Just as we eventually realised that “click next” e-learning courses didn’t really engage our learners, almost from “day one” we’ve fretted over how to make our virtual classroom sessions more interactive. Here are some of my thoughts on how to achieve this, all based on getting the basics right.
Be honest with yourself. If you are merely looking to impart some information to a large group of people, then first consider whether a virtual classroom is needed. In reality, you’ll probably end up just delivering a webinar – a one-way audio/visual broadcast. And if your software offers an attentiveness monitor (WebEx Training Center does), then be prepared to see the bar plummet. You will hopefully be interested in making sure your messages have at least been “received” by the audience, so the best you can hope for is to include a simple poll or green tick/red cross/raise hand interaction.
But if you want to truly engage with your audience – and that means interacting with them through verbal and non-verbal conversations – then you are off to a good start. Paying attention to my other thoughts will pay dividends and ensure that your good intentions are realised.
Number of people
The more people you have in a session, the less interactive it will be, in terms of keeping each participant on their toes ready to take part. Larger groups are much harder to manage. You will struggle to watch the participant list for calls for help and it might well scroll off your screen. Inevitably some people will be left out and will no doubt feel left out too and their attention will wander. And trying to stay in control of more than 4 virtual breakout rooms – if you want to use those – will be a challenge.
As with the face-to-face classroom, definitely keep to less than 18 people. Ideally try to limit attendance to 12 people. When your numbers are smaller, you have more time to spend per person and it’s easier to script your session to proactively engage with each individual.
Trainer – participant talk time
OK, here’s the deal. In a virtual classroom, more so than even, the trainer needs to speak less and allow the participants to speak more. Listening to the trainer “lecture” fails the engagement test. Learners are definitely more engaged when they are literally speaking out loud; and fellow participants listen more attentively.
If you’ve not got into the habit of scripting/storyboarding your sessions, then do so and use timings to ensure you stay silent for as long as possible. The more your learners are talking, the quicker they also forget they are in a virtual classroom situation.
Role of trainer as facilitator
When you move from the face-to-face training room to a virtual classroom, your role must definitely change to that of a learning facilitator. In fact this one characteristic of an interactive session will complement the other factors I discuss in this posting. Your purpose is to keep the learners focused on the application of the learning back into their roles, so that they, you and the organisation see the benefit. Only by being alert to the needs of each participant can you truly facilitate this for them; and keep the relevance factor high.
And as tempting as it is to jump in to answer any questions or to respond to the points being made – STOP – and invite one of the other participants to respond. The more you let the participants think things through for themselves and their fellow attendees, the more engaged they will be with the content.
Nature of the content
So what should the content look and sound like in your interactive virtual classroom? Well, for starters, try to avoid “lecturing” for any length of time. The risk of losing learners along the way is simply too great and it’s always hard work to re-engage them and the process of doing so can easily interrupt the overall flow of the session.
For me, we need to look back at how we constructed our first blended learning solutions. The knowledge was imparted via e-learning and then everyone came together to take the learning to the next level. In the education world, you’ll often hear the term “flipped classroom”, which describes something similar. The main body of work is done outside of the classroom and the students then convene in the virtual classroom to discuss what they’ve learned with the tutor. “Discuss” is the key word here. Participants must be briefed to be fully conversant with the basic content before they log on and you should jump straight in with open questions and discussion topics that get the group talking from the start and making those important links between what they’ve learned and the real world. And don’t be afraid to ask anyone who hasn’t done the preliminary learning to leave the session.
Use of questions
My final principle is how we use questions in the virtual classroom to generate interaction and engagement. When I first started to coach new trainers on facilitating virtual classroom sessions, I introduced them to the teaching practices of Socrates.
In a nutshell, Socrates would ask his students six different types of questions, all of which would get them thinking in different ways to deepen their understanding of the topic. If you can get into the habit of scripting your sessions, it isn’t too difficult to develop a series of discussion openers based on Socratic principles. And prepare for yourself a list of the many different variations of these questions – there are lots of examples of these on the web – so that can you can keep the conversation flowing along the same lines. Asking the right questions really does increase the engagement of participants and helps prevent you from lapsing back into the “lecturer” role.
So in summary:
- Be clear on your purpose
- Keep the group size small
- Talk less
- Facilitate more
- Discuss the content – don’t deliver it
- Keep asking questions