The COVID-19 pandemic challenged and changed leaders, as well as the way organizations develop those leaders. When it hit, many organizations’ training programs came to a screeching halt — even if budget wasn’t a problem. Nobody imagined lockdowns and quarantines would last for months, and most expected to resume training as it was before the pandemic: with traditional classroom training dominating because of its proven impact and individuals’ desire to learn with peers.

However, the future of leadership development requires organizations to embrace a broader range of virtual and digital options. COVID-19 put the virtual classroom in the spotlight as a viable — and necessary — learning alternative. There is mounting evidence, for good reason, that the virtual classroom is here to stay: In DDI’s “Global Leadership Forecast,” 48% of respondents indicated that they were regularly using the virtual classroom to develop their leaders before the pandemic. As companies adapted to a virtual world, that number increased to 62%.

But even with higher use, there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding what makes a virtual classroom effective.

How Is It Like a Traditional Classroom?

Imagine an effective facilitator in a room filled with learners. They have workshop materials at hand and are eager to learn with and from each other. The facilitator guides them through a highly interactive learning experience.

Add the right platform and a producer, and you have all the ingredients for a virtual classroom experience that is just as effective as in-person training.

Even before the pandemic, most organizations had some type of platform for virtual meetings, presentations or webinars. These platforms are designed for one-way communication; they work best when there is little to no participant involvement or interaction, and a recording is usually an adequate alternative to real-time attendance.

Companies have tried using these platforms for virtual training, but one-way communication is not an engaging learning experience. Instead, there are a few things needed to ensure that virtual classrooms truly engage learners:

1. Prepare Learners Before Each Session

Before jumping into the virtual classroom, set expectations for learners to be active participants, and encourage them to find a place where they can participate free from distractions. Without this guidance, participants might show up with the virtual meeting or webinar mindset, expecting a passive learning experience.

2. Leverage the Right Platform and Technology

The technology can make or break the virtual classroom experience. A virtual classroom is a live, synchronous online learning experience. It requires a platform with a variety of interactive features for the facilitator and participants to interact. The participants’ engagement is tied to the technology; the facilitator should use chat, whiteboards, polling, video, and annotation and feedback tools purposely. Learners can use simple feedback tools like checkmarks and thumbs-up symbols as cues that they are ready to advance, while raised hand features can indicate when a learner has a question.

You can achieve small group learning — a hallmark of in-person training — in breakout rooms. They create an intimate space for practicing new skills or participating in small group activities using whiteboards. Many platforms enable facilitators to “visit” each room to monitor learners’ progress, much like they would in the traditional classroom.

Finally, in the virtual classroom, the seamless integration of voice and video creates personal connections — which have become increasingly important during the pandemic.

3. Understand the Roles of the Producer and Facilitator

With the right platform in place, it’s important to have the right people with the right skills to leverage it. While facilitators fly solo in the in-person classroom, they need a producer in the virtual classroom.

Producers use their technical and communication skills to handle technology issues and provide troubleshooting on the fly. They enable facilitators to focus on guiding an informative and engaging learning experience. Then, like in the traditional classroom, facilitators can create and lead activities and offer input and feedback about the use of skills during practice sessions.

While facilitators may be used to guiding the learning experience in person, there are additional skills they need to succeed in a virtual environment. For example, even the most stable platforms can experience temporary glitches. Experienced virtual classroom facilitators have contingency plans in place, understand the importance of using their voice to engage learners, and learn to “read” participants and adjust their approach. If learners are reluctant to participate, effective facilitators smoothly switch to chat or another function to engage them.

With the producer and the facilitator roles in place, the likelihood of a successful virtual classroom experience increases dramatically.

The Future of Virtual Classrooms

Organizations reported to DDI’s “Global Leadership Forecast” that they planned to spend 30% or more of their learning budgets on the virtual classroom in 2021. This finding is important given more than half of American employees want to continue working remotely after the pandemic.

The good news is that the results support this new path. For example, four years ago, an energy company piloted an eight-session virtual classroom leadership program. An experienced facilitator and producer led each session on a full-featured platform, and assessments revealed that 85% to 95% of participants successfully retained information from the virtual classroom, on par with scores from the in-person classroom.

The conditions are ripe for organizations to maximize the impact the virtual classroom can have on their workforce — when they choose the right platform and the right people.