Allison Howard
Posted by Allison Howard

As the go-to marketing specialist for AirClass by Lenovo Software, Allison Howard oversees everything from analytics to events to social media — and somehow still has energy for competitive racing, traveling and putting her interior design skills to work. Current addictions include coffee, cooking and spoiling a cuddly Miki dog named Pepper Jack.

One thing is clear from the Association for Talent Development’s (ATD) annual Techknowledge conference: The virtual classroom is in. 

In the past, we’ve often heard advice for making the move from traditional to online training — which types of training to do online, when to make the switch and how to adjust expectations.

But this year? It was all about specific tools and features that facilitators can use to make online training better than ever. And it’s no surprise, considering 64% of organizations use virtual classrooms, and another 22% plan to add them within two years.

Virtual Classroom Button.jpg

During the virtual classroom track, we learned how to embrace silence, warm up with whiteboards and create compelling closers. Some speakers even told us to be extra cautious about leveraging mobile devices. (Bet you didn’t see that coming!) 

Each breakout session repeated the same general theme: Having an impact in the virtual classroom often requires a different set of strategies compared with in-person training.

Some of the tips resonated deeply; others were surprising. All were incredibly enlightening and worthy of sharing. So we decided to package up several of what we believe to be the most helpful, insightful and impactful takeaways in the form of a quick-reference guide for the virtual classroom.

#1: Be Selective With Mobile

The Session: Virtual Training for Mobile Devices

The Speaker: Cindy Huggett

Cindy Huggett

We know, we know. Being mobile-friendly is the name of the game today. But when Cindy Huggett tells you not to use your smartphone, you listen. As an industry veteran who’s been helping organizations transition to the virtual classroom for more than 16 years, she understands what makes for a truly engaging online environment.

Her advice? Even if your virtual classroom tool can be used to facilitate from a mobile device, that doesn’t make it a best practice. In addition to potentially distracting alerts, calls and notifications that can pop up on smartphones, you won’t have access to the full scope of features that you’d get on a laptop or desktop. Several of the most critical ones — such as interactive whiteboards and polls — are only available in their entirety on PCs.

There’s just too great a risk that something (or some things) will go wrong when you rely on a mobile device for virtual training.

And your participants?

“Learners who are ‘on the go’ are tempted by even more distractions,” Huggett said. “Capturing and maintaining attention is a big challenge.”

To help, try setting learners up for success by sharing expectations with them in advance of the program. “If features in the full desktop version are required for the learning, then ask or require learners to join that way,” Huggett suggests.

#2: Practice Purposeful Silence

The Session: Advanced Virtual Training: 20 Master Strategies

The Speakers: Kassy LaBorie, Karen Greenfield

Karen Greenfield

Of the many incredible “master strategy” tips shared by these experts — one from Dale Carnegie Training, the other from SAP training — two, in particular, stood out.

First, when it comes to virtual training, silence truly is golden. Though it may feel awkward at first, becoming comfortable with moments of quiet is an important skill to master in the virtual classroom.

“Practice ‘purposeful silence’ when asking participants to respond, for example, via chat or whiteboarding,” LaBorie and Greenfield suggested. “Allow quiet time for participants to think, process and respond. Then thoughtfully comment on their ideas or, instead of reading out loud what they typed, call on them to elaborate.”

If intentional silence isn’t something that comes naturally is or uncomfortable, LaBorie has some tips: “Mute your own audio. Take a drink of water. Take a big breath, and relax while you read what is coming in from the participants. Let around three to five responses come in before you unmute yourself and comment. And then, instead of simply reading their ideas out loud, call on them speak up and share, to ‘tell us more!’"

Second, remember that you’re a facilitator — not a lecturer. That means designing what participants will do during your online session, and not just what they’ll hear. So instead of presenting a slide with a bulleted list, present a question instead.

When you ask: “What is the role of a producer in the virtual classroom? Please answer in chat;” the impact is far greater than what you’d achieve by “simply showing a slide that provides the answer,” the experts said.

#3: Start Strong

The Session: Interact and Engage! Activities for Spectacular Live Online

Speaker: Kassy LaBorie

Kassy LaBorie

The main concern on everyone's mind when it comes to training online? Engagement! Although the virtual classroom makes it easy to connect with people from anywhere in the world at any time, consultant Kassy LaBorie explained, facilitators often struggle with getting everyone to interact.

How do you get participants to view your virtual training as worthy of their attention, instead of an opportunity to check email? You have to capture their attention the very moment your online session begins.

Best way to do that? 

“What you choose to do with your platform's features will make the difference in your next virtual training,” LaBorie said. "Learn what you can do to be successful in the virtual environment and avoid everyone asking for a recording or a copy of the slides five minutes into your next virtual event."

Put simply: When you start strong with a welcoming warm up, you set the stage for engagement and participation. One way to do this is by using the whiteboard, chat or another virtual classroom feature that allows you to connect a collaborative activity to the training topic at hand.

Even posing a simple question can work wonders. When in doubt, try this one: “What is the ONE thing you MUST learn during this training session?”

You’ll not only increase collaboration from the start but also prepare learners to leverage the online tools at their disposal.

#4: End Even Stronger

The Session: SCORE for Webinars: Super Closers, Openers, Revisitors and Energizers

The Speaker: Becky Pike Pluth

Becky Pike Pluth

In her popular book, SCORE! for Webinar Training, Becky Pike Pluth details dozens of virtual classroom activities proven to increase engagement, collaboration, and retention. Among the many insights, she shared at ATD TechKnowledge was this gem of a takeaway:

In the virtual environment, how you wrap up is just as important as how you start a session.

Creating a sense of community and collaboration is very different when participants are not interacting physically in a face-to-face environment. You have to make collaboration come alive — and the closing of the session is a great opportunity to do just that.

When staging your next virtual training session, set aside some time for attendees to reflect on what they just learned and tie everything together through a powerful ending — whether it’s a strong quote, a compelling story, a thought-provoking question or a call to action.

#5: Facilitate Social Interactions

The Session: Brain-Based Learning in the Virtual Classroom

The Speaker: Cynthia Clay

Cynthia Clay

If you’ve been struggling to increase engagement and participation in the online environment, Clay’s key takeaways are ones you’ll want to embrace. 

Clay covered a lot in this session, but one important insight to remember is this:

People learn from one another, even when they’re unaware that it’s happening. To ensure this collaborative learning occurs in your virtual classroom, you’ll need to build human interaction into your course content.

Designing your training session to include visuals, stories, metaphors and humor — anything that stimulates emotional engagement and encourages social collaboration — will be impactful. Better yet, ask participants what they already know so you can build on it.


What about you? What are some of your favorite ways to make your virtual classroom experiences more engaging? We’re always looking for new ideas, and would love to hear yours!

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