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Virtual Learning — Rethinking the Possibilities

The coronavirus is pushing us all to rethink how we continue to run successful businesses and support our customers and colleagues in a challenging and uncertain environment.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. It’s time to rethink what’s possible in a virtual classroom format. Now more than ever, we need to support our colleagues in staying agile and sharpening their skill sets to meet these evolving challenges. This requires a mindset shift in what we believe is possible virtually and how we approach the instructional design of the learning experience.

In the past, webinar design focused on understanding the technology and using technology features as the conduit for communication (e.g., raise hand button and chat). But technology and people’s use of technology have evolved to the point where people of all ages have meaningful conversations over video-based technology. Thus, we need to shift our thinking and design for a human experience vs. a technology experience.

From an instructional design standpoint, this means video is on for everyone. Forget all of the technology features and buttons designed as the conduit for communication. Communicate as you would in an in-person experience rather than using the technology as the conduit. To enable this, a more human experience translates into smaller class sizes. Virtual can be just as engaging and effective as a traditional brick and mortar classroom experience, but only if you have the right goals, the right mindset, and make the right design choices.

The biggest challenge in a virtual environment is still engagement. Participants are more easily distracted and do not participate in the same way. It’s easier to hide and not engage. It can feel less collaborative across the group and more one-on-one between participant and facilitator.

To counter these challenges, keep these principles in mind when designing for a virtual learning experience.

Design for a Human Experience

Set Your Goals

Design with the goal of replicating a traditional classroom experience as much as possible. Agile is the name of the game these days. So consider how to design learning experiences that can easily and quickly be converted back and forth between virtual and traditional classroom formats.

Video On For Everyone

This is a game-changer and goes for the facilitator and all participants.

Don’t Hide Behind the Technology

Participants should physically raise their hands to participate or ask a question as though they were in a traditional classroom. In other words, forget the raise hand button. Stop screen sharing at various points and let the only visual be the participants seeing each other as you facilitate discussion.

Insist on Smaller Class Sizes

Align your design to your goals. If you want to practice skills, have engagement and keep folks involved by insisting on smaller class sizes.

Use Chat Selectively for Variety and Kinetic Activity vs. Deep Discussion

Chat still plays a role. When using chat, focus on a conversation across the group vs. one-on-one conversation with you. Call on participants to elaborate on their response, answer a follow-up question, or comment on a colleague’s response.

Call on People

The best way to maintain engagement is for participants to know that they will be called on at any time. Use a combination of letting people volunteer by physically raising their hands and calling on participants.

Keep Discussion Focused, Concise, and Energetic

Time feels different virtually. Ask a question, get an answer, acknowledge it, add onto it if you have something to materially add, and move on.

Keep the Full Group in Mind

It is easy for participants in a virtual setting to feel like they are only conversing with you vs. the group. Be mindful to not go too deep into a one-on-one conversation with any one participant. Limit yourself to asking one drill-down question and then seek to engage others.

Be Crystal Clear with Directions

Once participants move into breakout groups, it’s harder to spot and correct confusion like you can in a physical classroom.

Incorporate Breaks

Breaks help focus. Give participants insight into when breaks will be taken. Encourage participants to use a standing desk if they have one, and encourage them to stand up and move during breaks.

Embrace the Advantages of Virtual

While there are challenges to overcome in a virtual environment, there advantages, too – if we make the right design choices. A virtual learning experience spread out over a series of shorter workshops vs. a one-time event provides several advantages, including:

  • Allowing learning to be digested in smaller chunks
  • Providing time for self-reflection, which is critical to increasing self-awareness and gaining insight into how new concepts and skills can be applied
  • Letting learners better balance work activities with learning as they are not totally out of pocket and away from customers and colleagues for a full day or two at a time

But you have to design the advantages into the instructional design by:

  • Creating on-the-job application assignments in between sessions and formally debriefing those learning experiences at the next session
  • Including review quizzes and activities
  • Using digital, self-paced learning as a precursor to the virtual workshop experience to take advantage of human interaction for practice and feedback and letting the basic introduction of concepts happen asynchronously

In short, the greatest shift needed to fully leverage virtual learning may be a mindset shift to design for a human experience vs. a technology experience.

  • Don’t hide behind the technology. Use video. Let participants act naturally like they would in a brick and mortar classroom. Stop screen share for discussion.
  • Design for smaller class sizes to create a more human experience.
  • Think workshop vs webinar. Think viable, alternative option — not cheap. Do not lower your standards for what can be accomplished virtually vs. traditionally.
  • Embrace the advantages of virtual by baking them into your instructional design. Stay agile — consider how to design your learning experiences to work in both a virtual and traditional classroom format.
About the Author

Amy Smalfus is Vice President Content & Learning Strategies at Richardson. She has 20 years of experience in the learning and performance improvement field with over ten years dedicated specifically to sales performance improvement. She is passionate about accurately diagnosing client needs and designing, developing, and implementing holistic, customized solutions to drive performance improvement. She has worked with a wide range of industries, from financial services to technology, manufacturing & distribution, and media advertising. Amy is known for fostering strong client relationships, designing creative and strategic solutions and delivering outstanding client results.

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