As the world’s economic woes continue, travel budgets are coming under increasing scrutiny, and the desire for virtual training is growing. However, “virtual training” encompasses so many types of learning from self-directed education, through computer-based self-paced e-training, via webinars to fully-functional “virtual classroom”-type activities. And this is only the first problem facing those choosing training providers. With these options, the customer has a good idea of the basic experience: will it be interactive, will the learner need to be at their desk at certain times of day, is someone available to answer questions when something isn’t understood? A more challenging concern to understand, is how a traditional training company will perform virtually.

Taking “live” online learning as a case study, let’s look at the skills required to train over the Internet, and how potential customers can choose a provider who will give the type of learning experience they’d usually expect from classroom training.

In some ways, the skills required by an online trainer are similar to those required to train in a classroom. The trainer has to have a lot of personality and energy, and of course be very comfortable in the subject, along with being able to properly interact with students to ensure an optimal learning experience and understanding. When training by webinar, however, these skills become even more important. In addition, there are other skills which are unique to this method of training.

Personality

In any training environment, the personality of the instructor plays a big part in the learning experience for the student. In a classroom, there are many personality types which work well, as long as the instructor is able to engage with the student. A high-energy instructor can work well, as can the laid-back type who runs training in a pleasant, chatty manner. However, in a virtual environment, a vital tool is missing from the instructor’s armoury: physical presence. In order to compensate for this, it’s vital for the instructor to be charismatic and high-energy, because without the face-to-face interaction, students find it very easy to switch off. With distractions from colleagues, emails and social networking sites, the instructor has to constantly work at keeping the students’ attention, and high energy levels achieve this very well. 

Content

In a classroom, it’s important to balance strong content with “how-can-I-apply-this” conversations. Unless a very small group is being trained virtually, then this kind of conversation is going to exclude certain quieter members of the group, and as the trainer is not present, it’s very difficult to identify who is engaging and who’s drifting. For this reason, there needs to be a stronger focus on content in the virtual arena, as well as having steps in place to ensure that the student still understands how to apply the learning in the workplace. This can be built into the content, or achieved through coaching with line managers after the formal learning event. Unless the content is specifically written for a virtual training session, it’s very unlikely to work due to the differences in interaction between the two environments. 

Facilitation

As we’ve established, it’s much easier to ensure full engagement in a face-to-face environment, so good facilitation skills are vital when training virtually. As Dale Carnegie says in his book: How To Win Friends And Influence People, a person’s own name is the most beautiful word in the world. Using it keeps engagement, and if the trainer asks lots of questions and directs these around the group, students are kept on their toes. A list of names for the instructor is a useful tool, along with a pen to keep track of the number of times each name is mentioned. 

Visuals

In traditional training, some presentation slides and an instructor are enough to engage the group. The slides provide a little content, and the instructor provides application, real-world examples, and, vitally, movement. The instructor’s walking around the room gives students a moving focus providing variety and interest, as well as emphasis where required. In a webinar, this movement can be completely absent and we end up with an online version of “death by PowerPoint.” To get around this problem, the trainer can use anything from virtual whiteboard technology through to simple screen sharing to provide this movement. Key points can be typed live on the screen, ideas can be demonstrated, or video can be added. This movement compensates for the otherwise static nature of the visual experience. 

So, there you have it, some vital differences between classroom and virtual training. But as a potential customer, how can you ensure the experience will be satisfactory? When looking for a potential trainer, how can you tell whether these standards will be adhered to in virtual learning? 

If I were a customer, I would strongly resist any suggestion of a face-to-face presentation of services. For someone to be able to train virtually, they must be able to sell virtually. I would listen for energy levels in telephone calls, as well as the instructor’s ability to engage me and captivate my interest. I would ask questions about the capabilities of the software being used, and ask about real-life techniques to interact with trainees. Class size is also a consideration. A good trainer should be able to accommodate 15 to 20 students in this format and involve them all, but if the trainer has little experience of virtual training, a better number to start with might be about eight. I would ask for real details in how the content has been adapted for the webinar format. 

Look out for these points, and provide good follow-up with students, and you’ll find your virtual learning event gives a much better return.

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