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Feb 08, 2023 Jennifer Lindsay-Finan

What is a Virtual Classroom Designer and What Role Do They Play?

Why Instructional Designers Need Specialized Skills to Support the Virtual Classroom

The success of any learning program can be traced back to the instructional designer. Yes, the Facilitator makes the learning experience come alive and the Producer ensures the technology supports the learning, but without a strong design there won’t be the intention behind the experience to make it truly successful. It’s the Designer who brings together the content in a way that’s engaging, relevant and impactful. It’s the Designer who decides all the activities that should be included and in what order they should be completed and where they should happen. It’s the Designer that decides what should happen in the virtual classroom and what should happen elsewhere.

Instructional Design is a key role in any learning experience, but it’s certainly more obvious when there’s a lack of design in a virtual classroom setting. InSync’s Founder, Jennifer Hofmann, has always believed that thoughtful application of Instructional Design is even more important in the virtual classroom - “If your design doesn’t immediately demonstrate the value of participating live (practice, assessments, collaborative exercises, etc.), learners will mentally (and often literally!) opt out and promise themselves they’ll watch the recording when they need this content.  But they probably won’t.” 

[Click here to Elevate Your Virtual Designs: Enroll in Virtual Classroom Design Mastery]

What is a Virtual Classroom Designer and what is their role?

Effective design is a function of alignment of intent. If we ensure that the business goals are in sync with the design intent (as expressed by the learning objectives) and with the learner intent, we will be able to create programs that maximize intellectual engagement and ensure that learning transfer is taking place, while also ensuring the program is meeting the goals of the business.

Virtual Classroom Designers need to understand what can and should be taught in the virtual classroom and what belongs elsewhere. They need to know how to make dull, lecture-oriented content and technical systems training interactive and engaging. They need to be able to take resources like textbooks and manuals, or input from subject matter experts and turn them into activities that allow learners to apply the content to situations similar to those they’ll face at work to support deliberate practice and learning transfer. They need to provide materials to support the instructional team to deliver engaging live learning events that align with adult learning principles. They need to create the opportunities for learners to have the conversations and experiences that result in real learning. And, they need to create the assessments and evaluations to prove the program was effective.

How do Virtual Designers work with the Instructional Team to impact learner engagement?

Designers work closely with many stakeholders, including learners, business sponsors, HR, management, subject matter experts, facilitators, producers, coaches, graphic designers, eLearning developers - anyone else with an interest in the program. All these stakeholders will have different priorities and expectations and they won’t all always be thinking of the learner first. Therefore, designers need to keep the learner front of mind to ensure that all learning experiences are in fact learner-centered. Designers need to have a deep understanding of learner engagement so that they can back up their solutions with science-based facts to the other stakeholders. They often need to provide a business case for the way they want to approach a project, arguing on behalf of the learner why a particular experience or program is required and be able to justify their reasons for having live virtual classes, restricting numbers, purchasing software or any other decision they make.

3 Key Goals of Virtual Instructional Design

Learner engagement is critical in all environments, and engagement starts with design. When creating virtual training programs, designers need to:

  • Stimulate intellectual engagement by understanding learner intent, the business need for the training and the content and tying it all together in a meaningful, impactful way. They need to have a clear understanding of the performance goal and learning objectives and then design programs that support learners to meet those objectives and transfer what they’ve learned back to their jobs. To do this, designers need to understand adult learning principles and how to apply them in the virtual classroom. They need to adopt an inquiry-based learning approach and design activities that allow learners to take control of their own learning.
  • Provide opportunities to nurture emotional engagement throughout the learning program. Designers know that if these opportunities aren’t built in to the program, they probably won’t happen and as such, learners will not be emotionally engaged, making the overall learning much less effective. Designers need to know how to create activities that are enjoyable, that provide the opportunity for everyone to contribute and that don’t let anyone feel left out. They need to understand the ‘What’s In It For Me’ for the learners and ensure the content aligns with that. Designers need to provide scripting and guides that support facilitators to establish a safe environment where all contributions are welcomed and appreciated.
  • Foster environmental engagement by truly understanding the potential learning environments learners and the instructional team might find themselves in. Designers need to know the virtual classroom environment – what it looks like and how it works for learners whether they’re at their desk, on a mobile device or in a meeting room. They need to know the virtual classroom environment from the facilitator and producer perspective to understand what the functionalities are and what the limitations might be. They need to design activities that work for everyone and they need to provide clear instructions for the learners, the facilitators and the producers. They also need to provide opportunities for learners to interact with the environment – not just with the tools, but also the instructional team and the other learners. 

On top of all that, designers need to understand how to use the virtual classroom support performance objectives instead of adding in flashy techniques just to show off the tool. And of course, know the audience well enough to design for the audience, including job function, skill level, number of people, native language, and any cultural implications.S

Strong material design is critical for establishing and maintaining engagement. 
  • Facilitator guide - fully scripted, includes all the detail to suport the content, producer, and the audience
  • Learner guide - provide a useful tool that the learner can use during the live session - directions for activities, place to take notes, etc.  
  • Slides - Embrace strong slide design principles and consider additional things like screen size where it will be viewed, neurodiversity considerations, accessibility, inclusivity, etc.

[Click here to Elevate Your Virtual Designs: Enroll in Virtual Classroom Design Mastery]

The 3 biggest challenges for Virtual Classroom Designers

When you combine budgets, timelines, and so many stakeholders, there are certainly challenges to overcome. In my experience, the three biggest challenges for designers are:

  1. Learning to say “No.” Often pushing back is a big part of a Virtual Designer’s job! Saying no when being asked to use the wrong tool for the job. For example, when the business asks for live virtual training, but the designer knows that it's really just information sharing which is much better suited to another medium (like eLearning or videos). Saying no when being asked to use a fancy new app or piece of equipment that IT have purchased, but the designer knows that in a hybrid environment, half the learners won’t be able to use it and that actually a chat activity would be just as effective. Saying no to subject matter experts who insist learners really will want to know absolutely everything there is to know about their subject.

    One of the biggest gifts a designer can give to a facilitator is room for teachable moments and space to have conversations based on learner questions/interest.  Don't cram so much material in that the facilitator has to speak at warp speed just to get it all in.  Design multiple sessions if needed to cover all content.

  2. Knowing when to stop creating more. This is a challenge for Instructional Designers everywhere – not just in the virtual classroom. There’s always the temptation to constantly review materials, but designers need to know when to stop. Following feedback from learners and the instructional team, it’s tempting to make adjustments and it’s sensible to make those adjustments based on feedback when its justified – not after feedback from every single delivery. It’s tempting to add more information and more activities ‘just in case’ there’s time or someone asks for more, but designers need to know when to stop so that they avoid cognitive overload. There’s also a temptation to continuously change or update materials to reflect the ever-changing world we live in. With constant software updates, the designer needs to know when to update all the screenshots or when to hold off. (Pro tip: Consider designing materials in such a way that the facilitation team can easily adapt when software versions are updated. For example, don't rely on just screen shots.)

  3. Learning to not fear the unknown. Designers can’t possibly know absolutely everything. We try! Designers won’t always know the learners to understand exactly what their needs are. Designers won’t always know the devices learners will use to join the virtual classroom and therefore what functionality they will or won’t have. Designers won’t always know the Facilitation team to understand what areas they need support with and what areas they’ll just ‘do’. As a result of all of these unknowns, designers need to ensure they include ALL the details. A detailed, scripted Facilitator Guide to support the Facilitation Team with every aspect of the program. From incorporating introductions to setting up activities, to fully debriefing them and tying the learner experiences back to the content. Providing agendas and checklists and technical instructions as well as learner materials, engaging slides and resources. All of that detail helps the entire instructional team identify what’s still unknown so that it can be ironed out prior to delivery.

The 3 greatest rewards for Virtual Designers

Really, is there anything better than a job well done? Here are the things I enjoy most about designing instruction.

  1. Positive responses from the rest of the team. When the Facilitation Team reviews a design and can’t wait to deliver it – that’s rewarding. As a designer, you’ve done a great job when Facilitators have what they need to facilitate a great program and Producers have what they need to ensure it all runs smoothly. Often, the reward is actually the silence from the team because they’re happy with it, they ‘get it’ and don’t need anything else from the designers.
  2. Feedback from the learners. When the feedback from the program is that it made sense, met the objectives and met the learners’ intent – that’s rewarding. When learners don’t notice the design team at all – the experience is so smooth and natural it doesn’t feel like it was ever manufactured, but rather that it just fell into place.
  3. Feedback from business sponsors. When the sponsors or leadership teams are happy that the training program was worthwhile because they see the results on the job – that’s rewarding. When a program’s learning objectives are consistently transferred back to the workplace – no matter who facilitated it, or what platform it was held on, or who else was there, the performance goal was met.
What’s next for Designers

According to Sof Socratous of Poly, “In 2023, ‘hybrid work’ will just become ‘work’. It will no longer be a trend, but normal everyday working life”. If hybrid working is here to stay, hybrid learning is too – we need to design for it! Designers will need to ensure every program will work well in the hybrid learning environment, leaving no learner left behind. Designers will also have to design programs to help workers work from these new hybrid environments – whether that’s teaching workers to use new technology effectively, or to establish productive, healthy routines or how to truly collaborate with a remote team.

Over the last few years, ‘Zoom Fatigue’ has led to many people resisting video meetings unless there’s a real genuine need for them. Designers need to be aware of this shift and ensure that there is always a genuine need to bring people together for live virtual training. If not, they need to be able to incorporate other mediums into the blended program effectively. This, coupled with the disconnect that many people are feeling as they lose touch with colleagues now they don’t see them every day, means designers will need to be intentional about providing opportunities for emotional engagement and connection, not just in the live virtual classes, but throughout the whole blended learning program.

According to Training Industry’s 2023 Trends Report, “training is quickly becoming a competitive advantage for companies” and “the 2023 key trends focus on creating more impactful learning experiences for the modern workplace”. So designers will need to design even more impactful programs that provide career development opportunities for everyone. Since business leaders might start promoting their organization’s L&D efforts more publicly, designers will need to be ready to ‘say no’ to the gimmicky trends that will inevitably come along and focus on providing valuable learning experiences that both their learners and the organization can be proud to shout about.

There’s more to learn!

To become a Master Virtual Designer, learn to move from webinars to true learning experiences by designing for true engagement, incorporating collaboration, accountability, and assessment throughout your learning programs. Learn how to provide robust materials that allow your facilitation team to apply adult learning principles to stimulate intellectual engagement, that provide opportunities for genuine connection to nurture emotional engagement and that work with the technology to foster environmental engagement. Learn all of this and more by completing our Virtual Classroom Design Mastery Series.

[Click here to Elevate Your Virtual Designs: Enroll in Virtual Classroom Design Mastery]

Published by Jennifer Lindsay-Finan February 8, 2023
Jennifer Lindsay-Finan