Remote learning is here to stay. Even after the pandemic is over, organizations will likely continue offering virtual learning and development opportunities. Not only does remote learning provide substantial cost savings, but it is also convenient, flexible, and more accessible. However, simply moving a face-to-face class into a virtual platform—without rethinking the design—is a sure path to boring training that doesn’t get results.
First Things First: Remote Learning Is Different
In my work as a consultant, I’ve seen organizations try the “quick and dirty” way of converting traditional training to remote learning. They slap the same PowerPoint slides they use in the classroom into a virtual meeting tool and present the information the same way. It doesn’t work. They end up with participants in front of a computer screen listening to an instructor lecture at them for hours. It’s a painful experience for everyone.
In a face-to-face class, participants escape their day-to-day job responsibilities. The facilitator can control most of the distractions and easily see when participants need clarification or a break.
In a virtual class, participants may be in a cubicle with many things competing for their attention—from coworker conversations, to emails popping up, to their supervisor interrupting with inquiries and requests. Or they may be attending from home, with other distractions such as helping children with their own remote classes.
The energy in virtual class is also different. Think about how different it feels when you watch a concert on TV compared to going to the concert live (ah… remember those days?) It’s just a different vibe, and it’s similar for Zoom vs. an in-person class.
Don’t get me wrong. Remote learning can be every bit as engaging and effective as a face-to-face class. As with other learning experiences, it takes strategic design and expert facilitation. Here are five tips for planning and designing remote learning.
Tip 1: Be Strategic About the Design
Good learning experience design is intentional, considering the needs of the learners in your session and the best ways to teach the content. Here are some guidelines for strategic design of virtual learning:
- Use virtual instructor-led sessions only for content that requires interaction. If you are converting an existing instructor-led class that’s lecture-heavy, consider a “flipped classroom” approach. Provide eLearning and/or recorded lectures that learners complete as prework. If you’re able, use discussion boards so participants can interact with each other during their prework activities. Then participants can attend the remote facilitated sessions to discuss what they learned and put it into practice. This approach saves valuable class time for interactive activities such as facilitated discussions and small group exercises.
- Break up long modules into multiple sessions. Try to keep your training sessions to under two hours, with sessions scheduled for different days. Netflix marathons aside, most people don’t want to sit still in front of a screen for hours on end. Spacing the learning sessions also helps manage cognitive load and increase retention.
- Use more slides with less content on each slide. Limit each slide to one main idea, making sure they pass the glance test. Try not to spend more than a couple of minutes on each slide. Frequently changing the visual input helps maintain interest and engagement. However, don’t change slides too quickly, or participants with slow connections might miss out.
- Plan for interactivity. Build in discussion questions and other opportunities for interaction every few minutes. (More on this in the next tip.)
Tip 2: Change It Up
Try not to speak for more than a few minutes at a time without some sort of interaction with participants. Try sprinkling various types of activities throughout your session, such as these:
- Share a poll question.
- Ask a “raise your hand if” question.
- Share a whiteboard or graphic that participants can annotate.
- Have participants answer (and ask) questions in the chat.
- Ask participants to use emojis to answer a question or react to what you’ve said.
- Check for understanding frequently, asking participants to raise their hands if they have a question and/or checking the chat panel for questions.
- Use breakout sessions to allow participants to discuss a scenario, solve a problem, or complete an activity.
Tip 3: Have a Backup Plan
If there’s one place you can expect Murphy’s Law to apply, it’s a virtual class. Any time you are using technology, you should be prepared for “what if” scenarios such as these:
- What if a facilitator loses connectivity? Whenever possible, have two facilitators present in the session. Each one should be prepared to present any part of the class in case the other experiences technical difficulties.
- What if an update is pushed out to the virtual platform? Always test functionality before class. This is one reason it’s important to arrive early. Plan alternative ways of conducting activities.
Tip 4: Don't Try to Do It All Yourself
It’s a good idea to have a producer (assistant or cohost) like my friend Kate available during virtual sessions. This person can help monitor the chat, manage polls, and resolve technical issues for participants. (Plus, Kate has the uncanny—perhaps superhuman—ability to be lively and cheerful early in the morning.)
Practice with the producer ahead of time, so it is very clear who’s doing what during the session. Privileges vary by role for different virtual meeting platforms, so it is important to identify the appropriate roles to assign for each moderator, facilitator, or cohost.
If you’re a facilitator or content expert, consider involving an instructional designer when planning for your class. This is especially important if you’re converting* an existing face-to-face class to remote learning.
*Soapbox moment: The term “convert” is a misnomer. It’s not like saving a Word document as a PDF. Changing a traditional course to remote learning requires thoughtful redesign.
Tip 5: Get Ready for Your Close-Up
Unless bandwidth is a problem, use a webcam to allow participants to see your face and make a personal connection with you.
- Test your audio and video before class. Enlist someone to join you for a dry run. Use the same Internet connection you’ll use for the class (i.e., hardwired vs. Wi-Fi, VPN or not). If possible, plug directly into your modem for the strongest signal.
- Use a headset for audio if possible for higher quality sound. Be prepared to use your phone as a backup if needed. Don’t skip the sound check.
- Position your camera at eye level so it frames your head and shoulders. If using a laptop, you may need to elevate your computer. Participants should not see your ceiling* or up your nose.
- Use good lighting. The light should face you, positioned just behind your camera if possible. Lighting behind or to the side can cast harsh shadows. Lighting changes throughout the day, so do some tests at the same time as your class.
- Look at the camera as much as possible. This makes participants feel as if you are making eye contact. Position your speaker notes or participant video as close as possible to your camera.
- Find a comfortable teaching position. If you prefer to stand, ensure that the camera angle works, and don’t pace. If you sit, don’t slouch. It may help to place a small pillow behind your back. Don’t rock or rotate your chair.
- Rehearse! Record yourself presenting the class. Watch it later to identify areas for improvement, not only in your presentation, but also in your lighting, audio settings, and background.
*Bonus tip: Please turn off ceiling fans. They can cause a strobing or flickering effect that can be troublesome or even dangerous for participants with vestibular or seizure disorders.
Using the five tips presented here will help you design and prepare for more engaging and interactive remote learning.
Want to Learn More?
Next week, I’ll share five facilitation tips for more engaging and interactive remote learning.
Here’s an interesting article about How to Launch a Flipped Classroom.
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What do you recommend when designing and planning remote learning sessions? Leave a comment below!