Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I’ve seen a lot of companies make the shift from instructor-led training (ILT) to virtual instructor-led training (VILT). In many cases this has happened almost overnight, with little process or plan in place to make the new format effective. As a result, a lot of people have had online training experiences that, in the end, just weren’t good - not because online training itself is bad, but because teaching VILT just like ILT isn’t a good approach.
For me, this change from ILT to VILT is nothing new. In fact, I actually migrated my first classroom online back in 1999! With more than 20 years of experience taking the classroom to the web, I’ve learned a few things about how to make that migration work for learners and trainers alike. Here are my top lessons learned: 5 pieces of advice for preparing your online training, and 5 for engaging your learners once the class is in session.
Preparing Your Virtual Instructor Led Training
In-person and online training are radically different approaches. Even if the content and outcomes are the same, the approach has to be different.
1. Segment Your Course for Online Attention Spans
Start by recognizing that people can’t focus online the same way that they focus in a classroom. If your training previously took place over a whole day (the corporate default), don’t expect the same learners to spend 8 hours in front of a screen - they won’t learn! Instead, break your learning into meaningful, shorter sessions.
Make them as short as you can - I’ve found 2 hours with a couple of breaks works well, but I’ve also seen 3-4 hour sessions that worked when they were interactive. Keep this in mind, though: every session will have its technical issues, so you’ll never get the full time for instruction. Find a session time that balances the learner’s ability to focus and the needed instruction time, taking into consideration the inevitable technical glitches that occur.
A good rule of thumb is to stretch 8-10 in-person hours of training into a week of 1-3 hour sessions online. Look for ways to minimize the amount of time that your learners are in the online classroom, like having them do exercises outside of class time. That way, people can more easily work the sessions into their schedules and stay focused when they’re in class.
2. Use Slides to Their Full Potential
I’ve found that slides become incredibly important when training online, as they are often the focal point for your learners. Some specific tips:
Keep slides short, sweet, and to the point. Learners who are reading aren’t listening.
Either switch slides or add something to a slide often to keep learners engaged. If you have 5 points, use 5 slides, or create bullets that come in one by one.
Use pictures! Examples, workflows or even screenshots that you can explore while you make a point give learners something to focus on.
You should also think of your slides as a helpful leave-behind for learners. Include hidden slides in your deck that cover the in-product discussions or walkthroughs, placing them where you gave the practical demo during class. You may even want to hand these out as a PDF before class, so learners can take notes as you go or refer to previous slides during exercises.
3. Define Clear Learning Breaks Ahead of Time
People can generally pay attention for about twenty minutes before they lose interest or focus, so plan ahead for where you want to switch to a new topic or give them a break. Maybe explain one concept and ask for examples, or perhaps change the topic entirely. Ideally, you want to change focus every 5-10 minutes, but of course sometimes the concepts won’t allow for that.
Also, make sure that your breaks are clearly defined. If you can, use a countdown on screen to remind people how much time is left, and stick to starting again when that timer hits zero. Breaks let people reset their brain and get ready to start learning again.
4. Congratulations! You’re the Learner Help Desk
If you’re teaching online, you’re going to be troubleshooting technical issues. Learners won’t know how to log in, will have browser issues, will lose passwords, and more. Make sure that you know how all the technology that you’re using works and that you’ve introduced everyone in the class to what they will need to use as early as you can. For example, if you’ve got an exercise environment learners can use, introduce them to it in the first session and make sure they know how to access it.
Exercise environments for hands-on practice can really help cement learning! However, if virtual environments are out of your comfort zone, you can outsource their creation fairly easily. Several companies out there manage virtual environments from end-to-end and even troubleshoot with learners and assist on your behalf.
5. Don’t Mistake a Webinar for a Classroom
If you want your VILT to work, you’ll have to limit the number of people in your online classroom. I’ve seen several companies trip on this one, but honestly - you can’t run a class with 50 people and expect it to be successful. I usually limit enrollment to around a dozen attendees so I can provide personal attention and interaction and so it acts as a true classroom, not a webinar. That doesn’t mean that all learning has to take place in the online classroom, though. For example, you can spend an hour online going through a concept and showing the learners, then have them practice it outside of class on their own time. When you come back together for the next session, you can then pick someone to share and review the exercise answers - a great way to get people comfortable interacting and asking questions.
Keeping Your Learners Engaged with Virtual Instructor-led Training
Now let’s switch focus and move from planning to teaching. Here, your main priority is keeping your learners engaged.
1. Set up Your Classroom Rules
While online learning isn’t as new as it used to be (thanks Zoom Boom!), a lot of people still haven’t taken VILTs. Assume, then, that at least one of your learners is new, and start by laying out your course’s ground rules (stay on mute when not speaking, where the course downloads can be found, how to ask questions, when you’ll have breaks, etc.)
I also highly recommend that you don’t require attendees to be on video, though you should make that a rule for yourself if you can. More video = more lag and more potential movement to distract other learners.
2. Get Learners Involved However You Can
I had an online learning session once where the only interactive feature available was the raise hand function. I told learners that if they had a question, they should make sure to raise their hand, but also – if they liked something I was saying, they should raise their hand up and down really fast, to represent applause! I made sure to recognize applause every time it showed up, and that got learners involved in what was going on. You want to provide similar opportunities for engagement using whatever tools you have, whether that’s polls or chat or something else entirely.
Keep in mind, too, that online learners need a little more time to begin an interaction than they would in a physical classroom. I would say, wait 7 seconds - actually count them silently - to give people a chance to get off mute or to start typing something. It might feel long to you, but trust me - it doesn’t on the other side.
3. You Set the Energy Levels for the Room
Online learners really need your guidance and energy. You and your slides and screen shares are all they have to look at, and their interaction is almost entirely listening. So, whether you’re presenting slides or instructing hands-on in the environment, your voice needs to carry the energy that people need to stay engaged. Pretend that you’re in front of people even if you’re not. It’s a bit more tiring than in a face-to-face class, but it’s vital.
4. The Value of Repetition
In an online classroom, your learners are mainly learning through listening, even if you provide visual aids. That’s why it’s important to make sure to use repetition to your advantage. The golden process is the same as in a normal class: show them what they are going to learn, teach them, then remind them of what they have learned. But in the online classroom, that repetition is absolutely required to help learners focus and absorb. Making sure to verbalize the key points and repeat them will have a huge impact on recall and retention.
5. Provide a Way to Give Support
Finally, remember that, since they can’t walk up to you after a class or during a break, learners need a way to get questions to you, especially if they do work for the course outside of class time. Make sure to set a channel up from the start. If you don’t feel comfortable with email, you can use a moderated Q&A, a form, or even the chat at the start of the next session.
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