Most of the world is moving corporate training online due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, it’s important to remember that you cannot accomplish this migration by merely moving classroom content online, without making any revisions. It’s also important not to fall into the trap of thinking that great face-to-face instructors are automatically master virtual trainers. There are fundamental differences between both types of instruction, especially when it comes to the role of technology, the strategy for engaging learners and multitasking.

With virtual training, instructors face the fresh challenge of engaging and motivating learners differently from how they do in the classroom. While their already established professional training skills will transfer to an online setting, delivering a virtual instructor-led training (VILT) course requires some measure of upskilling. Here are five areas to upskill your facilitators in for VILT.

1. Multitasking Effectively

Being a virtual instructor is not just about presenting learning material. Facilitators will need to simultaneously present, implement the technology platform, engage the learners, and possibly questions and polls. These tasks require speed and adequate preparation. The importance of preparation, practice and pilot sessions cannot be underscored. In particular, a pilot class will help the instructor, as a new VILT facilitator, practice all aspects of the role.

Multitasking is an important skill that virtual trainers need to master. Admittedly, not everyone is great at it, but through repetition, anyone can master it. Through practice, the ability to absorb and interact with all parts of the virtual classroom will appear seamless and less overwhelming for both facilitators and learners.

2. Mastering the Technology

While a face-to-face instructor might be familiar with some use of technology, in the virtual classroom, technology takes center stage. It’s important that facilitators take time to practice and become comfortable with the online platform before their sessions. Their role as a facilitator is mostly to engage and teach the class, while the producer operates the behind-the-scenes technical details (e.g. opening polls and troubleshooting any issues learners may have). However, there are smaller technical responsibilities that the facilitators can handle alone. They will need to switch between screens, tabs and activities; keep track of questions pouring in via chat; and use interactive tools like pointers or whiteboards. Again, prior practice, dry runs and pilot classes are essential.

Technological issues may arise during training sessions. The facilitator’s job is to stay calm and professional and handle the situation gracefully, while delegating the more complex system issues to the producer. It’s important in the prior run-throughs with the producer to establish clear roles and responsibilities.

Additionally, facilitators should discuss any bandwidth, firewall, screen-sharing or video issues with the information technology (IT) team in advance. While delivering a session, they don’t want to discover that their company’s firewalls don’t allow screen-sharing of key documents or systems they wish to use for training. Facilitators must master the technology, including the hardware, so their attention is not constantly drawn to it while facilitating. Create a contingency plan for inevitable technical issues.

3. Fostering a Comfortable Learning Environment

Learning in a virtual space might be a new concept for some participants, so facilitators should work to make them feel comfortable as quickly as possible. They will need to take the time to help learners adjust to the new learning platform before having them use it in an activity.

Facilitators must be able to build rapport and connect with learners to put them at ease. Granted, it might be more challenging without having a physical presence, but it’s not impossible. A personal greeting to learners as they enter the virtual space (saving time for introductions during the session) can go a long way in putting learners at ease. By using learners’ names when referencing questions or points they made, instructors can make them feel heard and help them be more active in their learning.

Ideally, an instructional designer would create the course to start with polls and other easy-to-use activities to warm up learners. Even if not, facilitators should take advantage of the chat feature in their online platform to encourage questions and check for learning transfer. These activities don’t require any setup, so facilitators can ask participants to use the chat at any time.

This continued two-way conversation throughout the session is key; facilitators shouldn’t save questions for the end of the session. Forbidding learners to ask questions when they have them stifles interest and creates an uncomfortable learning environment that hinders knowledge acquisition.

4. Virtual Teaching

Being a skilled facilitator or subject matter expert (SME) in a traditional classroom setting does not automatically translate to being an excellent teacher in the virtual space. Experienced classroom trainers can become even better virtual trainers. They just need to be able to transfer their teaching skills to the virtual space.

During live sessions, it’s easy to stray into presenting or lecturing, especially considering the physical separation between the teacher and the learners, who are inherently unseen and quiet. Less experienced SMEs might slip into a rant or reading through slides instead of taking the time to break down complex concepts. Facilitators should repeat and simplify key concepts as often as possible so they stick and provide recaps when required. They should also pause occasionally to field questions in batches.

A best practice is to turn on the camera so learners can see the facilitator as well as the presentation material. Doing so will impart more non-verbal information to them. Turning on video heightens learning and provides a personal touch and is especially important when for learners to absorb what the facilitator is saying and not just read the slides.

However, even if training sessions are held with the video feature enabled, there is still a degree of guidance, comfort and connection via non-verbal cues from the learners that will be missing. Depending on the class size, facilitators may want to allow learners to turn on their cameras and microphones. Most new facilitators, however, will say that having learners’ cameras on is distracting and that allowing participants unlimited use of their microphones may be a recipe for a noisy disaster.

If facilitators want to see their participants, they can enable the video-sharing feature at the beginning of the call and keep participants’ videos off for the rest of the class. That way, they can focus on engaging all their learners instead of wondering why one participant is sitting with her dog while another has left his desk.

5. Methods of Engagement

For trainers to effectively engage learners that they can’t often see or hear, they will need to be creative with their methods. Because of the physical separation, learners are more likely to tune out or turn their attention to other activities, like checking emails or social media, while sessions are ongoing. Advising them to stay focused is one thing; helping them stay focused is another challenge.

Hopefully, an instructional designer has deliberately created an engaging, experiential, activity-based and exploratory learning experience session. Regardless, there are some easy actions facilitators can take to engage their learners.

First, they should make simple changes to ensure adequate engagement. A monotone voice will bore the learners; instead, they should consciously keep up an upbeat and engaging tone. Moving visuals around on the screen can also help draw in attention. Examples can be using checkmarks and pointers on slides, progressive animations, and even interactive whiteboards to expand on points. Including facilitator own questions and simple activities at different intervals during the learning sessions can help learners stay active and engaged.

With the fast-paced changes in the learning and development (L&D) industry, it’s easy to gloss over this aspect of the transition to a virtual classroom. However, giving in to the misconception that classroom instructors can completely hold their own in virtual training does learners no favors. Learners are recognizing these shortfalls, and now is the time to work on bridging that gap. For virtual training to come naturally to instructors, there needs to be a lot of preparation, especially in the areas discussed here. Practice makes perfect, after all.