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virtual classroomBecome fluent in the language of the virtual classroom.

After almost two decades, virtual classrooms have become an expected part of the training mix. Most organisations already have invested in virtual classroom software and are now expecting that some percentage of their training content will be delivered virtually.

This is an achievable goal, but it probably takes more work than most organisations expect. Moving content from a traditional face-to-face format to a virtual classroom format is not an exercise in plug-and-play. There's much more involved in delivering training content in a virtual classroom than just dropping your existing PowerPoint slides into your WebEx, Adobe Connect, or GoToTraining platform.

Mastering the virtual classroom
If you would like your virtual classes to meet, or even exceed, the quality that you expect from traditional deliveries, you need to strategically think about how to prepare your team to be successful in the virtual classroom.

Prior experience as a designer, facilitator, or learner in a traditional classroom does not guarantee success when moving to a virtual environment. Everyone involved in the learning process needs to acquire the skills they need to master the additional competencies required for this environment.

No matter your role, mastering the virtual classroom is akin to becoming fluent in a new language. You need to know more than just what buttons to press to make the technology work. You need to know when to press those buttons and what type of interactions maximize engagement and learning in the virtual classroom. Only when you master all of these concepts will you become fluent in this new way of communicating.

The competencies of instructional designers and facilitators have evolved with the shift from the traditional to the virtual classroom, and now the new role of virtual producer has become essential to virtual classroom success.

Virtual instructional designers

All instructional designers have grown up in the world of traditional classroom training. From the time they entered grammar school, they were exposed to a wide variety of instructional techniques. Lecture, self-paced work (often in the form of homework), and group work are all techniques that talented designers instinctively understand.

However, when we move to the virtual classroom, instructional designers have a different set of tools with which to design activities. Often, they aren't exposed to what these tools are before trying to design for the virtual classroom. This results in virtual classes being designed to replicate the same content being delivered in a traditional format.

But it's not the same. The traditional classroom and the virtual classroom are not the same formats, in the same way that a recorded music video and a live concert of the same band do not result in the same experience. Both are valuable, but each relies on the unique characteristics of the individual environments to maximize impact.

To become fluent in the virtual classroom, instructional designers need to develop the following competencies.

Engage participants via interactive and collaborative activities. It should come as no surprise that regular engagement helps virtual learners succeed. Online, the boredom factor is particularly dangerous. Without eye contact and body language, the facilitator can't know whether participants are paying attention—and they know she doesn't know.

Consequently, designers must craft live virtual sessions carefully to battle boredom and its inevitable disengagement. The strength of live online learning is in its capacity for engagement. No matter what topic you are discussing or which virtual classroom platform you are using, the key to a successful live online program is convincing participants to be fully present and engaged. Virtual classroom engagement comes in two varieties: interaction and collaboration.

Interaction is the primary engagement technique for virtual presentations (often referred to as webinars). In virtual presentations, instructional designers will engage learners via various communication methods, including communicating with the facilitator, other learners, and technology. (Examples of interacting with technology might include completing an online assessment or responding to a polling question.) Successful interaction relies on learner input every three to five minutes. The proverbial "kiss of death" for a virtual presentation is muting the phones, disabling the chat function, and holding questions to the end of the hour.

Collaboration, on the other hand, is the primary engagement technique for virtual training programs. Virtual training is different from a webinar format in that all learners have the opportunity to collaborate with their peers and practice new skills. Virtual training should consist of hands-on practice, small-group activities, and a variety of assessment methods.

Master the technology. Most virtual classrooms have a vast variety of tools that can make training programs engaging and effective. Unfortunately, instructional designers often are not exposed to what these tools are and how they can be used to engage learners.

Instructional designers need to be fully aware of the functionality of the virtual classroom, including whiteboards, chat, breakout rooms, and application sharing. They also should get to know less commonly used tools such as shared web content, testing, file transfer, and the ins and outs of all the feedback tools.

As an instructional designer becomes more adept at engaging learners via a variety of interactive and collaborative techniques and mastering the technology, online presentations and training programs will be viewed as a valuable component of a training strategy.

Virtual facilitators

Even the most experienced and talented facilitators will need to adapt their skill sets to be successful in the virtual classroom. But simply adapting their traditional skill sets isn't enough; virtual facilitators also need to add an entirely new set of tricks to their facilitation toolboxes.

The question most new virtual facilitators have is, "How do I connect with my learners without the benefit of eye contact and body language?"

It really is possible to create a human connection without physically being in the same space. But this takes work; facilitators need to identify cues from their learners that aren't as obvious as cues presented in a traditional classroom. And they have to invite contributions from learners in much more creative and specific ways.

To become fluent in the virtual classroom, virtual facilitators need to develop the following competencies.

Master the technology. When developing fluency in a language, facilitators first need to master the basic vocabulary and grammar. When developing fluency in the virtual classroom, they need to develop mastery of the technology.

Virtual facilitators need to move from whiteboard to chat to application sharing and back again seamlessly—in a way that focuses learners' attention on the content being taught rather than the tools being used to deliver that content. This, of course, takes practice.

Engage participants without the benefit of eye contact and body language. How do we know participants are engaged and learning? Virtual facilitators need to expend a lot of energy to ensure that participants are consistently engaged.

A well-designed virtual lesson encourages some sort of learner communication every three to five minutes; virtual facilitators take advantage of the design to determine the engagement level of participants. Although there are many nuanced techniques to measuring engagement in virtual classrooms, measuring engagement usually is based on two factors:

  • How quickly or often are learners responding?
  • When learners respond, what is the quality of their responses?

When you ask learners to raise their hands, write on the whiteboard, or share ideas in chat, how long does it take them to respond and how many people respond? This is a measurement of quantity.

A high number of responses does not necessarily mean that learning is taking place, but it does imply that learners are paying attention to the conversation and are engaged at least at a minimal level. Virtual facilitators learn to gauge the quantity of response to determine the basic engagement level of learners.

Skilled virtual facilitators also will learn to assess the success of an activity based on the quality of feedback and responses the learners are providing. If the questions are in depth, and learners are volunteering stories, facilitators can be reasonably comfortable that the learning activities are meeting their goals.

Virtual producers

The virtual producer is a relatively new member of the virtual training team. As the support person on the delivery team, the producer is an invaluable resource before, during, and after any virtual training event.

This individual is there to support the facilitator, the participants, and the technology. The producer makes the session run smoothly by troubleshooting technical issues for anyone attending the session, loading polls, and even co-facilitating content (which helps change the dynamics with the new voice).

In working with the facilitator, producers can cover all the technical elements, which enables the facilitator to do what she is there to do: deliver the session objectives and guide the learners through the session content.

A producer can help transform virtual training into trouble-free, fast-moving, interactive events that keep learners involved and the facilitator on track. In short, the facilitator can stay focused on content while the producer takes care of everything else. The producer is the safety net that separates a successful live event from one that's chaotic, unorganized, and unprofessional.

To become fluent in the virtual classroom, virtual producers need the following competencies.

Master the technology. Virtual producers not only need to know all of the tools available in the virtual classroom and how to use them, but also how to troubleshoot when things go wrong. Producers effectively become the first level of technical support; they address audio issues, assist learners with the use of virtual classroom tools, and communicate with the help desk when additional support is needed.

Create an instructional partnership with the facilitator. Producers can provide much more than just technical support. The role can be designed so that the producer and facilitator become an instructional team, both lending their voice to the lesson dialogue, and working together to ensure that learners achieve the desired outcomes. Producers have many tasks that they can take on, including:

  • providing technical support for participants
  • launching polls
  • keeping time checks with the facilitator
  • serving as a backup facilitator.

Establish the role of learner advocate. The producer also acts as a learner advocate, someone who can restate or rephrase questions, both from the facilitator and the audience, that were possibly a little unclear. Often, the producer can be the first to volunteer for an activity or be "the plant" who asks the right questions, which can spark the participants into asking questions of their own. The producer also can be used to alert the facilitator to raised hands or questions in the chat.

Excerpted from the Association for Talent Development's Learning Technologies Blog written by Jennifer Hofmann.Follow Jennifer Hofmann at her blog, Body Language In The Bandwidth at

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gamificationThe gamification of learning has great potential to improve students knowledge and motivation. A well-implemented gamification solution provides information to students distributed over time in a fun and engaging manner. However, even with all the promise of gamification, mistakes can be made. When mistakes occur, learning suffers and your organisation might not achieve the benefits promised by gamification.

Here are seven mistakes that have been made in gamification implementations. Learn what to do—and what not to do—when you implement your own gamified learning solution.

#1: Adding gamification because it's "cool"
Yes, gamification is cool, but so are paid leave, skipping work, sleeping in, and snow days. Yet, none of these elements contribute to learning, employee productivity, corporate profitability, or helping customers. Just because something is fun or entertaining doesn't mean that is naturally the right thing to do, or that it leads to learning.

I have witnessed many attempts at gamification fail because team members were too caught up in the "coolness" of gamification elements—and not focused on the learning that needed to occur. The coolness sentiment is often an undertone more than a full-fledged justification for gamification. But even the hint that coolness is the reason for gamification can lead a gamification effort off target.

If you find discussions of coolness overtaking the discussion of learning objectives or outcomes, take a step back and re-examine the underlying reason why your organisation chose gamification as a strategy in the first place. If coolness wins as the reason for the strategy, you might find yourself at the bottom of the corporate leaderboard.

#2: Focusing too much on winning
Gamification of learning is about learning. It should not devolve into a mere contest with everyone trying to "win." In my experience when the stakes are too high or the prizes are too valuable, students focus on winning rather than learning. The language, discussion, and framing of the gamified experience must focus on learning and gaining knowledge. Winning must be secondary.

When creating, implementing, or evaluating a gamification platform, the first question you need to ask is, "Will this contribute to learning?" If the answer is "I don't know" or "I am not certain," then resist the temptation to implement until you have a clear learning objective. Or, it would be even better to have a clear performance objective.

What do you expect the students to be able to do once the gamification experience is over? You need to know and understand both the learning goals and performance goals you are trying to influence. It is nice to have a "winner" of a gamified event, but if that person is not performing better as a result, you really don't have a winner—you have a loser.

#3: Not understanding proper use of points and badges
Some of the most maligned and mis-used elements of gamification are the use of points and badges. Too often, the "winning" of points or obtainment of badges is not related to real effort or knowledge gain. For a gamification effort to be effective from a learning and motivational perspective, achievements must be earned and not given. Use achievements that reward the learner for a certain level of performance, not just for participation.

If the learner "squeaks by" on an activity or a task, give them one point. If they do an average job, give them five points. A spectacular job, should earn them 10 points. In this case, the number of points indicates to the learner the level of correctness and achievement. The points themselves are informational; they provide feedback to the learner. This is the proper way to award points, based on performance.

Badges need to be awarded in a similar matter. Often a badge is awarded for non-linear progress through content. Attempting to earn a badge allows a learner to focus on one particular segment of knowledge. This focus can be helpful to the organisation and the individual provided the earning of the badge is meaningful and represents actual learning. If "anyone" can earn a badge for a particular activity, the badge loses meaning. Make the earning of a badge contingent on learning a specific task or information. Test the learner on that information prior to awarding the badge.

#4: Treating gamification as a "one-off"
A gamified learning event should not be isolated from the rest of the learner's curriculum. The best examples of gamified learning are when they are an integral part of a larger learning process.

For example, gamification is an effective method of motivating learners to do pre-work prior to attending a face-to-face workshop. It also can be used as an effective method of "pulling through" content and knowledge after a series of webinars. Or, it can be used to remind learners daily of content covered in the annual safety or compliance course.

The key to effective gamification is to integrate it with other learning strategies. No single instructional strategy is good for all learning and, in fact, a combination of delivery methods and strategies spread out over time is one of the best methods of influencing learners. Use gamification as part of a larger, integrated curriculum.

#5: Failing to allow time to "participate"
While gamification can be done via a mobile device and just take "minutes a day," those minutes need to be allocated to the learners. You can't expect that because gamification is fun, learners will naturally give up their free time to play and, more importantly, learn.

Gamification is about learning. If you want learners to learn, they need time. We don't yet have the ability to plug into a computer like the Matrix and learn. So, while scientists work on that, we need to provide learning time for learners. Give them a suggested schedule of when they can participate in the gamification experience and provide guidance on how much time it should take them each day.

When training on-the-job. If you don't allocate time to learning, it sends a clear message to employees that learning is not valuable enough to be done on company time. This sets a bad tone and degrades the value of learning. Make sure that even with a gamified solution; time is given to the employees to undertake the learning process.

#6: Not doing your homework
Gamification is not new. It has been around for several years. There are many case studies, books, examples, and best practices you can reference to ensure your success. Take time to do your homework.

Learn how other organisations have been successful and study the mistakes they've made. Don't condemn yourself to repeating mistakes of the past. Ask vendors for demonstrations, check out presentations at conferences, and talk to peers who have gamified their learning. The field is ripe with examples, so find them and learn from them.

#8: Thinking gamification is all about the technology
Gamification is about effective learning design; it is not about the technology. As with any learning intervention, if you lead with technology you are setting yourself up for failure. Do not be seduced by a technological solution.

You need to see if the underlying goals will be met, if the approach is based on solid science and if the learners will, indeed, benefit from a gamified approach. Carefully consider the design first. You will most likely need technology to implement the design of gamification but technology is only an enabler, it should not be the driver.

Reference: The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, Karl M. Kapp, ASTD Press 2012 

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sustainabilityWe live in a high-tech, high-speed age in which virtually everything we want is available in no time at all. When we have to have it now, we can run out to bricks and mortar stores that never close. For those who prefer to shop from home, online retailers with lightning-fast distribution channels work around the clock to ensure consumers can acquire almost anything they desire overnight and with free shipping. Let's be honest. We want what we want when we want it, and we have been conditioned to expect our desire for immediate gratification to be fulfilled in less time than it takes to double-click or swipe our credit card. So it's no wonder some people think training works that way, too.

Vocational Education and Training is entirely different, however, because the real product of our efforts is not a commodity. Unlike tangible products manufactured in factories and later acquired by passive consumers, the real products of training and talent development are knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). KSAs are not manufactured but developed through a protracted process called learning, which occurs naturally when learners are exposed to information, ideas, and experiences and motivated to change as a result.

Training and talent development professionals, therefore, cannot assemble or ship KSAs to passive end users, nor should we try. It just doesn't work that way. Rather, we must cultivate conducive learning environments, plant relevant information and ideas, intentionally expose learners to elements and experiences, and nurture them as they strive to grow.

Cultivate fertile soil
Whether formal training occurs in a physical classroom, online, or out in the field, talent developers must cultivate fertile "soil" to ensure it contains nutrients essential for developing talent.

Is your learning environment a safe, nurturing atmosphere where learners are able to open their minds, interact with others, consider new ideas, share thoughts and opinions, and experiment with new and developing skills? Do you consider subtle conditions in your classrooms like background music, lighting, visual appeal, or audio amplification? How much thought does your instructional design team put into aspects of your e-learning environment, such as the look, feel, and function of your graphical user interface and the intuitiveness and ease of navigation? The environment in which training occurs greatly influences whether or not learners experience growth there. So before planting any curriculum into the soil, we must first make sure we are on fertile ground.

According to Abraham Maslow, people must have their most basic needs met before they can focus their motivation toward satisfying higher-level needs like self-actualization. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs suggests, for example, that for learners to concentrate on what goes on in a classroom they must not be hungry, thirsty, or tired. Designing training with ample breaks and mealtimes is therefore essential. Even when we are not able to provide food and beverages, we must ensure learners can find the nourishment they need. Otherwise, they will wilt.

We should also provide a learning environment that is safe and free of threats. Does your online learning platform, learning content management system, or learning management system secure learner information? Does your classroom-based training protect learners from physical, psychological, and emotional threats? Do your e-learning voiceover scripts contain inclusive language and avoid expressions that may confuse learners for whom English is a second language?

Beyond providing for the physiological and emotional safety of our learners, we must also cultivate learning environments in which learners feel as though they belong. What do you do to make learners feel welcome? Do you provide name badges or tent cards, or enable classroom learners to introduce themselves? Do your webinars include breakout sessions so learners can work in small groups? Do learners see their own names when they log into your learning portal?

Does the environment in which your training occurs contain nutrients that promote self-esteem? Adult learners like to be recognized for their knowledge and experience, and they do not like to be treated like children. Consider letting them use the tools and resources they rely on daily, such as networking, smartphones, and search engines, and encourage your facilitators to validate learners and build their confidence as they experiment with new knowledge and skills. Include progress meters in your e-learning offerings and congratulate learners when they complete each section or level.

Once we have cultivated a learning environment that addresses learners' lower-level needs and concerns, then and only then should we supplement that environment to ensure it encourages creativity, promotes growth and development, and enables learners to achieve mastery and self-actualization.

Just as farmers add fertilizer and nutrients to their soil based on the specific crop they seek to grow, we must ensure our learning environments contain precisely what our learners need to succeed. Specifically, which performance issues do you want your training to address? What is it you want learners to do or do better as a result of your training? What learning or performance objectives or other desired outcomes do you want learners to achieve? Clearly identifying the knowledge and skills you want people to master will help you determine which characteristics you need in your learning unique environment.

Plant seeds
Once the soil of our learning environment is ready, we can begin planting information that learners will transform into KSAs. These seeds should include thought-provoking and innovative ideas, right- and left-brain activities, and knowledge sharing that stimulates critical thinking and creativity and accommodates a variety of learning modalities.
Does your training allow enough time for your seeds (ideas, information, and skills) to germinate? Do you pause periodically so learners can reflect, share what they have learned, and ask questions so learning may take root? Do you allow enough time for skill practice?

Unlike factory workers who can crank up production and work around the clock to increase output, farmers operate within the laws of nature. Farmers may only plant so many seeds per acre, can only reap what they sow, have little control over how fast their crop grows, and can only harvest a crop after it has reached maturity.
There is a point of diminishing returns in talent development, meaning that if we plant too much content into too little training time, or neglect to plant that content deep enough, we may actually inhibit growth. Less is more, meaning that fewer learning objectives and more discussion and skill practice usually yields better results.

Nurture growth
A one-size-fits-all approach may work in manufacturing, but farming and talent development are much more situational. Factory workers repeatedly use the same ingredients and processes to produce identical results. But farmers must constantly monitor environmental conditions and the impact of those conditions on the health and growth of their crops.

Just as farmers pay close attention to the weather and adjust their strategies accordingly, trainers and facilitators must discern whether learners are thirsty for more information or have reached a point of saturation. Are there natural points at which learners can pause your online course, save their progress, and step away for a while? Do your facilitators recognize the nonverbal signs that indicate when learners want more information, have questions, or need a break? Facilitators must also constantly monitor environmental factors, such as room temperature, and periodically make necessary adjustments to ensure learners can remain focused. And like farmers, facilitators must keep an eye out for pests and other intruders that threaten or undermine conditions and jeopardize growth. Do your facilitators know how to manage difficult participants and other classroom distractions?

Accept the laws of nature
Talent development is like farming, the product of which is not produced but grown. Instructional designers, curriculum developers, facilitators, and others in our line of work must cultivate favorable learning environments, plant the right types and amounts of information, and continually monitor environmental conditions to nurture learners as they grow in knowledge, skills, and abilities. The rest is up to them.

Reference: ATD Links, Don Levonious 

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