The number one concern among prospective new virtual facilitators is that they loose the ability to read the participants’ body language. This is the key feedback mechanism for face-to-face instructors. They understand the pull of other distractions like email, Facebook, and other digital bombardment. Facilitators fear that participants may be losing interest and they will have no way to know it.
The virtual facilitator has to establish a “virtual body language” that can be interpreted using the application sharing software. Many packages include icons or color boxes that can be used to communicate the current mood. The facilitator must ask for feedback frequently in the beginning of the session to set the expectation for use. Colors and icons can be reassigned from their designated meanings as needed by the facilitator. “X” and check mark symbols can be used for a quick yes/no vote.
Here are some specific strategies for creating virtual body language.
- Give participants a quick “play session” with the tools to make sure they feel comfortable using them. It’s a fun way to get them physically involved early on and increase the odds of active participation. If the session is small enough, ask them to use the text tool to write their first name on the screen. You can check the names against the attendee list and check in with anyone who hasn’t completed to see if they need help. Immediately they know you are paying attention to who is participating and who is not.
- Remind participants to use the feedback status/icons in the platform to let you know how the session is going. At the beginning of each the session, ask everyone to change their status to a particular mode (not the default) then back again so that you know they are aware of how to use it.
- Leave the chat functionality enabled. Remind participants to use it. Use it yourself to ask open-ended questions for them to respond.
- Use drawing and annotation tools to call attention to items on a slide the same way you would on a whiteboard in a meeting room.
- Invite participants to use the annotation tools any time they like. I encourage use of the “X” and check mark symbols to let me know if they like an idea (check), agree with a comment someone else made (check), disagree (X), or want me to stop for clarification (X). Yes, sometimes people draw funny things to entertain themselves, but you know what? They can’t do email when they are drawing on my slide AND studies show that people retain more auditory information when they doodle.
- Call participants by name and use the attendee list to call on them to answer questions.
- Allow participants to contribute the content as often as possible. Your role is to guide the conversation in the right direction to the topics to be covered, not to tell what the topics are. When they use the annotation tools to contribute they can’t do email or really anything else. You have them mentally and physically engaged.
Can you think of other ways to establish virtual body language? Please share in the comments.
While piloting the first live virtual class I’d ever designed, I suddenly saw a yellow stripe appear on the screen. It shocked me and I had no idea how it happened. After the session I asked the facilitator about it. That was the day I learned about the Highlight feature in Microsoft Live Meeting. That was also the day I realized I couldn’t possibly design for this platform without knowing it inside and out.
It’s also a great idea for facilitators to understand the functionality of the program. Think about what great facilitators do. They don’t just read the script in the facilitator guide. They add their own special take to what they teach, adjusting approaches for different audiences or based on their own understanding and expertise. They sometimes even introduce new, up-to-date content. Facilitators need a clear understanding of the platform to successfully teach from the guide and augment the content.
Following are some of the basic features many platforms include and some ways to use them in the virtual classroom:
- Live Chat–This is a great way to capture questions and comments from the participants. They can also use this medium to connect with one another, share resources and links, and answer questions posed by the facilitator.
- Annotation Tools–Often including a text tool, drawing tools, and set icons like check marks, Xs, and arrows. These can be used for answering open-ended questions, demonstrating differences in processes, or a quick yes/no or agree/disagree response using checks and Xs. Facilitators can ask participants to use the text tool to label a diagram as a way to check for understanding.
- Status Boxes–Colors can be used to indicate status. You don’t have to stick to the default, you can create your own responses. For example, if participants are watching a video as part of the class, the facilitator can ask them to display as red while they are watching, then switch back to green when they are done and ready to continue. This can also be used for virtual scavenger hunts.
- Polls–Polls are easy to set up and provide a great way for the facilitator and participants to learn about each other. Facilitators can use them to get demographic information such as experience level, industry, interest, etc. They can also be used to discover how the content will be used and in what environment. Remember pop quizzes? Facilitators can use them to check for understanding too. They are usually easy enough to build that they can be spontaneously created when needed.
- Handouts–Provide resources via handouts that can be downloaded and printed. I really like condensing the relevant models and information to a 1-2 page Participant Placemat.
What are your favorite tools in the platform you use? How do you make them work for you as a facilitator?
Whether transitioning a face-to-face course to virtual or starting a new virtual program, one of the biggest challenges will be preparing your facilitators for this new environment.
A good designer can make use of the platform to create a rich adult learning experience, but behaviors that make a facilitator successful in a physical classroom don’t always translate to the virtual classroom. The Train-the-Trainer (TTT) session needs to address this change and cultivate successful virtual behaviors. I highly recommend the TTT be virtual and interactive. The goal is to teach the facilitators how to be successful in the virtual environment, so they should be trained in the same environment.
First, a frank discussion about facilitators’ fears needs to happen. They need a chance to address what they imagine they will lose when they move from the physical to virtual classroom. The number one concern I usually hear is loss of body language and eye contact. This is important… and scary. Facilitators need to discuss this discomfort and have all of their concerns addressed.
Then, after the discomfort has been addressed, I like to ask them what they think they could gain by making the move. What is possible virtually that is not possible in a physical classroom? The obvious answers include saving travel dollars, reaching a wider audience, and and lack of jet lag. If they are really honest (and comfortable with the group) they’ll say they can teach in their pajamas! I like to emphasize the following advantages in this conversation:
- Inclusion of remote participants
- Everyone gets a “front row seat” to the content
- Introverts who normally would not speak out in class enjoy the opportunity to use the chat function or annotation tools.
- Those who speak English as a second language also appreciate the the ability to type responses, especially if they have thick accents that are difficult to understand. It’s better than being constantly asked to repeat themselves.
- Participants can respond to a facilitator’s question simultaneously using annotation tools, so many ideas can be shared very quickly. In a physical classroom everyone would have to take turns speaking and it would take several minutes.
I’ll address the following topics in the my next few posts:
- Know the interface inside and out.
- Develop a virtual body language.
- Using polls and activities to meet participant needs.
- Competing with email, Facebook, and Sudoku.