by Melanie Parsons Gao
NPR Moth Story Slam Champion, TEDx Fellow, Passionate Developer of People
My laptop was on the kitchen counter, the oven was pre-heating and I was just starting to crack the eggs for my muffins when suddenly I heard my name. The teacher was calling on me!
“Melanie, I didn’t see you answer that poll just now. Are you having trouble finding the green check mark?” Justin asked.
Green check mark? What the heck? Was I supposed to have checked something green just now? Soon, a friendly voice came onto my phone line, just my line. It was the producer—the person in charge of the technology, making sure we all knew how to use it. She was friendly and helpful and she showed me where I could find the green check mark on my screen.
“Oh, there it is! Thanks so much. It was right in front of me,” I said. I just hadn’t seen it there before because I wasn’t paying attention. At all.
Within those first two minutes of this class, I realized it was not going to be like other “talking head” virtual sessions I had been in before. I was going to have to engage. I turned off the oven, put the eggs back in the fridge, and sat down at the kitchen table with my laptop. That class was the first one I ever attended that was superbly well done. It was Crucial Conversations from VitalSmarts and the facilitators were Justin Hale and Emily Gregory.
A few years later, I was the program director for a leadership development program at HCA Healthcare and our virtual learning sessions were good but not great. And I’m kind of neurotic about good but not great. Clifton Strengths tells me that’s a strength of mine called “Maximizer.” Which is awesome because all this time I thought I was just an annoying perfectionist. Anyway, my team and I challenged ourselves with this question, “How might we create a virtual learning experience that is so compelling and engaging that participants engage and learn as much as they would in an in-person session?” We found that a good virtual learning session is really a combination of six things: The Six Rights of Virtual Learning, if you will. If you get these six things right, you WILL have a successful virtual learning event. After implementing these, my team and I found that participant satisfaction went way up. In our normal virtual learning sessions, our cohort usually reported a 4.6/5.0 in terms of satisfaction with the content and the facilitator—maybe 4.7 on a great day. But with our experimental virtual class, we were seeing 4.9/5.0 or even 5.0/5.0—in the virtual environment! More importantly, the participants reported that they had “a-ha” moments and took what they learned and applied it at work and it made them better at their jobs.
So, here are what I believe to be The Six Rights of Virtual Learning.
1. The Right Topic
Any topic can be delivered virtually, but some lend themselves to virtual delivery better than others. A lecture by a professor to a group of students with some engaging questions sprinkled throughout? Probably a good one. A group discussion where you want the participants to bounce ideas off each other and brainstorm together? Might be a little bit harder. My general rule of thumb is that if you expect one person, probably the facilitator, to do about half the talking, you can probably make it work in the virtual environment. If you want the participants to do more than half the talking, you should probably make that an in-person session. Or, if you really have to do it virtually, use all the other “Rights” thoughtfully so that it works. It’s not impossible, but it’s going to take a lot of planning. If your speaker is going to be talking 75% of the time or more, then the question of virtual vs. in-person is irrelevant. People are going to be bored either way.
2. The Right Facilitator
Virtual facilitation is a learned skill. Almost anyone can do it, but almost no one can do it well unless they’ve been taught. So, invest in your facilitator and teach them how to engage learners in the virtual environment. Each facilitator has his or her own style. Some are high-energy. Some are funny. Some ask thought-provoking questions. Some have great stories. Typically, whatever makes the facilitator great in the training room will also make him or her great in the virtual environment. Here’s a little-known fact though—in order to teach them well, the facilitator must care deeply about his or her students as individuals. I once heard John Medina say it so well, “You cannot teach them if you don’t first love them.” That’s even more true online than it is in the training room.
3. The Right Technology
There are so many systems and tools out there for virtual learning. When you think about buying a car or truck, you’ll take into account the size of your family, your commute patterns, the kind of work you do, and your budget. By the same token, you’ll need to take a lot of things into account when you consider virtual learning platforms. Do you want your participants to have cameras on? Do they all have high-speed internet access? Are they comfortable using technology? Do you want to stream video during your session? Do you want to use breakout rooms? How much money do you have to spend on licenses? By the way, please use the breakout rooms. They are the bacon bits of online learning. You will never regret using them. It’s a good investment up front to get some help in selecting the right technology. It is the foundation that everything else is built on. If you want an expert opinion, Matthew Daniel at the Learner Collective can help.
4. The Right Instructional Design
The same principles apply here as in an in-person session. You have to understand your learners’ needs. You need to define clear objectives. You need to apply adult learning theory to the organization and delivery of the content. However, there are some considerations that are specific to the virtual environment. Stories need to be sharper and shorter. You need to reach out and actively engage your learners at least every 10-15 minutes. Instructions need to be more tight and clear than ever before. The virtual platform gives you options that you don’t have in the training room—you want to take advantage of those. There are people who know how to do this well and it is worth the investment to get their help in designing a good virtual module up front. If you want help from a pro, talk to Erika Coleman at Virtual Crown Productions. By the way, Matthew and Erika and Justin and Emily are not paying me to give them these props. I’m recommending them because I think they’re fabulous and nothing would make me happier than for them to get so busy with requests from all of you that they can’t take my phone calls anymore. Just kidding. You guys better always answer.
5. The Right Graphic Design
Surprisingly, you can’t just take content from an in-person session and display it on a screen for a virtual session. A good virtual slide has a lot of white space. Also, your graphical elements allow you to convey a tone of the training, and we found that amping up the color and the fun worked well in the virtual environment. My team and I experimented all over the spectrum, from silly animated gifs to a more serious, corporate brand. We finally agreed on something in the middle. We had some color and playful images but not too many, and we found that the look and feel of the slides helped keep our learners’ attention. You have room to experiment here—have fun with it!
6. The Right Producer
Companies often make the mistake of asking the facilitator to also run the technology. This is way too much to ask of one person because so many things can go wrong during a virtual session. Participants are going to need help trouble shooting their phone lines. The slides are not going to advance. Someone thinks they’re on mute but they’re not. If the facilitator tries to manage all of this AND deliver content, they’re going to get frazzled. It’s worth it to assign a producer, whose sole job is to manage the technology and make sure the participants are able to use it. That way your facilitator can focus on the content and the learners. Good producers are commanding and friendly. By commanding I mean that they take charge. They tell people what to do. When the line drops or things go black, that’s what you want—someone who will jump in, stay calm, and make it all better. All the while they are friendly and caring. They don’t shame anyone for not knowing how to mute. They come up right alongside the learner, virtually speaking, and show them what they should do. And then they disappear again.
So, there you go. Get the right content, the right facilitator, the right technology, the right instructional design, the right graphic design, and the right producer and I guarantee you no one is going to be baking muffins during your session.
Have fun and let me know how it goes for you!