Why is it so difficult to achieve the same level of engagement in a virtual classroom as it is in person? Most people say, “I can’t see the participants” and, “I don’t know how to use and manage the technology.” These two challenges leave trainers and presenters asking themselves whether the learning will even happen. Is there anything that we learn from how we deliver in-person training that we could bring into the online environment? What adjustments would we need to make, and what technical skills do trainers, designers and participants need in order to be successful?

When I first started training online in 1999, I had no precedent for online learner engagement, and there were no other trainers whom I could observe. It was brand-new, and all I had was the technology connecting us and the techniques we knew worked when we taught in-person classes. It wasn’t always easy, and sometimes, it did not function properly, but the technologies have come a long way since then, and I have learned so much more.

Introductions and Icebreakers Using Whiteboarding and Annotating

Many online trainers forego participant introductions and icebreakers due to time constraints and the belief that “having fun” isn’t necessary. However, it’s my experience that the same two challenges trainers face when delivering learning are also keeping online participants from engaging: They cannot see each other, and they don’t know how to use the technology. We need introductions and icebreakers even more when training online, as they can take care of both challenges within the first 15 minutes.

In person, we typically do introductions one at a time and determine who’s next using eye contact or seat location. Using this strategy, of course, online introductions won’t work. There isn’t time for each person to talk, and there is not usually an easy way to look at who’s next, even if everyone is using webcams. And, let’s face it: This approach is boring.

Whiteboard to the rescue! A faster and more interesting way to lead introductions and ice breakers is to use a slide with a grid for participants to claim their space. Ask them to choose a spot by typing their names or placing a pointer on a space on the grid. Then, ask them to type their roles, locations, time in position, company and whatever else is relevant to share with the class.

Once everyone has typed ask them to “raise their hands” to unmute and speak about what they have shared. Note commonalities, differences and accomplishments. Call on a few people to speak, and encourage them to comment on one another’s information using the chat. Allow them to draw on the table while people share. Make notes on each person’s details, and refer back to them, using their names for personal reference, throughout the class. Get to know them, and enjoy your time with them! This approach to introductions goes quickly, and people learn how to use the tool at the same time.

whiteboard example

Collaborative Discussions Using Chat

Managing a discussion in an in-person training takes facilitation skills. At a basic level, the trainer needs to inspire discussion with an opening question, remark, image or other stimulating idea. Then, it takes finesse to start the conversation, keep it on track and wrap it up with connections to the learning points, all the while observing and managing the interactions among the participants. Online, encouraging participants to unmute and talk at all is often the biggest challenge. Many participants do not like being called on and never willingly raise their hand to speak. These challenges lead to a lack of interesting, thoughtful and collaborative discussions and, ultimately, the thing we seem to despise most about virtual training: the dreaded one-sided lecture.

Chat to the rescue! The following strategy has never failed me: Create a simple slide with an image, a phrase, one word, etc. Set up the point of the discussion by asking participants to respond to the slide using chat. Give them time to respond (mute yourself so they can think), wait for approximately 75 percent of the participants to respond and then react. Start by summarizing what you notice in the chat, but do not go into depth. Call on a few people to unmute and speak to explain their comments. Use “who,” “what,” “where,” “when” and “why” questions. Ask them to comment on one another’s ideas out loud or in the chat.

In the example below, attendees have just participated in an opening activity where they chose images that described how their roles related to them. The activity was intended to familiarize everyone with the collaborative tools available in the platform as well as to encourage creative thinking and sharing. Following the activity, I used chat to conduct a collaborative analysis of the experience, encouraging participants to respond to not only my questions but also to the comments and ideas of other participants.

chat example

With this approach to virtual instructor-led training (VILT), more learners have the opportunity to participate than if people only contributed when they were called on. At the same time, it builds a community. Interestingly, these strategies do not work the same way in person. I have had to find ways to recreate these experiences when teaching in person as a result of the consistent and effective engagement I always experience when I teach online.

The point is that VILT is in no way the dreadful experience we sometimes think it is – but only if we take the time to let the tools work in our favor.