By Jennifer Hofmann & Nanette Miner
After almost two decades of virtual training, certain myths still exist. It's time, once again, to help spread the word and manage the misconceptions.
Help spread the word!
We’ve all heard some of the comments below made from time to time during our work with the virtual classroom. But just because we’ve heard them before, it doesn’t mean they’re true! Here’s a list of 12 common myths and how they compare to reality in the real virtual training world.
Myth: Virtual training is “just” the traditional classroom online.
Reality: There are indeed many similarities between traditional classroom training and the live online classroom. For example, participants are gathered at the same time, and the facilitator uses slides and other instructional materials to facilitate the content. In addition, many of the engagement techniques that are successful in the classroom may also be applied to the virtual environment. Interestingly, we are seeing that virtual classroom techniques, like classroom clickers, are starting to be used in traditional settings as well. This is being implemented in order to ensure regular, measurable engagement. (For more, see http://www.temple.edu/cs/students/crs.htm and www.engagingtechnologies.com.)
However, there are also a lot of differences.
In addition, virtual online programs tend to be shorter in duration (usually no more than two hours) and the curriculum can be spread out over a longer period of time instead of bunched into consecutive days.
These differences alone require developers and instructional designers to pay attention to how we design and deliver online instruction.
Myth: Virtual training is not interactive.
Reality: It’s been my experience that training in the online medium can be far more interactive than comparable classes taught in a traditional format. In fact, using an approach I call concurrent collaboration, instructional designers can design exercises that encourage all participants to interact at the same time.
In a traditional classroom you would never be able to get the opinion of 30 participants on every question you pose. (Unless, of course, you start to adopt virtual classroom techniques!) In the virtual environment, using such tools as whiteboards and public chat enables facilitators to “hear” each learner’s opinion on just about every topic and in a relatively short period of time.
Myth: Soft skills cannot be taught in the virtual environment.
Reality: There is significant research that shows that skill building in the virtual classroom is in fact more realistic than traditional face-to-face methods for certain audiences and topics because of the nature of some participant’s jobs. For example, a telephone sales representative will experience a more realistic training when taught virtually than while sitting in a training room with 30 other reps.
Myth: The quality of virtual classroom training cannot meet the quality of traditional classrooms.
Reality: A quality program is a quality program regardless of how it is delivered. If you want the same quality from your virtual deliverables that you expect from your face-to-face programs, you must invest the same time and effort, instructional design resources, and needs analysis process.
To produce a quality program you must pay attention to all of the components, including support materials, visuals, communications, interaction and collaboration, scripts, and more, to make it a success. Most organizations make the mistake of simply trying to move their classroom materials online when in fact they need to start at the beginning and develop the entire virtual course from the ground up, as if the original course never existed.
Myth: Virtual training isolates learners and does little to foster a sense of community.
Reality: When properly designed and collaborative in nature, virtual training can actually increase interaction and encourage participants to continue relationships beyond the live learning event. In fact, a participant in a class I facilitated recently said, “I continue to be amazed at how similar this is to a traditional classroom.” When you start to blend in technologies like discussion boards and communities of practice, collaboration can increase even more.
Myth: Once webcams are easily integrated, training in the virtual classroom will be so much easier.
Reality: Live video is a good way to engage participants but it should be used quite sparingly, perhaps at the beginning of a session to introduce the facilitator and then again at the very end for Q&A. Overuse of webcams actually deadens the effectiveness of live video and can be distracting for participants. Besides, who wants to see the facilitator scratch their nose every 90 seconds?
Some content can be enhanced by video. For example, teaching bedside manner to physicians or demonstrating effective body language to use during an employee review.
However, video is not a replacement for face-to-face interaction. Eye contact via video isn’t real eye contact, even if the video is two-way. You can’t see the other person’s body language on a webcam and you’re not catching the other person’s eye. Video lacks the emotional impact that a face-to-face interaction carries.(Click here for more on when to use webcams.)
Myth: One advantage of virtual classrooms is that you can train hundreds of people at one time.
Reality: As we all know, it’s difficult to create true learning with a large audience. How can you foster collaboration and encourage more than just familiarization with the content when the dispersed audience is so large?
Generally speaking when the audience is large, the event becomes more of a presentation than a learning event. Participants are being exposed to content, rather than the opportunity to practice, apply, or evaluate what they have learned during the session.
Myth: Implementing a virtual classroom is a big technology hurdle – the technology could make or break the success of our online learning.
Reality: Get over the technology! The implementation of virtual technologies, or any other learning technologies, is much more of a change and culture issue than anything else.
How do learners learn differently? How do trainers facilitate differently? How do we convince everyone that virtual learning is REAL learning?
These are the issues training professionals need to tackle. Leave the wizardry of the technology to the IT department. They can handle it.
Myth: Instructional materials (leader guides, participant guides) are not as crucial for a virtual class.
Reality: We tend to forget about these printed (aka PAPER) materials when we migrate to the virtual classroom. This is a mistake.
Participants still need a printed participant guide (also known as a “learning journal”) to take notes, participate in exercises and have something to reference later. Facilitators need a printed guide to deliver a high-quality program that is consistent from delivery to delivery and so they can integrate the management of instruction and technology.
Myth: Participants can effectively multi-task during virtual events.
Reality: Since the introduction of the virtual classroom, improper design for live online sessions has inadvertently taught participants that virtual sessions are akin to free time – an opportunity to listen intermittently while checking and responding to email and taking care of other light duties. Often participants are so accustomed to this free time concept that they often are annoyed when the facilitator of a live online session asks for their participation.
In fact, unless you provide meaningful engagement, you can be quite certain that participants will get bored and distracted. Just like a traditional classroom, participants in a live online setting can get restless and tired and lose interest quickly if it isn’t immediately apparent that the session will be worth their time.
Myth: Instructional design for virtual classes is easier because class times are shorter and more lecture oriented.
Reality: In fact nothing could be further from the truth – on both counts! Properly designed virtual classes are definitely not lecture-oriented and designing an interactive course is not easy. If your classes are lecture-oriented, you’ll most certainly bore your audience. Finding ways to engage learners and maximize their perceived return for attending a two-hour class is a real challenge that will require all of your knowledge, skills and creativity.
Myth: Because of shorter class sessions, a virtual trainer can teach four two-hour classes each day (that’s eight hours, isn’t it?).
Reality: Don’t get caught in this trap! Each class, no matter the length, requires set-up and follow-up tasks. More importantly, teaching online takes a lot of energy to do properly.
Experienced virtual trainers know the challenges involved with having participants distributed across the country or the world. Keeping participants continuously engaged in the virtual environment is often like trying to teach a class right after lunch. You know what I mean – when the blood sugar has gone to their toes, you must nearly tap dance – with a parasol – to get their attention.
I would suggest not trying to teach more than three one-hour or two-hour classes a day. You and your students will thank you.
The good news is that developers have identified a core of proven instructional design best practices which can help you with your virtual learning events. We are now able to attain the goal of virtual events – meeting the quality that we expect from our traditional interactions and programs. We just need to work to dispel these common myths and make sure to implement best practices in virtual facilitation and design in the future.
If you are looking to develop the facilitation or design skills you need to debunk these myths in your organization, you have many choices. Start by clicking on the graphics below.