Recommendations for moving your program to the virtual classroom
- Start with the objectives. Always. Consider what the learners need to be able to do as a result of attending the training first. That’ll determine what they should be practicing in the classroom and what questions they need to be able to answer. Design your program with that in mind and any time you become distracted by shiny tools or apps, come back to those learning objectives. Design activities that align to those objectives and facilitate the sessions based on them. Don’t make the mistake of designing activities around the tools you have available!
- Consider the blend. Although we’re massive advocates of the virtual classroom, we acknowledge that not every single thing belongs there. If a particular learning objective doesn’t need any collaboration, that section should probably be self-paced content. If a particular learning objective involves the physical operation of equipment not seen in the virtual classroom, there’s a strong argument for it being moved to a face-to-face environment instead. Consider the rest of your blend and include self-paced work, job aids and other tools and resources to help your learners in their moment of need.
- Build in regular interaction. In the virtual classroom, you’re competing with a lot of other distractions, so keep the program moving and keep learners’ attention by including an interaction every three to five minutes. Remember, interactions don’t need to be lengthy conversations. They can be asking for reactions, asking for comments in chat or adding a stamp to a slide. Also, ensure you vary those interactions! Don’t just throw up a poll every few minutes or stick with chat all the time. Keep learners’ attention and ensure inclusion by varying the interaction type – variety really is the spice of virtual life!
- Be proactive – think through the program ahead of time and identify where things could go wrong. Have back up plans and have back-ups for your back-ups! Technology doesn’t always work – so plan for things to fail! What will you do if there are storms forecasted or the facilitator has a power cut? What if some learners join on a mobile device or decide to go into the office and share a computer? How will you ensure the program continues, successfully without leaving anyone behind?
- Details! Provide even more information to learners ahead of the event – they’ll need links, but also details such as what device to join from (a computer, not a mobile device), where to join from (a quiet space, not a shared meeting room) and anything else they’ll need to know in advance (pre-work, how to test their devices). Provide even more information to facilitators so that they encourage those interactions, know how long to allow for breakout activities and have some questions to prompt debrief discussions. Provide even more details to the producer too – they’ll need contact details, copies of slides and workbooks and they’ll need to know what tools will be used and any polls or breakouts that need to be created.
What do Virtual Learning Experts™ need to know about moving programs to the virtual classroom?
It’s important that the whole instructional team work together to move programs to the virtual classroom. We want to ensure facilitators are set up for success and that they understand the importance of the instructional partnership with the producer. As with any successful change initiative, involve everyone early and often.
- Virtual classroom designers need to know how to design for hybrid or virtual blended programs. They need to ensure they provide the details the instructional team will need to deliver a smooth, engaging learning experience. They need to know the virtual classroom platforms of course, and understand what they can do, but they also need to know which is the right tool for each interaction or activity. They need to hold themselves back from using the tools just because they’re available!
- Virtual classroom facilitators need to know how to encourage interactions and ensure learner engagement throughout. They also need to know the virtual classroom platform and need to know how they’ll use it as a presenter, but also how learners will use it as there are often differences. They need to have great facilitation skills and know how to apply them in a virtual or hybrid environment. They also need to work closely in partnership with the producer to ensure the learners have the best possible experience.
- Virtual classroom producers need to know all the details! They need to know how to work in partnership with the facilitator, the learners, and the technology to ensure that the class runs smoothly, and that the technology almost blends into the background.
- Virtual Learning Coaches™ need to know what great virtual classes look like and need to understand the roles and responsibilities of the designers, facilitators, and producers to be able to coach them to attain excellence.
There’s more to learn!
To truly master the art of taking face to face training programs into the virtual classroom, your team must learn how to redesign activities to maximize interaction through the virtual platform, excite the instructional team and your learners about virtual learning and know exactly what needs to be planned and completed to manage a successful conversion.
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