My New (Space) Learning Hero

When I was ten, I desperately wanted to be the first female astronaut. I had it all carefully planned out: a degree in astrophysics, train to be an Air Force Pilot, then BAM! I’d be on the Space Shuttle.

Sally Ride destroyed that dream when I was 11. I simultaneously worshiped her and despised her.

Christa McAuliffe showed us that teachers could contribute to the space program. I was 13 years old on the day of the Challenger Launch. Completely devastated by the loss of the crew, I think that was the day my space dream truly died.

Now I have a new space hero: Col. Chris Hatfield of the International Space Station. He has masterfully used video and social media to invite us into his world on the ISS and teach us about zero gravity. He tweets with William Shatner and answers school children’s questions about life on the ISS. Most importantly, he connects with us virtually in a way that makes us feel like we know him. It’s the same way we feel like we know Jay Leno or David Letterman. Hatfield talks to us like we are friends.

Of course this is only possible because of current technology, but also because of his willingness to learn these new tricks. He’s no Millennial, but he sure communicates like one.

I’ve written before about harnessing the power of the virtual classroom to bring experts to the masses. It’s not just about using the tools, but knowing how to connect with the audience. It’s not about presenting. It’s about conversing. When you bring the audience into the conversation (either directly or by allowing them to submit questions) it becomes a richer and more meaningful dialogue.

Accessible Experts = Learning Heroes.


Virtual Facilitator Training Part 5: Competing With Email, Facebook, and Sudoku

sudoku1Admit it. You are tempted to multitask during webinars. You are thinking about doing this Sudoku right now, aren’t you? Heck, even I’m tempted to multitask–sometimes when I’m facilitating! So with that shocking revelation… how do you reduce learner multitasking when even the facilitator is tempted?

The sad truth is you can’t eliminate it. The very first thing you have to overcome as a virtual facilitator is loss of control. The best we can do is to provide a dynamic session that includes movement, ample opportunities for participants to contribute, and creating a sense that “someone is watching.”


There are two ways to include movement in your sessions. The first is to have frequently changing visuals. PowerPoint builds are a great way to do this. Movement on the screen gets the brain’s attention. Think of those moving flash ads you see on websites. It’s difficult not to look at them. Now, let me be clear that I don’t endorse movement just for the sake of movement. Flash ads annoy the heck out of me. However, relevant, meaningful change and motion every minute or two will keep the learner visually engaged and wondering what will come next. That movement can also come from use of annotation tools. I encourage learners to use the tools whenever they want to communicate with me or others at any time, on any surface. Let the learners help you provide this movement.

The second kind of movement I like to incorporate is actual physical movement by the learners. My absolute limit for a virtual session is 90 minutes. Even then, learners need a couple of breaks. It’s difficult to sit and look at a screen that long. I may ask learners to go look out a window and report on what they see. It could be a location/weather report or report back on an object or living thing they see. Regular use of text and drawing annotation tools also creates an opportunity to interact in a kinesthetic way. I also love the use of scavenger hunts. Send the learners out into the Interwebs to see what resources they can find in 3-5 minutes and ask them to paste the URLs in the chat channel.

Opportunities To Contribute

One of my favorite ways to present content is to actually elicit the content from the learners. An example is banning the bullet points. For instance, if you and I were in an environment right now where two-way communication were possible I would not have told you  the three ways to make a session more dynamic. I would have asked you, “What keeps your interest during a virtual learning session or webinar?” I would have accepted all of your responses, asked for more detail if I didn’t fully understand the example, and let you write them anywhere you wanted on the screen. If you happened to miss one of the categories I thought was important I would ask, “What about… ” to steer the conversation to make sure that point was covered. By doing this, I keep the learners engaged  by giving them ownership of the content. When all of the responses are recorded, I can then ask the learners to suggest natural categories for the content they provided. This lights up more brain centers because they are not just receiving the information. They are internalizing and analyzing  the information.

Creating the Sense That “Someone Is Watching”

When you have the control to keep class sizes under 20 participants, the attendee list is your best friend. Randomly calling on someone and asking, “What do you think about…,” or “How would you categorize…” lets attendees know that they could be called upon at any time.

Creating a grid template for questions is also a great way to get feedback from everyone and know if someone has tuned out. You can ask participants to type their name in a box and respond to the question. A quick glance between the grid and the attendee list can quickly tell you that someone is not keeping up. A non-threatening way to address this is to say something like “Tracy, I don’t see your response. Are you having any trouble with the text tool?” Do this early and you won’t have to do it much later on.


Also, it helps to realize that there might be a legitimate reason for stepping away. If status color boxes or icons are available, make it safe to step away for a moment. Ask participants to mark themselves red or use a specific symbol if they need to step away. That way you wont get dead air if you call on them. If you choose to do this you need to keep a close eye on the status and message the person if they seem to have checked out for too long. It might help to have a “producer” who can help with this.

In summary, I think the very best way to keep learner attention is to make the session about the learners. Refer back to Part 4 of this series focused on meeting participant needs. Good luck and please share your favorite methods in the comments!

Virtual Facilitator Training Part 3: Develop a Virtual Body Language

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.


Virtual Facilitator Training Part 2: Know the Interface Inside and Out

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?

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.

Is ‘Webinar’ a Dirty Word?

I love the potential of webinars to bring thought leaders to the masses and connect learners with common goals, but most webinars don’t live up to their potential. How much should we expect from a free webinar?

Attending a webinar for me is a bit like a chef eating at someone else’s restaurant. I have to remind myself to focus on the experience and try not to critique the design… too much. I get really frustrated when a webinar I’m attending turns out to be a lecture–or worse, a sales pitch. I’ve come to expect a certain amount of promotion at free sessions, but I don’t want to spend the whole hour hearing about a product unless I signed up for a demo.

So here it is: My list of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Webinars.


The Good – Webinars at Their Best

  • Promotions are limited to the beginning or end of the session and clearly differentiate between the pitch and the content that attracts the learners.
  • The presenter has mechanisms in place to get feedback from the audience in order to understand their interests, experience level, and what they want to get out of the session. The best presenters are flexible enough to go into deeper detail about the things participants are most interested in learning or comfortable with skipping content that isn’t relevant to the audience. They realize that every audience is different.
  • The design allows for the most possible contribution from the learners. Not just a stray poll or Q&A at the end… real opportunities to contribute to the session and learn from each other as well as from the presenter. For example, invite participants to use the annotation tools and chat function at any time during the session. Collect questions as you go and pause periodically to address them. Ask for feedback to see if the session is meeting the need.
  • Opportunities exist to connect with other participants such as the chat channel or a space to discuss the session in another forum. For example, encourage participants to Tweet about the session with a designated hashtag. This will help participants find each other after the session if they want to connect.
  • Recorded sessions turn me on. Sometimes a critical meeting comes up and I can’t attend a session I’m really excited about. I love it when the recording is sent out the next day. I can revisit something I learned, see what I missed, or share it with a colleague.


The Bad – Missed Opportunities

  • The presenter lectures, asks for all questions to be held until the end of the session or a designated Q&A pit stop. The audience is to be seen, but not heard.
  • The presenter turns off chat functionality and/or does not utilize annotation tools. No passing notes in class.
  • The presenter uses polls, but doesn’t really respond to or address the results. Polls should be used to pulse the audience, better understand needs, or generate conversation. They should be a meaningful activity, not just a periodic change of pace.


The Ugly – A Waste of Time

  • The entire presentation is a demo of the platform not-so-cleverly disguised with content. Honestly, I don’t mind demos. I like to see what the platforms out there can do. Just tell me that’s what it is. If I’ve already seen a demo of your platform I don’t want to be tricked into sitting through another one.

Is “webinar” a dirty word? What makes a webinar good, bad, or ugly to you?