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virtual classTo be sure, today's virtual classroom tools offer many bells and whistles. But unless your virtual classroom also provides the basic features, you will find yourself in trouble very quickly when you really need to get down to business. I consider these five features to be nonnegotiable when selecting a virtual classroom.

#1: Archiving
Technology is always going to be a bit of a gamble. There are so many variables involved, especially when you have participants all over the globe logging on. Having the ability to archive individual learning sessions provides essential back-up offerings for those learners who might not be able to fix any issues they are having during the live session. Archiving also has the added benefit of enabling facilitators to use the session as an evaluative tool, as well as something participants can assess for occasional review.

#2: Accessibility
Accessibility is an important component of any learning tool we use. As trainers, we want to ensure that all learners have equal access to content when using an assistive technology. There are other benefits to making sure your virtual classroom is accessible, such as the accommodation of multiple learning styles. For example, captioning can be beneficial in many circumstances, not just for the hearing impaired, including non-native language speakers, people who are hard of hearing (sometimes age related), and someone who has a reading learning style.

#3: Audio Back-Up
No matter how much testing you perform, there are still instances when technology fails. There are several reasons why you're audio might fail; for example, connection drops out, unstable wireless connection, or headset stops working. When this happens, you need a quick back-up you can jump to so your learners don't miss any vital learning materials. A telephone bridge can be used in cases when your computer microphone or headset fails to work correctly. Having a back-up already in place—ready to go—is invaluable.

#4: Extended support
One of the benefits of using a virtual classroom is its scheduling flexibility—to best fit the learner's needs. Sometimes this means having sessions after traditional business hours. Consequently, it is still important to have access to live support during these hours, at to not prohibit any learners from attending due to technical issues. Learners need to be able to make a phone call and troubleshoot with technical support at any time. The same holds true for the facilitator; the session can't continue without the facilitator, so it's important to have a quick lifeline when needed.

#5: Classroom Management Tools
Whether it's a virtual classroom or an in-person learning experience, classroom management can make or break the learning experience. It is important to have the capability to restrict access to functionality when needed, prevent everyone talking over one another, and facilitate engagement and activities. Some functions that can help with this are hand-raising and the ability to turn functions on and off for either an individual or the entire class.

Bottom line: Just like traditional face-to-face learning, it takes time and practice to manage your virtual classroom effectively. But the right tools will get you off to a good start.

Reference:White Papers: Online Learning, by Amy Thornton, 2015 Columbus State University

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digital badgingAcross the globe, higher education institutions and professional organisations are harnessing the power of digital badges to motivate, demonstrate, and validate learning and development (L&D). Digital badges are currently in use at postsecondary institutions such as MIT, organisations such as NASA, and the U.S. Department of Education. In Australia, the Industry Skills Council for Innovation & Business Australia (IBSA) has recently started to use digital badgets for its own professional development training.

Our modern era is characterized by a rapidly changing economy that requires members of the workforce to continuously seek Learning and Development (L&D) opportunities. Earning a certificate or degree from a postsecondary institution is only the beginning of a lifelong learning process that includes recertification and professional development. Digital badges can measure what skills and competencies a learner has acquired from professional development opportunities in addition to providing evidence of memberships with professional organisations.

In an L&D setting, digital badges represent that a learner has demonstrated specific competencies that are expected to improve future performance. The demonstration of those competencies can be measured in a variety of ways, for example, via scenario-based assessment items that represent real-world experiences. Badges can represent incremental learning and progress, and they can also represent larger, more comprehensive capstone achievements. As such, badges are becoming an increasingly popular way for L&D to more fully document the breadth and depth of a learner's achievements.

Members of professional organisations may present at conferences about the work they're doing, attend breakout sessions and workshops on specific topics to hone a skill relevant to their position, or serve on various boards or committees. With the emergence of digital badges, there is a mechanism to verify or authenticate those experiences. Just some of the outcomes that can be verified include the development of knowledge, skills, and abilities that results from participation in professional conferences, workshops, and conventions. The assessment and verification process should be through an independent third-party that can create additional layers of reliability and validity to the badge.

These days, most career-minded individuals have profiles on social and professional networks such as LinkedIn, which they use to nurture and generate strategic relationships. Digital badges help individuals display their knowledge, skills, and competencies to the members of their online professional communities. Digital badges serve as symbols of job-specific achievements that solidify an individual's membership in their professional community. They also afford individuals the opportunity to demonstrate incremental growth along a lifelong learning path that can lead to advancement and promotion.

The digital component of digital badges is what gives the badge its authenticity and ease of use. There are several digital badge providers out there, and the badges they store are typically accessed electronically via a link. In other words, it's not so much the image of the badge that counts as it is that the image is tied to an electronic record. Additionally, in most cases the badge issuer is separate from the badge provider, and it is this badge issuer that usually controls badge expiration, so a link will only work as long as the badge is "viable." So, as long as badges are verified electronically, they can be trusted as authentic. These controls are what make badges more reliable and easier to verify than traditional credentials such as official transcripts or letters of recommendation.

In addition to recognition of achievements and memberships, digital badges also motivate learning and development by providing concrete rewards for the learner and by fostering healthy competition among individuals who qualify for the same types of badges.

To learn more about the usefulness of badging and how digital badges work, the following resources may be helpful:

Is your organisation using badges? Please share your experience in the Comments.

Source: ATD Association for Talent Development

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disaster recovery planThis is a real-life webinar disaster that recently happened to me.

  • The host logged on two hours before the session.
  • The panelists logged on one hour before the session.
  • Extra computers were logged in. Everything was tested.

And happened.

  • The audio system failed—but not for everyone all at once, just a few people here and there. So the host asks them to reconnect. And it works.
  • Then the presenter (ME!) received a visual message that I had been disconnected from the audio conference, so I stop talking. Turns out, the message was not correct.
  • When I received the message a second time, I ignored it. But, of course, I was really disconnected that time.
  • The host was kicked off the system as well, so I was left to make some decisions on behalf of my sponsor and the webinar participants. With approval via chat from the host, we performed the following actions:
    • Sent a chat message indicating we would reschedule, and also included a link to the handouts from the session.
    • Wrote the same message on the whiteboard. (Because there was a delay in chat.)
    • Verbally assured everyone they would be informed of the new date and, if they couldn't attend, that they would have access to the recording.
    • Host sent a follow-up email to all registered participants confirming all of these details.

All together, the participants lost about 15 minutes of their time. I think the team pulled together a good recovery. What do you think?

If you fall into a similar situation, you can follow this "4-Step Disaster Recovery Plan" to help you diagnose problems and minimize anxieties to keep the session going. Indeed, with the exception of power outages, built-in web conferencing platform errors, and internet failures, there are no disasters that you cannot tackle using this four-step process.

Step 1: Minimize Anxiety
If participants are experiencing problems, the first step is for you to minimize their anxiety. With your in-depth knowledge of the web conferencing platform, you should be able to understand what the learner is experiencing and what they are seeing. You can put them at ease by explaining that these things can and do happen—and that you have a resolution.

By staying calm and keeping your voice authoritative and controlled, you can exude an air of confidence that helps to alleviate their anxieties. Don't panic and don't blame the technology, just stay calm and carry on. Be like a duck, floating calmly on the surface, but paddling furiously under the water!

If you are working with a producer, let the participants know early in the session to connect with that person for technical support through chat. If something goes wrong with the technology, then the producer can chat with them, get their mobile number and call them to troubleshoot while the facilitator continues on with the session.

Step 2: Identify That There Is a Problem
This is where you need your detective skills. Learners must explain—as thoroughly as possible—what is happening and what they are seeing (or not seeing).

First, you need to determine if the problem is instructional or technical in nature. A problem is "instructional" if there isn't a real technical problem; someone simply doesn't know the points and clicks needed to complete a task. Perhaps they don't know how to mute a microphone or activate whiteboard tools. If it's instructional, provide clarification for the whole group, as more than one of the participants may be confused but only one has spoken out.

A "technical" problem is one that can't be solved with simple clarification. For example, a corporate firewall doesn't allow certain content to be displayed. If it's technical, you need to drill down and establish whether the problem is affecting just that one learner or the entire group. Ask your other learners to use the hand raise tool to indicate if they are also experiencing problems, whether they are instructional or technical in nature.

Once you have identified whether the problem exists and who is affected, you can move on to resolving it.

Step 3: Get Participants Up and Running
If you have determined that the problem is technical in nature, you need to do your best to get the participants back up and running as quickly as possible.
If support is available (your producer), have him troubleshoot with the affected participants. The producer should phone the participants and walk them through the problem. If you're by yourself, ask participants who have the problem to log out and then log back in. Next, ask them to close their browser and click the meeting URL again. Finally, ask them to reboot their computers and rejoin.

If the problem persists, ask them to contact technical support (either their internal IT contact or the web conference provider's support). Because there are so many permutations of system configurations, virus checkers and firewalls that could be causing the problem, you need cut your losses at this point to keep the learning going. Remember; don't sacrifice the majority for the minority. If there is one person who is having all kinds of issues, they need to try again another day. You don't want to disrupt the entire class and make them sit through all of the gory details of getting just one person functional.

Step 4: Determine Next Steps
If the fix works, acknowledge that the participant has re-joined the session and continue. But if the fix does not work, then you will have to politely dismiss the participant from the session and follow up later with other options, such as contact technical support, take another session, access a recording, or go one-on-one with a facilitator.
After the session, log what went wrong and create a list of common problems, which you can even convert into FAQs to be used within the participant workbook.

Bottom Line
The virtual classroom can be easy and work flawlessly, but at some point you will experience problems. Sometimes you get learners speaking out, saying they cannot see slides building, the slides are moving slowly or they cannot hear the presenter. Or your learner's keep getting kicked out of the platform. Or you have one learner who can't log in. The list of things that can go wrong with learning technologies often seems endless.

Unfortunately, when participants experience technical difficulties, the technology takes over and learning can stop. The good news is that most problems are easy to deal with when you're prepared. Using this "4-Step Disaster Recovery Plan" will help you tackle almost any technology issue that might come up.

Note: This article is reposted from the InSynch Training Blog.

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