Virtual classes in many industries are becoming the norm, the standard way we deliver training. In the scope of things, however, they are still a relatively new delivery method. You could say we’ve entered the adolescent phase with virtual classes; we’re starting to develop, yet we still have a lot to learn. Furthermore, teenagers like to experiment, and we should take a cue from them in training. Sure, experiments can be scary – taking risks, trying unknown things, possibly being embarrassed – yet they’re a way to try something new without fully committing. Having an experimental mindset as you refine your virtual program allows you to test a new idea before turning it into a best practice.

Virtual classes go a long way toward closing learners’ performance gaps, because they can be much more interactive than self-paced e-learning courses. Certainly, there is excellent interactive e-learning out there. With a virtual class, however, it’s not pre-recorded. It’s not just a voice. Learners know the trainer is right there, on the other end of the phone. And, ideally, the trainer is right there in the virtual class via webcam, which brings us to a best practice: using your webcam.

Webcams are a great tool to emulate the classroom experience. You won’t be able to replicate all aspects of a classroom in virtual training – in some cases, that can backfire! But, when used properly, a webcam can increase engagement nearly as well as having the trainer physically in front of you. That’s not to say you need it on for the entire class. Depending on the topic and your audience, that can be distracting. Here is where experimentation comes in: Test how a webcam works best for you.

My team’s webcam practice evolved slowly. We observed a lack of learner engagement in virtual classes, which wasn’t a problem when we facilitated classroom training, so we brainstormed ways to emulate the classroom experience. Being face-to-face was a key component missing in our virtual classes; many trainers felt a sense of being disconnected from the learners. Webcams are a way to close that gap, yet many people are uncomfortable (awkward, even) when using a webcam. To address this problem, we started with internal team meetings and spent several weeks getting comfortable and working out the kinks. (Don’t zoom too close! And clean up that shelf behind you!) Then, we reached a point where we could test webcams in our virtual classes.

While the interpersonal interactivity that webcams provide is a key best practice, interactivity with the content itself is critical in ensuring your virtual classes transfer the necessary skills and knowledge to improve on-the-job performance. This means going beyond logging questions in the chat, using polls or allowing learners to “raise” their hands inside the web conference room. Study after study shows that the more that learners can engage with the curriculum, the higher the retention rate and, therefore, the more impact on job performance. A best practice is to incorporate real-life scenarios that learners can complete during class from their own remote locations. There are countless ways to accomplish this practice, and, again, experimentation can point you in the right direction.

My team brainstormed on ways to increase hands-on practice to aid with retention. Working with the statistic that people retain the most information when they teach it to others, teach-backs seemed like a great experiment to run. For one module of class (experimenting in small increments is best), we assigned one support scenario to each class participant. Learners were instructed to review a simulation and quick help guide and then teach the class that support scenario the next day. Metrics are critical to assessing experiments, so participants completed a one-question survey on the teach-backs. The overall results were unfavorable, including comments like, “I prefer the explanations by the trainer” and, “I did not find the new format helpful. It added to the stress of keeping up with the training.” This failed experiment told us that teach-backs were not a good fit for our class content and audience.

Experiments that fail can teach you more than experiments where your hypothesis is proven true. Why? A hypothesis, by nature, is an affirmation. People experiment to see if what they think may be true is, in fact, true. But when an experiment fails, it flips that assumption and often provides unexpected insights. Failed experiments can uncover practices to avoid as well as new best practices to standardize. As Yoda says, “A great teacher, failure is.”

If you’re thinking, “This all sounds great, but how do I get started with experimenting?”, turn to the design thinking methodology. Design thinking provides a structured approach and tools that can mitigate the intimidation factor if you are new to exercising your innovation muscles. There’s a wealth of information online, but in short, the principles include customer empathy, brainstorming to gather as many ideas as possible and then narrowing those ideas, and rapid experimentation.

Think about the last virtual class you attended. What worked, and why? What didn’t work? Brainstorm ways to improve your virtual class, and have fun experimenting!

This blog post is just a teaser of a presentation coming to TICE 2018. Come check it out!