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Let's focus specifically on the unique role of the trainer in the virtual classroom.

Many classroom-training skills are still used in the virtual environment. Let's review the basic training skills used by the virtual and classroom trainers alike, with special focus on what's unique in the virtual classroom.

Facilitate Discussion

In both training environments a key role of the trainer is to facilitate. Facilitation consist of:

  • Asking questions to provoke discussion
  • Drawing people into conversation
  • Praising learners for their participation
  • Enabling participants to apply the learning

Trainers ask questions for a variety of reasons. They seek responses to a query and poll the audience for input. They probe to make people think. And they ask provocative discussion questions to draw out comments. Every question a trainer asks during class should have purpose and meaning, moving the class along to the learning outcome.

Trainers should ask very specific questions during virtual delivery, with emphasis on how participants should respond.

The virtual environment requires the questions asked to be even more specific and directed. When asking questions during a virtual delivery, the trainer needs to not only ask the question, but also indicate how the participants should respond. For example, a trainer might ask, "Who thinks this topic is challenging?" however, in the virtual classroom, the trainer would first say, "If you think this topic is challenging, please click the "raise hand" button" and then ask a follow-up question to a participant whose hand is raised "Sandee, tell us what you find challenging about it" this specific method of questioning lets participants know exactly what you expect of them and how they should respond to your question. In a face-to-face class, the trainer might ask, "When would you use this skill in your job?" In the virtual classroom, that same question might sound like, "Let's have everyone respond to this next question in the chat window: When would you use this skill in your job?"

Great facilitation techniques also include providing positive feedback for participation. Thank your attendees for completing an exercise. Use positive reinforcement phrases ("Good" or  "Excellent") when someone answer a question. Use names to encourage specific individuals. Praise learners frequently for their engagement when they contribute to the discussion. Also praise them when they use the virtual classroom tools. These reinforcement techniques should be used in any training environment, including the virtual one.

Virtual class size.

In order for the trainer to effectively facilitate discussion, the class size should be conductive to participation. Class size is as important in the virtual classroom as it is in the face-to-face one. While there is no standard rule for the number of people to have in a virtual class, the number should be large enough to successfully complete the group learning activities and small enough so that everyone can contribute to a discussion. My preference is to have no more than 20 participants so that each person can receive individual attention during class.

Give instructions for Group activities

One of the trainer's primary responsibilities is to lead participants from one activity to the next during class. Give clear directions for each exercise and set expectations with the participants. If activity directions are not clear, confusion and frustration results. Participants are more likely to disengage from the class if they do not have a complete grasp on what they are supposed to be doing at any given time.

When you give activity instructions, there are two guidelines that are true in both training environments but warrant special attention in the virtual classroom:

  • Be explicitly clear about every intricate detail of the exercise. Participants need to know exactly what buttons to click, where to type their responses, what to watch for, or what is expected of them during the allotted time.
  • Give directions both verbally and visually. Participants need to both see and hear the instructions for comprehension and retention. Providing directions verbally helps participants understand what to do. Providing directions visually helps those who process information by sight. A visual aid with instructions also allows participants to refer back to them during the exercise. This visual aid can either be on screen or in a participant handout that is printed prior to class.

Manage Class Time

As a trainer, have you ever been rushed to finish a class? Or realized too late that you have more information than time? Or wondered why some of your training classes finish early and others leave you gasping for air?

Time management concerns are amplified in the virtual classroom because synchronous online classes are often shorter in length. Every single minute counts.

Maximise every minute of your classroom time. Good time management will help you have credibility with your audience and make the most of your time together. For example, if you have a face-to-face class scheduled to begin 9:00AM, and you start a few minutes late because you were sipping on water while walking to the front of the room, the participants would not think much of it because they can visually see you and know that it is time to start the class. However in the virtual environment, if you start the class a few minutes late for any reason, your participants may think, "Did I get the wrong time?" and they might disconnect from the session. Also, you may have to scramble to make up that time during the class.

When you prepare for your virtual session, make sure you clearly know how much time each activity should take and how much discussion time you have. It's up to you to manage the pace of the class.

Review the following table, which will help you recognize and eliminate the most common time waters in the virtual classroom.

Dealing with time wasters

Time water

Suggested Solution

Taking too much time on introductions

Use a brief activity, such as a poll, to learn about you audience instead of asking them to introduce themselves one by one.

Wasting time reviewing logistics

Share logistics prior to the class start time, either via email or on an introductory screen.

Spending too much time showing how to use the virtual classroom software tools

Require a prerequisite session on how to use the virtual classroom software.

Invite new users to join the session early for review.

Requiring an answer (or response) from each participant

Use one of the software tools – poll, shared whiteboard, or chat – to allow for simultaneous responses.

Not seeking input from participants on the timing and pacing of activities

Ask participants to electronically “raise their hands” when finished with an exercise so you know it’s time to move on.


Hofmann, Jennifer. "Teaching online is like teaching after lunch" T+D Magazine, Jan 2004

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Comparison between Virtual and Face-to-face Training

Many of the same skills are used in both the face-to-face and virtual classroom. There are two main differences when facilitating classes virtually:

  1. You do not see the participants.
  2. You use technology to communicate with and engage the learners.

These differences might not seem like much on paper, but they are significant. While training skills are still used in the virtual classroom, the environment in which they are used is a whole new world.

No Visual Contact.

You can't see the participants! For many trainers, not having contact is the most intimidating feature of delivering in the virtual classroom. They are disturbed by the thought of not seeing the participants. Classroom trainers are usually very good at reading participants' body language.


  • They observe participants' faces to see if they are "getting it".
  • They watch to see if energy levels in the room are getting low.
  • They notice cues that tell them to speed up or slow down.
  • They look for signals that participants are paying attention and maintaining interest in the content.

Because virtual trainers do no see participants, they have to rely on other methods of observing participants. Virtual trainers still determine if participants are getting it, and whether or not they are paying attention. They stay aware of the group's overall energy levels during class.

Due to the inability to see participants in the virtual classroom, a common thought is to use video streaming. If all participants and the trainer have a webcam, and the virtual classroom software program has the capability to display video, then problem solved, right? No, unfortunately not. I do not recommend using video streaming in a synchronous virtual classroom in order to "see" the participants. Let me explain. Yes, technically you could have webcams and use the streaming video feature, but there are two drawbacks to this.

First, multiple video streams significantly increase the amount of Internet band-with needed for the class. The connection speed will slow down, which could negatively affect the other learning activities. If everyone's connection speed is slow, when you switch from one slide to the next, there will be lag time for the participants' screens to catch up with yours, which can be extremely distracting to the learning environment. This lag time means you may be talking about a screen that they cannot see. Therefore, weigh the potential impact these video streams will have on your class.

Second, video streaming does not usually add instructional value to the class. Instead, it cam actually do more harm than help. Imagine you have 15 participants in your online class, and you asked each to turn on a webcam. On the side of the screen, you would have 16 small windows, each with a moving participant headshot. At first, this visual aid would be a fun novelty addition to the screen. You could watch them and could watch you and each other. As class continues, however, these windows can become a distraction amidst other learning activities. They will simply do not add value to the learning content.

Your next thought might be, "Well them, just have the trainers use their webcams so participants can see them, and it's just one video stream." While it can be a good thing for participants to see their trainer, our original dilemma was the trainer not being able to watch the participants' body language during class. Showing the trainer via streaming video does not solve the problem.

The bottom line is that not seeing the participants is not as big of a problem as it initially seems to be. There are other ways you can "see" the participants and "watch" for cues you need.

Using technology to Communicate with and Engage Participants

In any training class, the instructor communicates with participants and leads them through a series of activities to achieve the course's stated learning objectives. The obvious difference between facilitating a face-to-face class and a virtual one is the technology used to communicate and engage. Virtual training uses special software programs specifically designed for online collaboration between multiple participants. The trainer uses these virtual tools to facilitate.

In a virtual class, the trainer can display a Microsoft Office PowerPoint slide show, write on a whiteboard, invite participants to chat via instant messenger, share software applications, and more. The content of the class may be the sale face-to-face as it is in the virtual classroom, but the delivery mechanism differs.

At fisrt you might think that virtual training is limited to technology topics such as how to use a software application. You might also think that virtual training activities cannot match what can be done in a face-to-face class. The reality is that almost anything can be successfully taught in the virtual classroom. This includes learning new software programs, sales techniques, business acumen, interpersonal skills, or time management – anything!

Another surprising reality for some is that in the virtual classroom, you can do almost anything that a face-to-face classroom can do. Using the virtual tools both as they are intended and creative ways, the trainer leads the class through a series of activities to achieve the course's stated learning objectives. The class can discuss, brainstorm, take notes, work in small groups, play content-related games, watch video demonstrations, and so on.


Clark, Ruth Colvin and Ann Kwinn. The New Virtual Classroom: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Synchronous e-Learning. Pfeiffer, 2007

Corbett, Wendy Gates and Cindy Huggett. Infoline "Designing for the Virtual Classroom." ASTD Press, 2009

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If you ask 10 different trainers to define "virtual training," you will probably get 10 different responses. To one person it might be talking a self-paced e-learning course, and to another it might mean a Second Life meeting. Virtual training is a broad term with many different interpretations.

In some ways, it's like the word health. When you tell someone that you want to "get healthy," they might think you will be changing your eating habits. To someone else it might mean exercising, getting more sleep, or losing weight. Health is a multifaceted word. In reality, the full scope of the word health encompasses all aspects of a person's well-being: physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. Yet when people talk about their health, they are usually referring to just one specific aspect of it. It's the same with virtual training. Virtual training is multifaceted, and could mean many things depending upon its context and who is talking about it.

Starting with the basics

Training classes help people learn new skills. "Traditional" training classes have predefined learning objectives, are held at a set time and place, and are taught by a trainer. Participants register for the class, show up at the pre-assigned time, and leave with new knowledge and skills ready to be applied back on the job.

These traditional training classes vary in style, length, and format. They may be highly participatory or they could be lecture-based. The class size may be small enough for intimate discussion around a table or large enough to fill an auditorium. The class may be two hours or two days in length. It may be contained in one short meeting or it may span several months.

Virtual training has the same type of options. It can vary in style, length, and format.

The most common terms associated with virtual training include:

  • Online learning
  • E-learning
  • Synchronous
  • Asynchronous
  • Webcast
  • Webinar
  • Web 2.0
  • Informal learning
  • Blended learning
  • Virtual instructor-led training

Online Learning? E-Learning?

When personal computers were introduced into the workplace and our daily lives, we use then to automate process and simplify routines. It was natural for training to follow. Trainers began looking ways to automate learning, and traditional training moved onto the computer.

At first it was called "electronic learning," or e-Learning for short, because it was learning via computer. The term e-Learning has evolve to refer to any type of training that requires a computer.

After the introduction of the Internet and web browsers, trainers took advantage of this new technology. When you accessed training via the Internet, it was called online training.

We can distinguish between online learning and eLearning by looking at the learner's interaction. It's a very subtle yet important distinction.

Some online learning is self-paced, completed individually without any interaction with others. However, most types of online learning occur in conjunction with other learners. Learners collaborate with each other and with a trainer. Online learning is an umbrella term that refers to all types of interactive training that uses an Internet connected computer.

On the other hand, eLearning more commonly refers only to self-paced individual training. Participants taking an eLearning course would log into a website and complete an assignment on their own. There is usually no interaction with other learners, or with a trainer. While the eLearning course uses a website, it is distinguished by its individual nature.

Synchronous versus asynchronous

Synchronous and asynchronous refer to the meeting time of the training. In a synchronous training event, the participants and trainer meet together at a set day and time. Synchronous training events usually use an Internet-based software program specifically created to host online meetings, events, and training.

In asynchronous training, the participants and trainer do not meet together at the same time. Asynchronous refers to self-paced learning that occurs over time as the participant's schedules allow. Common tools used in an online asynchronous training event include threaded discussion boards, email messages, podcasts, and wikis.

Both synchronous and asynchronous training events usually include opportunities for collaboration and interaction between participants. In a synchronous event, the collaboration happens together in real time, and in asynchronous training the collaboration occurs intermittently over time. The main differences between them are the software tools used to conduct the training and the timing of the events.

Face-to-face training versus Virtual Training

When the participants are together with the trainer in the same room, it's called face-to-face training. When participants are separated by distance and meet online, it's called virtual training.

Virtual training can be audio-only by conferences call, however most virtual training also includes a visual connection via a shared website or collaboration software.

Online presentations, meetings, and webcast

An online presentation, sometimes called webcast, could be compared to an in-person seminar. In this type of seminar, a presenter speaks to the attendees. There is little interaction between the presenter and participants, except for possible Q&A opportunities during the program.

I recently attended a webcast sponsored by ASTD. At the designated start time, I logged onto a website and saw the speakers and their presentation slides. I estimate there were at least a thousand other participants around the word logged in as well. There was limited interaction between the speakers and attendees, except for the ability for attendees to submit questions electronically. The speakers addressed a few of the questions during the program, but the rest went unanswered. While it was an expertly produced, informative webcast, I would not consider it to be virtual training.

While it is possible to create limited interactivity in this type of event, it's mostly just a talking head who is sharing information. This is not considered training in a face-to-face environment, and therefore would not be considered training in the virtual environment. A webcast is not training.

Webinars and Virtual training

Most of the people use the terms webinars and virtual training interchangeably. The word webinar sounds like seminar and it has become the word du jour for synchronous online training.

While most people do not distinguish between webinars and virtual instructor-led training, it is clear they have different intended outcomes and therefore are not the same thing. The goal of a webinar is to impart knowledge, while the goal of virtual training is to improve performance.

Webinars raise participant awareness of a topic. They are used to impart information to the attendees. For example, if a corporate human resources department needed to share information with employees about an upcoming annual benefit enrollment period, it may choose to share that information via webinar. This webinar could include interactivity, with polling questions and chat, but it would not be considered a training class. While webinars may have two-way communications between presenter and participants, they may or may not ultimately result in the participant's behavior change or have an impact on participant's performance after the event. Webinars are simply an online opportunity to interactively share information.

Webinars are helpful and useful in the right context. They have their place and purpose. There are times when participants simply need awareness of new information, and interactively will help communicate it.

A virtual training class is different from a webinar because it has predefined learning objectives. These objectives are tied to performance outcomes. And ideally, these performance outcomes will have positive impact on business results. During a virtual class, the trainer will check for knowledge transfer. In addition, participants have an opportunity to practice and apply their new skills.

Blended learning, Web 2.0, Web 3.0, Informal learning, Virtual Training and moving from traditional to virtual training will be the topics for the second part of this article.


ASTD, 2010 State of the industry report, ASTD Press, 2010.
Beich, Elaine. Training for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005.
Cindy Huggett. Virtual Training Basics, ASTD Press, 2010

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