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How to Convert Instructor-Led Training to Virtual Classroom

Steve Dobberowsky

Director, Strategy and Value Service, Cornerstone

"Just deliver the training online!"

That’s easy for your boss (or your boss’s boss) to say. But successfully converting instructor-led training (ILT) to a virtual classroom setting takes real work. Traditional methodologies are going to need a makeover, and developing ways to foster real human connection will be critical. In the midst of an unprecedented period of transformation and disruption, the importance of having truly effective training and development can hardly be overstated.

Cornerstone recently partnered with the Training Officers Consortium (TOC) for a wide-ranging and insightful session designed to provide tactical and practical tips for making the conversion from ILT to the virtual classroom.

There were many helpful takeaways from my discussion with host Melissa Chambers, director of online instruction at MSC Consulting, and Chris King, Chief Technologist at TOC, and I’ve highlighted some of my favorites below. To take a deeper dive into the full presentation, please access the on-demand recording.

ILT-to-Virtual Is Not a One-for-One

One of the common pitfalls when translating pre-existing in-person training to synchronous online training is believing that the virtual session should be a near-clone of its predecessor.

"Just because it was an eight-hour, full-day course does not mean that it needs to be an eight-hour, full-day course again," Chambers said. And really, who would want to participate in an eight hour—full-day course virtually? Moving online means it's necessary to rethink the best way to format the course from many different angles.

Make Sure You Get Regular Feedback

When you’re in an instructor-led session, you’re usually paying attention to the body language and eye contact of your learners as indicators of engagement. Since those are less clear online, you need to proactively build opportunities for interaction into your virtual classroom. Set the expectation for participation at the outset of the session and then be sure to check in with participants regularly throughout.

"You’re training them to know that you’re going to be asking something of them on a regular basis so they’re less tempted to multitask while they’re in the virtual classroom," King said.

While it may seem difficult to know whether your participants are truly engaged, Chambers and King pointed out that you also don’t necessarily know who’s engaged in an in-person classroom, either (despite nonverbal hints).

Time Is Different Online Than It Is Face-to-Face

Some things are faster online, while others are much slower. While it’s great to have participants get to know each other, a round-the-horn virtual introduction with webcams can easily eat up a significant chunk of your presentation time. Think about tools that will maximize time efficiency; it’s much faster to do introductions via chat, for example.

Have a Deliberate Design

"You certainly need to bring a little bit of project management discipline to this and have a deliberate design—and focus—on what you’re trying to accomplish," King reminded us.

Whether you’re thoroughly grounded in instructional design or just kind of winging it, you need to have a plan in place. What is your technology? How long are your sessions? Exactly who will be involved? Do you need a producer, a moderator and an instructor to deliver the session successfully? These are all important factors to consider ahead of time.

Design First... Then Select the Tools

Everyone loves a shiny, new toy, and some platforms are packed with tools that make for fun experiments and engaging user experiences. It can be tempting to think, We have these cool widgets, so let’s have a breakout room and some whiteboarding.

Instead, let your design light your path. What do you want your learners to be able to do at the end of the session? What do you really need for engagement? You’re looking to reduce the cognitive load of both your students and facilitators. If people are worried about how to use a dozen unfamiliar tools, they aren’t going to be absorbing the content or having an effective learning experience.

During our discussion, one of our attendees even chatted us some great advice: "Don’t build your outfit around your socks!"

After you select your tools, practice on them! All of your teachers’ and coaches’ advice holds true here: Practice makes perfect!

Facilitators: Mitigate Virtual Lurking and Ask Open-Ended Questions

While there is no literal back row in a virtual classroom, you may encounter the occasional disengaged learner slouching and tuning out of your training. Maybe they never turn their camera on or they never talk in chat. This doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t engaged, to be sure, but if interactivity is important, facilitators may need to solicit it.

As Chambers pointed out, facilitators run into a potential pitfall with questions. Be wary of closed questions that can be easily dispatched with a simple "yes" or "no." Even if you ask an open-ended question, like "Do you have any questions?" you are likely to be met with crickets. (Don’t be afraid of occasional crickets, especially during online training, as it can take participants a few seconds to gather their thoughts and type a response or take themselves off mute.)

She suggests providing a succinct option for hand-raising—e.g., "Do you have any questions? If so, please click the green check for ’yes’ or the red x for ’no.’" This allows people to virtually raise their hand without going too far out on a limb. Also, note that extroverts dominate voice-driven Q&A, so try to mix it up between audio and text.

Always, Always Have a Plan B!

If you watch the recorded presentation, you will see a lengthy list of the ways that a session can get upended for even the best-prepared presenter. Chambers, for example, once had a puppy eat through a computer cable prior to an online session, leaving her without a power cord. Talk about a twisted version of "my dog ate my homework"! But, hey, electricity goes out sometimes. Demo sites refuse to load. Sessions fail to record. Have a Plan B!

In addition to thinking through some contingency plans, make peace with the fact that it’ll never go perfectly. If you do, you’ll be in good company, and the chances for a successful virtual session are much greater.

The full session is available on-demand and includes many more tips and details about the six guiding principles that Chambers and King see as the key to a successful conversion to the virtual classroom. I hope you find it useful in helping make your work easier and more impactful.

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