As many companies and schools scramble to move their classes, meetings, communications, and training programs to virtual environments, they may be discovering new challenges they hadn’t expected. Content and activities that worked well in the classroom aren’t necessarily translating easily to the web. Our online meetings suddenly become boring lectures and our training classrooms have transformed into an exercise of managing attention spans rather than learning objectives. So what makes the virtual environment so different? Is it the people? Technology? Or both?

The main reason moving to virtual can be challenging is because we can’t replace the experience of real physical interactions—the people and all that they bring including body language, facial expressions, emotions, and the resulting exchange of energy that occurs in a real-time experience. So how do we rise to the challenge of keeping our virtual experiences as real as possible? We learn to adapt and be flexible with our learning styles. Simple, but not necessarily easy.

As human beings, we’re inherently predisposed to learning in certain ways. As young children, we learn by observing and listening to others—beginning with our parents—and the majority of our learning comes from stories, lessons, and what we’re told. As we mature into adulthood, we become accustomed to learning in more distinct ways—mostly by direct experience. And beginning in the 1990s, we started using more digital technology tools and the internet to learn through self-discovery.

With the introduction of eLearning in the latter part of the 20th century, we were able to more effectively use the digital domain to transfer knowledge—much like we did with traditional teaching models of the past. But simply gaining knowledge doesn’t equate to the full learning experience. True learning comes through application and practice. Learning is experiential, not just intellectual. When we change the mode of delivery from live to virtual, we change the learning experience.

Content that was once easily communicated in person doesn’t necessarily translate the same way into the virtual environment—not even during a live webinar. So by applying principles of blended learning we can bring together the best of both worlds: face-to-face and online experiences. There are several ways we can adapt our live classrooms to virtual environments and keep them interesting, engaging, and productive. 

Need some pointers? Here are some suggestions to help you transition from the traditional classroom in both the short-term and long-term.

For the short-term—moving to virtual meetings, web conferencing, and virtual instructor-led training (VILT):

Be mindful and scale your content appropriately. The attention span of virtual participants will be significantly reduced due to many factors, including their environment and level of distraction. Choose content that is relevant, timely, and appropriate. And if it feels like too much information to be shared in one meeting, consider breaking it up into a series of webinars or virtual training sessions. Treat learning like eating a meal: one bite at a time.

Be planful and set up your participants for success. Assign any pre-work so people come to the virtual meeting or training session prepared. Send out links to documents and assignments plenty of time before the event, and remind participants that the virtual session content will be based on them having done the pre-work. This will help to keep your virtual sessions productive and on task.

Be engaged and interested in the content. As the facilitator, if you’re not showing interest in the meeting or training session content, then how can you expect your audience to be? Find interesting aspects of the content to focus on, tell stories, use analogies, and keep it interesting. If you want your audience to be enthusiastic about your content, set a good example.

Be creative by assigning small group work. Keep the energy of a virtual meeting or classroom alive by assigning small group activities in virtual breakout rooms during the session (the Zoom platform lets you do this very easily). Then after 10 or 15 minutes, bring the group back together in the main meeting room and have the groups share what they discussed. Seth Godin penned a great blog post that features this practice and the importance of conversation in the virtual environment.

Be willing to learn as you go. Even at the ripe age of 87, the words of Michelangelo, “Ancora imparo,” (“Yet, I am learning,”) speak to the lifelong process of acquiring new knowledge. We are all learners. The tools in the virtual meeting and training environments might be new to many of us, so be willing to learn and make mistakes along the way. Most virtual meeting tools are user-friendly and easy to learn. Take advantage of the online tutorials, videos, and quick tips provided online, and ask for best practices and lessons learned from your colleagues.  

For the long-term (moving to eLearning, microlearning, on-demand content):

Consider your content and decide what scales easily to virtual vs. what will need to be repurposed or re-communicated in other ways. If the content is for informational purposes, consider a blended learning solution. For example, put the information into an eLearning module and then schedule a virtual session where learners can practice applying the knowledge and receive coaching.

Plan how to transition your content and processes into the virtual domain. Assess your current courses and training sessions by listing your learning objectives, requirements, expectations, and assumptions, and then match them up with the appropriate tools and resources for taking them online. Always let the content drive the tool, not the other way around.

Reach out and connect with other organizations or colleagues who are using eLearning, microlearning, and other forms of on-demand content successfully. Ask them to share what they’ve learned about translation and deployment, and how they’ve successfully blended their learning tools and strategies to bring the best experiences to their learners. Don’t think you have to reinvent the wheel. Many other organizations are already doing this—learn from them.

Be agile about your rollout. When we adopt Agile project management principles—namely, rolling out our strategy incrementally and evaluating each tool as we do—we create opportunities to learn from our own mistakes, establish best practices, and create a databank of lessons learned and use this data for our next deployment.

Keep in mind that technology was never meant to replace people—it’s simply a way for us to create more meaningful and sustainable connections while being creative about how we reach our learners. Similar to the people first language approach, always keep the people in mind when designing your digital learning experiences.

Also, remember the three S’s: simplicity, scalability, and sustainability. As we move to the virtual training classroom and the online environment, we will have the potential to reach more people globally than before. By being mindful about how we build and scale our content, we can provide our learners with fresh content that’s easy to digest and apply.

We wish you all smooth transitions to virtual learning, whatever your profession or industry. If you do find yourself stuck, not sure where to begin, or not sure why things aren’t working, please contact us and we’d be happy to have a conversation with you about turning your classroom content into a great virtual learning experience.

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