Co-Founder Pacific Blue Solutions
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The trouble with live online training pt3

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13th May 2013
Co-Founder Pacific Blue Solutions
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Andrew Jackson concludes his feature about online training with a few suggestions that could dramatically improve the experience.

In part two of this series, published last week, I highlighted some key points instructional designers need to consider when devising courses for a virtual classroom. In this final part of the series, I want to focus in on some specific activities you can use in a virtual classroom setting.

Although most virtual classroom software comes with a variety of features that will help you move beyond pure content presentation, it’s fairly typical for people to not use these features at all or just to use the same one or two over and over. To help you avoid both these situations, I’ve picked three software features common to many virtual classrooms and suggest some ways you can use them creatively.

Whiteboard activity

Whiteboards are a fairly standard feature in most virtual classroom software packages. They are a familiar concept, but in the traditional classroom are most commonly used by the trainer. In the virtual classroom, they work brilliantly as a collaborative tool.

This example activity helps participants apply a process to a specific situation or problem and takes 5 – 10 minutes. Participants will need to complete a pre-class activity to familiarise themselves with the process involved. Part of this activity will be for participants to answer a series of questions around the topic.

For example, if they are learning a new process to ensure better quality control during manufacturing, you might ask participants questions like, ‘What is the biggest quality control problem you come up against during manufacturing?’, ‘What do you usually do to fix the problem?’, ‘How well does this fix work?’. Make sure participants send you this work before the class. Pick out the most interesting sets of answers for use in class.

Have the questions prepared on a whiteboard, with room for one set of answers. Ask one of your pre-selected participants to write their answers on the whiteboard. Ask the remaining participants how they would apply the new process to solve the problems/situations outlined in the answers. You can repeat this several times over with different participant answers. Provide your input as required.

"Like it or not, the virtual classroom is here to stay. Just like in the traditional classroom, we have a choice."

A key point here is the balance between pre-work and actual class work. In a traditional classroom, learning about the process and its application would both take place within the class. In the virtual classroom, you’ll want to think differently.

Too much content presentation (i.e. finding out about the process) is likely to be time-consuming and harder to keep interesting. Plus, it’ll use up class time on a low or zero interaction segment. Better to cover this as pre-class work and use valuable class time to cover the application of the process - where everyone can participate in a task-based activity.

Chat activity

Chat is another feature widely available in most virtual classroom packages. In webinar-land it’s usually used as a way of submitting a question to the presenter or the presenter’s assistant. But in the virtual classroom, chat can be used more creatively, as the following example activity shows.

In the traditional classroom, we are used to working in pairs to complete an activity. You might think this is a dynamic impossible to recreate in a virtual classroom setting. But using chat between individual participants is a great way to adapt pair work for the virtual environment.

This is a short activity, lasting about two minutes, but it keeps participants involved and engaged with the course content. Imagine your course is about customer service skills. You show participants a short video of a problematic encounter between a customer service agent and an irate customer. Put participants in pairs. Remind them how to use private chat. Display a slide on the whiteboard asking them what they would expect the customer service agent to do next. Instruct each pair to discuss this question using private chat and to come to a consensus on next steps. (As a variation, you could pose several questions on the whiteboard and assign each pair a different question).

At the end of the two minutes, bring the group back together and ask several pairs for their views and conclusions. 

Breakout room activity

In the traditional classroom, breakout rooms (or syndicate rooms as they are often known) offer a great opportunity for collaborative group work. Sadly, lack of available space and/or the additional cost of using them makes the breakout room a rare resource these days.

The good news? Some virtual classroom software programmes enable you to set up virtual breakout rooms for your participants. If you have this feature (and shame on the providers who still don’t offer it) then make sure you use it. The virtual breakout room is one of the best ways to offer your participants the chance to work together collaboratively in small groups, as you will see from the example activity that follows.

You could use this as a generic ‘getting to know each other’ activity or as something which relates specifically to course content. It involves participants working together to discover answers to a series of questions from a variety of resources  -  including each other, designated websites, or materials provided in the participants guide. Allow around 10 minutes for this.

Explain the activity. Put participants in groups and assign each group to a breakout room. Before they move to their breakout room, remind them they can review the activity instructions in the participant guide. Once they arrive in their room they will find a whiteboard (prepared before the course, by you) displaying the questions they need to answer. Depending on how difficult you want to make the activity you can vary the number of questions and how much you guide participants about where to look for answers.

As soon as the activity begins, move continuously between breakout rooms to make sure all the groups are keeping on track. Give participants a two-minute warning before the end of the activity. Once everyone is back together in the main classroom, do a swift debrief, asking for answers to questions from across the groups.

Like it or not, the virtual classroom is here to stay. Just like in the traditional classroom, we have a choice. We can choose to do the virtual equivalent of a chalk and talk style presentation, turning our participants into passive listeners. Equally, we can choose to take this new medium, exploit its opportunities to the full and provide our participants with an enjoyable, effective learning event. You decide.

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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