I earned my teaching degree in the 1970s, when handwritten assignments were standard and backpacks were filled with books. I became an educator in a physical classroom. I’ve taught high school, college and graduate students. Now, I’m mostly a leadership and team development trainer and coach. Like my fellow trainers who began their careers in a physical classroom, I learned to read faces and other nonverbal cues, building relationships to reach everyone. I built on the energy and enthusiasm in the room. I spent time with management trainees and got to know them well, and I enjoyed helping them engage in their own learning. Now, I develop leaders online most of the time without the luxury of blended learning.
How did I make the transition to virtual classrooms and continue to be an engaging trainer?
As an early adopter of online learning, I didn’t have role models to emulate. I innovated and tried numerous tactics. In the 1990s, other early adopters were presenting at online learning conferences like I was, but we were mostly attending as peer learners ourselves. I made some adjustments easily. The internet, for instance, quickly became the biggest library on earth, a primary destination and portal for data-gathering, research and analysis.
Something was still missing for me, however. I missed the engagement that came from face time with trainees. I continued to adapt to engage myself. I found ways to engage learners online because I needed the connection.
Here are five simple lessons I’ve learned to catapult online learning engagement throughout the course and increase learning transfer and behavior change. These guidelines are easily incorporated into any course curriculum and trainer’s style.
1. Care enough about learners to expand your emotional bandwidth – connect, connect, connect.
You are a facilitator. Connect with trainees as whole humans, authentically. People open up when the trainer is open and cares and when they feel psychologically safe. You are a facilitator of the learning experience as much as a content expert. Our main job is to be the human connection, the person who cares enough to facilitate deeper learning and career success.
2. Launch courses digitally. Require online, asynchronous discussion forums.
Have people introduce themselves in a way that helps them get to know each other and build swift trust as a temporary learning team. Require them to state their professional goals and how the course will help them reach those goals. Ask them to share their experiences and strengths. Encourage them to complete their online profiles if they haven’t already. Lead by example by introducing yourself and welcoming each student. Whether through student podcasts or written introductions, break the ice interpersonally. Ask trainees to introduce themselves in an online forum. Suggest what to share in the introduction: Where do they live? What’s their current position? What are their learning goals for the course? What skills and experience do they bring? What is something about them that no one knows?
Once a course is launched, require trainees to get involved in discussions crafted to transfer learning goals to their jobs or prepare them for promotion. Learning conversations are a form of peer coaching that can dramatically increase how well trainees apply concepts that change the way they lead and work. Acknowledge powerful discussion posts, and participate in the discussion.
3. Bridge virtual distance with team assignments and peer learning.
People who learn in groups are forced to cooperate because teamwork is a critical competency. Today’s world requires most professionals to be able to collaborate virtually, so it’s part of the trainer’s job to prepare trainees to succeed in virtual teams. Team learning teaches collaboration and team management.
Set up team assignments and peer learning so trainees teach each other through peer reviews and group presentations. They’ll develop virtual team competencies and skill in giving effective feedback, something often missing when peer interaction isn’t required.
4. Structure questions to deepen conversations, and require takeaways.
I enjoy spontaneous conversation and intentionally create a conversational environment during training. The learning stays fresh, because discussion forums are applied to current events in people’s work lives. Discussion forums energize me and, when well-structured with clear participation requirements, learners as well. Discussions are a way to test trainee comprehension without formal evaluation in a forum that gives continuous feedback about learning transfer.
Throughout any asynchronous discussion, I pose questions and contrary thoughts, applying course content to work situations. In my experience, learning transfers faster online, because it expands interaction over days or weeks, which is not possible when interaction is limited to traditional classrooms. Have trainees post their summary of learning before each discussion is closed, collectively creating an executive summary of learning.
5. Manage expectations and expect confusion.
This lesson is exceedingly practical – and unavoidable. Online learning requires a lot of writing, as does the mobile workplace. Writing is a flat medium that invites misunderstanding and confusion. Expect trainees to misunderstand written instructions and comments. Be a role model by proactively clarifying discussions posts that aren’t clear. People will begin to take more care in their posting to reduce the likelihood they are misunderstood, becoming better written communicators.
To avoid answering the same question multiple times, keep a virtual office, and direct learners there to ask questions. (I use a discussion forum thread that is always open called “Our Virtual Office.”) Anyone can answer a posted question. More than half the time, fellow learners answer each other’s questions instead of waiting for me, which provides evidence that they are engaged.
It’s Up to Us to Bridge the Virtual Distance.
As trainers, our main job is to be the human connection. This role is especially critical in online training. Facilitate group learning through conversation and teamwork.
How will you engage your next online class?