Fostering an Adult Learning Environment in the Live Virtual Classroom

It never surprises me to see that most people have had more negative than positive experiences with the virtual classroom (VC). Unfortunately, most organizations that try to utilize the VC don’t realize that it’s not as simple as converting face-to-face material to the virtual environment. As one of my VC heros, Joan Bozarth, likes to say, “You don’t convert classroom material to the online classroom. You transform it.”

According to Nannette Miner of The Training Doctor, there are 4 risk factors that can determine the success of learning in the VC. In order of importance (in my experience) they are:

  1. Learner – motivation to learn in the VC environment, technological fluency and access
  2. Facilitator – technological fluency and access, ability to create “virtual body language,” is supportive of VC, and is willing to use a production assistant to troubleshoot technology issues.
  3. Technology – reliable connections and tested, predictable technology is essential, and the environment must be supported by IT dept
  4. Content – Appropriate for VC: interaction needed, but physical, hands-on not required

Design and development of courses for the VC must consider these 4 risk factors. Additionally, designers and facilitators must foster an adult learning environment in the VC. The approach to designing synchronous eLearning with adult learning techniques is similar to the traditional classroom in many ways. Wlodkowski and Ginsberg’s Motivational Framework for Culturally Responsive Teaching still applies. The way it is applied is a bit different:

  1. Establish Inclusion – Create an environment of mutual respect and connection. This can be done by posting participant and instructor bios, allowing participants to choose their own work groups, and creating an orientation to help students learn how to learn in the VC. An excellent example of an orientation by Insync Training: Learn How to Learn Online
  2. Develop a Learning Attitude – Set ground rules and mutual expectations as a class. Facilitators can guage the needs of the participants using annotation tools to involve everyone.
  3. Enhance Meaning – Meet learner needs by making the content relevant and personally meaningful. Use polling and annotation tools to help participants provide feedback.
  4. Engender Competence – Create experiences where participants can perform–>receive feedback–>make adjustments–>perform. Provide simulations and simple performance assessments via the VC, web-based resources, or peer/manager reviewed on-the-job performance assessments.

The bottom line, really is that you treat people like the competent, experienced adults that they are. They enter the learning space with knowledge, experience, and ideas that can shape and enrich the learning experience. I love the creative use of annotation tools to accomplish these objectives. Annotation tools open the lines of communication and allow participants to contribute and collaborate. I always encourage my students to use them throughout a session. For example, if the green check marks and red Xs are available I ask my students to use them to let me know if they like something I just said or disagree with it. They are free to do this at any time. The red X could also mean I’m going too fast or someone is confused. I can ask students if they are familiar with a concept or for a quick yes/no vote and those symbols can give me a quick snapshot of where everyone stands.

I also love the chat feature available in many live online learning platforms. Don’t disable it! Yes, it is the digital equivalent of passing notes in class, but it can be harnessed. I often pose a question and ask students to predict the answer by typing their response in the chat window. They can also ask questions in this space, share information and links with their peers, and hold side conversations. Don’t let the side conversations bother you. If side conversations are happening it means that students are engaged with each other and the content. It could be much worse. They could be multitasking.


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