In April, I attended the eLearning Guild’s Annual Gathering in Boston. The conference attracted many of the industry’s top researchers and practitioners, and it provided an opportunity to learn from both authorities and peers. It was exciting to hear about the latest trends and buzz surrounding eLearning, but the main message I heard again and again throughout the conference was, “Don’t forget about the learner.”

There were many opportunities to learn about emerging technologies, including eLearning, podcasting, synchronous eLearning, task-based assessments, blogs, game-based learning, discussion boards, video-based interactive role playing, and others.

Drawn in by session titles like “What’s New in eLearning,” I found much more than simple descriptions of new technologies. Again and again, the leaders in the industry were reminding us to start with sound learner-focused design principles rather than to simply use the latest technology.

My research at the conference focused on virtual classrooms (also known as webinars or webcasts), and I had the opportunity to participate in an all-day workshop on the subject led by Dr. Ruth Clark, president and founder of Clark Training & Consulting.

Dr. Clark provided excellent information about how to apply the results of research on media and learning to design for online classrooms. One of her recommendations was to provide multiple ways for participants to interact, including polls, whiteboards, breakout sessions, and inductive questions. Offering many ways to interact helps to counteract the lack of social presence in a virtual classroom. (Social presence refers to the facial expressions, feedback, and sense of attention in face-to-face communications.) This and other sessions on the topic of virtual classrooms delivered a few key messages:

  • Consider the media you’re using. A virtual classroom should not simply deliver a traditional classroom curriculum online. You need to address the lack of social presence and provide other means to engage learners.
  • Don’t just give presentations! A lecture format isn’t terribly effective in traditional classrooms, but it’s even worse in an online setting that lacks social presence.
  • The most effective virtual classroom sessions are polished and professional. These sessions are scripted, practiced, and produced to capture and maintain the learners’ attention. Most sessions rely heavily on audio, so the audio must be well-prepared to be engaging.

Whether you’re considering training in the virtual classroom or via other emerging technologies, one of the most important steps you can take to ensure the success of training is to find out how to use these technologies to effectively engage and teach learners. Make sure your training always focuses on the learner.

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