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Jo Cook gives advice on navigating the challenges of moving to live online learning, with tips on how to engage a ‘virtual’ audience.

“One of the biggest challenges that trainers have when they are new to online facilitation is they can’t see people or observe body language.”

Live online learning is something that more organisations are doing, often to save both time and money. Most training that used to be delivered face to face can be delivered via an online classroom through something like Adobe Connect, WebEx or many other pieces of software. The benefits are fairly obvious: people can stay at their desks or in their geographical area of work.

Challenges

There are quite a few challenges with moving to live online learning when it replaces either face to face training or the self-paced, click-next eLearning that we are often used to, particularly for compliance. Once you’ve identified the driving need for training (and this is vital – Nigel Harrison for example is great at explaining why training isn’t always the answer) the technology for the facilitators and the attendees has to be sorted out. But what about the skills needed to present live and online, and more importantly, to do this well?

Towards Maturity research shows that 86% of organisations are using live online learning, but that 23% of leaders don’t think that skills are there to exploit the technology, and that half of their staff aren’t knowledgeable about the potential of technology.

This challenge needs to be addressed in a variety of ways, and one of those is with experience in attending, and then leading, webinars. This can help to highlight that a boring presenter, or one with poor use of their voice or with no passion coming through, can have a direct impact on the learner, leaving them suitably unexcited! Interaction is key. If slides are full of text that just gets read out, and chat windows get ignored so questions don’t get answered, the experience for everyone will be poor. Equally, a great experience can help potential online presenters think about the elements that have worked, so they can emulate them.

It’s all about engagement

Designers, trainers, facilitators, subject matter experts: whatever their role is in your live online learning session they need to focus on engagement. One of the biggest challenges that trainers have when they are new to online facilitation is they can’t see people or observe body language. To someone who’s worked face to face all their life, this can be a huge blow. It can feel like you’re talking to thin air, just to a computer screen, and there’s no one there. This can have a profound effect on the confidence and therefore delivery of the trainer. And this then impacts on the learners’ experience.

To avoid this feeling, engagement and interactivity in the design of the session, and therefore the delivery, are the key factors to ensuring it’s useful and enjoyable all round. Engagement online basically means any kind of interactivity using the software available to you. This could be getting the learners to click a green tick symbol, or an equivalent, such as a hand up icon. This is quick and simple and can be used really easily for fast checks of understanding or agreement – or even just a “can you hear me ok?”

Emoticons can really help…

A lot of systems have these feedback icons, or emoticons, built in. You decide how and when to use them best, based on your learners, learning objectives and what the software can actually do. WebEx Meeting Centre, which lots of people use for training, only has a hand up icon, so you have to be creative with that one way of interactive, and not over use it.

Other software will usually include yes/no, smileys and so on. Some groups respond really well to this and encouraging this interaction when you, or anyone else, is saying something they agree with, laugh at (or otherwise), is a powerful way to get people involved and get feedback. It’s never going to replace the richness of face to face body language, but it shows people are listening and reacting. I often introduce these feedback icons by saying “We can’t see each other’s faces, so these icons are a great way to show that you are nodding, disagreeing, smiling or applauding someone’s point”.

Encourage this feedback emoticon use for when other people are speaking or contributing. After perhaps a summary from an activity, you could encourage people to give the applause icon (or similar) to say a well done for that work. When someone has made a contribution, or perhaps you have read out from the chat window or an annotation on a slide/flipchart, some of your attendees might use things like a green tick or a smiley face to agree. Acknowledging “Bob has given you a green tick on that point Alice” is important for people to know that it’s being appreciated and to create camaraderie in the group.

But don’t overdo it!

Be careful not to overuse whatever feedback icons are available in your software though. I’ve seen people explain topics and walk through application training purely asking for “green tick if you can see this”. People will get bored and disengage, even though – on paper – the trainer had lots of interaction planned!

Use your imagination, plus the technology, and you will get great engagement.

Three tools to help you engage virtual learners

It’s important to ensure you have a variety of engagement tools:

  • Most systems have a version of the chat window, which is an extremely powerful tool
  • Audio discussion via telephone conference or computer microphone is of vital importance in live online learning, which, ideally, should have a handful of attendees
  • Annotation tools for whiteboards or slide marking up can make for an infinite amount of activities

Jo CookJo Cook is the Director at Lightbulb Moment. A Learning and Development specialist, she has been involved in educating children and adults in various sectors since 1996. She works independently and freelance for organisations large and small, as a trainer, consultant and online facilitator. Jo is focused on what L&D can achieve and how good training and facilitation can be for the individual, teams and the business – both face to face and online. She focuses a lot on assisting clients to create interactive designs for their online events, to deliver them with great energy, and to host sessions making best use of the technology available. She’s a specialist in using WebEx Training Centre and Adobe Connect for online sessions with various clients.