Lately the adjective “virtual” has become popular in the learning community to describe an array of services, many of which have little to do with holograms, ill-defined structures, or instant answers and a lot more to do with leveraging technology to structure learning activities that simply join learners with a network of knowledge.
But when discussing the term “virtual,” the conversation often gets lost in the fog of technology speak, operating systems, configurable interfaces and cool apps. The intent of this analysis is to define virtual learning, offer practical approaches to deliver training and provide a perspective on free, available resources to facilitate continuous, virtual learning (VL).
As I looked for a good definition of VL, I found many; most seemed overly complicated and complex. But as you sift through the various perspectives, a definition emerges based on identifying a consistent set of operational features:
- Web-based access to a classroom or meeting.
- Shared materials including images, videos, documents and Microsoft PowerPoint.
- Synchronous interaction via tweets, instant messaging, polling, and discussion boards.
Engagement is encouraged, as this is a collaborative environment. Therefore if we integrate these thoughts into a practical explanation of virtual learning it might sound something like “learning in a real-time, online classroom designed for active participation and sharing of information.”
Although that definition seems broad, realize that virtual learning, like a good recipe, is nuanced by the ingredients and preparation process you employ—industry, audience, timing, topic, and the technology involved. Regardless of the mix of ingredients and process used, the event delivers an individual learning experience where you can get as much out of it as you choose to put into it.
Another important feature is that because almost all virtual learning can be recorded, it becomes the gift that can keep on giving; recording a session greatly adds to virtual learning’s efficiency, productivity, and cost effectiveness. In fact, it’s quite common to record the lecture portion and then marry that to a live chat session allowing the main talent like a an industry guru, rock star CEO or passionate customer to present once but reach many later via recording. Rerunning the marquee talent’s message supported by an active team of live, subject matter experts discussing the presentation can create an impactful learning episode.
VL Program Elements
Based on that definition, it is likely that you may have already managed, participated in or presented at a VL program. Putting a VL program into practice requires a bit of structure and generally involves elements that are common to most business environments:
- A program overview detailing a target audience, learning objectives and intended outcome of the event.
- Investing in a technology platform such as Cisco WebEx, Adobe Connect, AT&T’s Web Meeting Service, GoToMeeting, or Microsoft Live Meeting that can deliver the classroom experience while providing engagement tools for document sharing, collaboration, chat and polling.
- A subject matter expert to assemble text, audio, or video content.
- A production plan or script that defines roles, such as designation of a presenter; a monitor who will observe chat and other interactive activities and prompt the moderator; and a moderator who acts as the host and is responsible for polling the audience , asking them to share inputs, or who takes screen control.
- An assessment of the program to “rate the class” and possibly a brief exam to determine the effectiveness of knowledge transfer.
- A marketing plan to promote the event and provide complete and current information about the program’s content and benefits.
The tools outlined above are familiar to most business environments, and the process elements represent a practical approach to hosting almost any meeting, regardless of the subject matter. The goals are to educate, entertain and engage the audience. A smooth-running production that conveys valuable information, offers two-way communication and is easily accessible from remote locations represents the key ingredients to VL success. By following an established process and delivering a quality event you will do much in developing a brand and reputation for your VL programs.
In an attempt to remove a financial challenge from decisions to use VL, recognize that there are free options. Some of these online meeting services come with attendant client software installations, while others might require a separate audio/telephone bridge and the bandwidth requirements may be a consequent challenge for your IT network. As specified above, there are a number of services from major players such as Adobe and AT&T along with smaller players like anymeeting.com and vyew.com. Most offer a time- and/or user-limited free trial while others more generously provide an ongoing free ride but only for a limited number of seats.
All the meeting services provide the option to trial their platforms with most features enabled so you can determine what works best for your audience and your goals for a VL experience. Each system offers rules of engagement but, for the most part they are quite similar and relatively intuitive, so moving from one environment to the next is may not be a dramatic shift in process or experience. All systems encourage collaboration, content sharing and a private workspace. As a practical approach, organizing a test session or two before producing a larger live event is encouraged as the troubleshooting is left to you as the host – read that as you take on the added role of tech support. So practice can make perfect or at least be in close proximity.
Moving from traditional meetings or conference calls to VL is a leap for both the moderator and learner.
Encouraging participation starts with establishing the savings and benefits in cost and time. Those are the obvious benefits but there’s so much more. The environment levels the playing field so it can better address the disruptive participant who might successfully hijack a live meeting by interruption, body language or topic shifting. The VL platform provides the moderator the advantage of control with tools like “view-only, protocol with “hand-raising” and forced communal activities like polls. The bottom line is that VL creates a platform for cross-classroom participation. Those attendees that are slightly more tech savvy may have an upper hand in capabilities of sharing and can lend support to a fellow student a bit overwhelmed by the technology, or even assist the presenter who has encountered a technical snag, so learning the system can become a true group sharing activity.
Don’t forget to make this VL house a home.
Make the experience an inviting, memorable and unique learning experience. The goal is not to displace traditional methods but to validate VL as a viable option for delivery. To build enthusiasm for VL, personalize the environment by having everyone snap a picture with a webcam so they see one another’s faces. Include lots of visuals as this can feel a bit more like watching an interesting TV show and it offers the ability for the presenter to personalize the experience. Often simply seeing the image on a person’s desktop (child, object or landscape) tells you much about them and provides you a clue as to their interests; images can tell and sell stories.
Engagement is a critical success factor so build participation by encouraging screen sharing and other techniques.
Focus the engagement on key learning objectives and use polling to build consensus and establish a quick level set of attendee attitudes and beliefs. Furthermore, engage the audience by seeking volunteers to lead sub-groups in separate “team rooms.” All of these techniques and tools can bring out the best learning engagement in people and make them look forward to a VL experience.
Hopefully, this overview has demystified virtual learning and has provided a basis from which to plan and implement a VL experience within your organization. Let VL become another training tool in your learning delivery solutions.
Douglas Dell is senior vice president of eLearning Services for Crawford & Company, managing the KMC on Demandlearning platform and Crawford’s continuing education (CE) business serving the insurance industry. His responsibilities include technical development of CE compliance software and management of the Property Technical Certification (PTC) program. Dell is a board advisor to the Atlanta chapter of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) and a member of the business and management faculty of the University of Phoenix.