By now, most of us fortunate enough to have jobs that could continue from home have become accustomed to the routine of online meetings. Dressed for work (at least from the waist up) and with mug full of our favorite beverage, we are ready to discuss the tasks and challenges of the day. When it comes to teaching and learning, this routine has become all too familiar.

What has changed, other than missing a commute, parking challenges, semi-healthy snacks and lunches? I, for one, miss the face-to-face interaction, the ad hoc conversations around the coffee machine, the ease of raising my hand to ask a question and networking with my peers. Still, we seem to have hit a stride and found real gains when communicating virtually for problem-solving, collaboration and delivering instructor-led training activities.

Meeting learners where they are and engaging them have long been twin goals in learning and development (L&D). Now that we are mostly virtual, we are meeting learners where they are from a location standpoint — but are we engaging them in virtual classrooms as much or more than we did in our in-person classrooms? And is the quality of our virtual activities as good as or better than in-person activities? Here are some considerations to take into account.

Know the Audience

Presenting in front of an audience enables presenters to learn about the people in the room and use their facial expressions, body language and verbal feedback as cues to refine and tailor their delivery to those individuals. While this process is difficult in the virtual classroom, there are some strategies to enhance the facilitator’s knowledge of the audience.

Polling the audience for demographic information and answers to questions can give presenters an idea of who is online and what they may be most interested in. Even icebreaker questions that aren’t necessarily relevant to the main topic can help gauge the mood and curiosity of the audience. It’s not ideal, but these strategies can provide some extra data points for facilitators to consider as they proceed with instruction.

Better yet, send out a request for questions and comments well before your virtual event to give the audience plenty of time to respond and give the facilitator time to refine his or her presentation accordingly. Knowing who will be in attendance and why they are attending can provide a great deal of information to optimize everyone’s experience.

Engage and Connect

Engagement seems to be the holy grail of learning and development. It was challenging enough to engage learners in an actual classroom, and now that most events are virtual, it can be even more challenging. Polls, icebreakers and pre-event questions are great ways to begin to engage the audience and connect them to the topic.

Another strategy to increase engagement levels is to break up the time into short lesson segments — five minutes, for example — followed by a quick check-in for Q&A. This Q&A can use the chat feature for large events, but for small audiences, the facilitator can ask learners to unmute themselves and share their questions and comments out loud. Doing so will require clear ground rules, of course, so that the conversation doesn’t veer off topic or get bogged down in too many details. A simple “OK, time’s up for that segment, so I’ll move on to … ” can do the trick.

Another method to consider is for facilitators to introduce a topic, pose a question or a problem, and use breakout rooms — a feature of most common platforms — for small groups to discuss a topic among themselves and then return to the main room to present their conclusions. Enabling learners to connect with other learners and engage with the topic can be effective and memorable.

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