Virtual Facilitator Training Part 1: Moving from the Classroom to Virtual

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.

Please Use Both Hands


When I look at this photo two things come to mind:

  1. How nice to have a job aid when and where you need it to help you figure out what you are doing wrong so you can do it right.
  2. How lame to use a job aid to compensate for the fact that you have a crappy design. The designer thinks the real problem is that people only use one hand. Let’s use a job aid to change everyone’s behavior instead of adapting the design to real human behavior.

More often than I’d like to admit, I’ve witnessed this kind of behavior in the learning profession. We try to force behavior patterns that aren’t natural so that the great learning activity we designed will work properly. When we try to do this we are wasting everyone’s time, and unnecessarily stressing out the poor facilitator who is trying to make it work.

So what does this have to do with virtual learning? Everything.

I teach a virtual class at work called Interactive Virtual Facilitation. In the class we discuss the challenges of transitioning from the physical classroom to virtual. Overwhelmingly, participants are highly concerned about participants multitasking during the session. They want to know how to stop them. You can’t really.

There are elements you can incorporate into your design to make it “must-see-TV” so they don’t want to multitask:

  1. Make sure that your visuals are dynamic from the beginning. If the visual flow is quick and interesting they will be reluctant to switch screens because they might miss something. Don’t spend five minutes on your first visual. (Or any visual.) It’s boring. It sets the expectation of a visually static experience for the next 60-90 minutes.
  2. Use and vary the channels of participation early and often. Find a way to involve the audience immediately by having them physically manipulate the tools. Do this as people are logging into the platform. Ask everyone to answer a poll question, or draw a picture. This is a great way to capture information about the audience before the session begins. (Place an X on your location on the map. Put a check mark on the topic you are most excited about today. Place an X on the scale to show how you would rate you expertise in this area.) This also sets an expectation of participation from the very beginning.
  3. Harness their need to wander by asking them to do a quick Google search to find resources to share and paste the URLs in the chat channel.
  4. Don’t be afraid of the chat channel, and for goodness sake, don’t turn it off. If they are chatting about the content, they aren’t checking email or finishing a Sudoku. Sure, it’s the digital equivalent of passing notes in class, but it is also a great way for them to spontaneously share resources with each other and network. You can also ask them to answer a question in chat, take a pulse to see if the pacing is good, or anything else you can imagine.
  5. Create activities that allow audience members to share expertise and compare different ways of thinking or doing things.
  6. Don’t show bulleted lists for a topic. They will read the bullets and not listen to you. Or worse, they will think “This is ridiculous, I’ll just read the slides later when they are posted. What’s in my inbox?” Show the topic and ask the audience to write what they think should be on the list. You can guide the conversation to include items that were not added.

What other ways can you think of to harness the learner’s natural behavior and make it work for you in the Virtual Learning Space?

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.