Co-Founder Pacific Blue Solutions
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The trouble with live online training pt2

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29th Apr 2013
Co-Founder Pacific Blue Solutions
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Andrew Jackson continues his critique of the practice of live online training.

In part one of this series, published last week, I highlighted how people often believe the differences between the virtual and traditional classrooms are minimal. This is dangerous thinking for everyone involved in live online training – but especially for the instructional designers or trainers who are creating courses. Go down this road and you end up dumping existing classroom materials into a virtual environment, with little thought for how viable or effective they will be.

Big-picture principles

To avoid this, designers must keep several things in mind. First, to design well for the virtual classroom, you need to fully understand the participant experience. In other words, you must attend some virtual classes yourself to know whether certain approaches or activities will work.

Next, avoid over-design. Most virtual classroom software packages include a whole bunch of interactive features. It’s tempting to include as many of these as possible – just because you can.

Finally, avoid instructional design purely by guideline. For example, it’s good to include an interaction every five minutes or so to keep your participants fully involved. But this needs to be applied with intelligence. Simply polling participants (a popular feature) every five minutes, is not a clever design solution.

Specific design approaches

With these three ‘big picture’ principles in mind, what makes a good starting point for virtual classroom design? Begin with your enabling learning objectives. The ones that identify specific tasks your participants will need to achieve on their way to the big prize – the terminal learning objective. As you focus on enabling objectives, consider several key factors: location of participants, session length and suitability of content.

The kinds of content and activities that adapt well to the virtual classroom are those that involve: interaction between the trainer and participants; collaboration between participants; content that can be conveyed through demos and follow-up practice; and content that can be conveyed effectively through use of simple visuals (complex visuals are usually hard to see, given overall transmission quality and the screen size of most virtual classroom whiteboards).

If your course content can’t be adapted successfully to a virtual environment, you’ll need to use self-study, elearning or traditional class-based activities as alternatives. Although, if your participants are geographically dispersed that might limit or rule out traditional classroom options.

You’ll also need to keep an eye on session length - virtual classroom sessions need to be much shorter than their traditional classroom equivalent. Think about what you can realistically cover in a limited amount of time.

Let’s take an example. Imagine you are redesigning a course for sales people. It’s currently delivered in a traditional classroom setting. The terminal learning objective is simple, but critical: to help sales people meet their monthly sales quota more frequently.

To achieve this terminal objective, there are several enabling objectives for the course:

  • Know the attributes and benefits of the products they are selling
  • Accurately analyse the needs of potential customers
  • Prepare relevant, customised presentations for a potential customer based on needs identified
  • Deliver face-to-face customised presentations with confidence and conviction
  • Answer any customer questions effectively and confidently ask for the sale

Some designers or trainers may question whether this kind of course can be run in a virtual environment at all. But if you start to look at the enabling objectives, it’s clear many of them  would be suited to a live online environment.

  • Objective 1 could be covered in class, but there might not be much interaction and it might be hard to convey this content visually. So this objective might be better covered as a piece of self-study work, before the class, with a review exercise carried out during the class.
  • Objective 2 looks like a good fit for the virtual class. There’s the potential to set up some interesting collaborative case study work between participants during the session.
  • Objective 3 could be similarly collaborative - following on from activities related to objective 2. There’s also scope for trainer and participant interactions.
  • Objective 4 could be covered in a virtual classroom, but it may not be ideal. It would be rather time-consuming. It could be tedious for the other participants to listen to everyone’s presentation. And the skills required to present effectively online are not the same as presenting face-to-face - participants wouldn’t be practising in a very authentic context. So this objective might need to be covered in a separate classroom session; or if this is impossible, by participants creating a video of their presentation for the trainer, to assess at a later date.
  • Objective 5 could be covered in the virtual class, but it may lack enough interaction, so could be better split in two: a piece of self-study work before the class, followed by some practice activity during the class.

These are just initial ideas. As the design process progresses and you get into the detail, it’s likely some of this would be refined or revised. The key thing? Thinking intelligently about what can be achieved using the virtual classroom and what might work better using another delivery mode. And this is an important point. Getting the best from the virtual classroom is not necessarily about converting everything from an existing medium into this new one. Getting the best learning experience for participants is very likely to involve blending approaches.

Which highlights another important consideration: the expectations and attitudes of the participants to a blended approach. If you deliver blended programmes already, it’s likely your participants are already primed. But if introducing virtual classroom sessions is also the catalyst for using a blended approach, you’ll almost certainly have to prepare your participants for the realities of this different mode of operation.

They’ll need to understand that virtual classroom time is shorter and more valuable. This usually means doing some pre-course work. They simply won’t be able to turn up to a virtual session not having done required pre-session activities. It puts impossible demands on the trainer. It bores and annoys diligent participants and it screws up timings. In the virtual classroom, you don’t have the flexibility to move things around by skipping breaks, shortening lunch or running over time a little.

In the third and final article of this series, next week, I’ll focus on some specific techniques and activities to make the best use of built-in software features and to keep your virtual classroom sessions live and online.

Andrew Jackson is co-founder of Pacific Blue Solutions. Pacific Blue works with individuals and organisations to create more effective, results-driven learning – with a special focus on harnessing learning technologies for the benefit of learners. Discover how to create more effective live online learning with our free Virtual Classroom Success Guide for instructional designers and trainers.

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