As I wrote earlier, if you're a service provider, then people matter most in your business. I've worked forever in the services industry and as an in-house consultant, I've realised that people like working with other people. Much as we may deny it, the experience of interacting with each other in a collaborative environment is special. That's the reason social media has taken off in this age.
That said, its not enough as an in-house trainer to set up a couple of elearning modules, forums, wikis, chat rooms, etc and believe that everyone will participate. Yes, you could make courses mandatory and ensure people go through them or nail them in their annual performance reviews if they don't. That said, we know that punitive measures are never good for learning.
On the other hand, its unrealistic to assume that people will individually arrive at an unknown course page, take the course, participate in discussion, contribute to a wiki, rant in a chat room etc. We also know that with companies getting more and more global and the focus towards revenue generating work increasing everyday, its impossible to get people into one physical location at the same time. So what's the solution?
Part of making learners pull learning is evangelism. As learning professionals we need to find mechanisms to connect people, get them excited about what we're trying to teach and set them off on collective goals. The days of making people go through a 5 hour elearning module from a CD-ROM are behind us. People want to be in an environment with other people; ask questions, argue, find buddies. This is where Synchronous Learning (a.k.a Virtual Classrooms) play a part.
Introducing Synchronous LearningThe eLearning Guild defines synchronous learning as "The use of technology to enable a collection of people to learn the same things at the same time while not being in the same physical location, usually facilitated by an instructor or instructors." This is definitely not something new and the tools for this have existed for quite sometime. Its only recently that synchronous learning has become a buzzword in online learning circles.
The tools range from the ever popular Webex, to the reasonably priced Adobe Connect Pro to the free and open source DimDim. The entry barrier into the domain of virtual classrooms is almost nil. If you're a techie want to experience synchronous learning, join one of our ThoughtWorks Masterclasses. If you're a learning professional, I strongly recommend joining one of the eLearning Guild online forums to experience how powerful the virtual classroom experience is.
The anatomy of a virtual classroomMost virtual classroom features are pretty standard. What you see above is your typical web meeting software. On the side usually is a participant list and a chat area which you can use to communicate with specific participants, the presenters or everybody. There's the presentation area which carries the visuals for the session and often there are polls which simulate the QnA that would usually happen in a classroom environment.
This however isn't the only kind of synchronous learning environment you'll see. With the advent of tools like Second Life, your online learning environment could be anything you want - a coal mine, a hospital, an IT firm. You can model the environment in which you expect learners to apply their learning, via Second Life. If you have the money and the time to build a virtual world, then why not?
How to roll Synchronous Learning into your elearning coursesFor people to participate in social events, someone needs to facilitate. That person is perhaps you or a subject matter expert. I recommend that if you're introducing a new capability in your organization, you kick off people's learning with an introductory webinar. Follow that up with a mix of elearning and relevant social media, consolidate people's experience in a follow up webinar and keep repeating the cycle until you've reached satisfactory results. When you feel you've achieved your goal, you can conclude the learning campaign with a conclusive webinar which seals in the learnings from the entire exercise. This approach helps you chunk out learning and that in turn helps you treat learning as a process and not an event.
Virtual classroom best practicesAs with any tool, the reason for success is not necessarily the tool itself, but the way we use it. There are successful synchronous learning implementations and there are unsuccessful ones. Here are a few things I feel contribute to the success of a virtual classroom session.
Speaking Coaches/ Event HostsAn event host/ speaking coach for web training is often a vital cog in the presenter's preparation and eventual delivery. Ideally this person should have experience with the platform you're using, and should understand the nuances of engaging the audience in such an environment. Often the event host will coach the speaker around their materials, set them up on the platform, do a quick dry run with them, introduce participants to the speaker, set the tone for proceedings and jump in anytime there's a hiccup. The coach sets the speaker up for success!
Familiarize participants with the environmentSynchronous learning isn't new, but a lot of people are new to it. Its important that either the coach or the speaker familiarizes participants with the environment and lets them know how to participate effectively. The failure of most learning environments, virtual or not is because we assume that participants are comfortable with what we've set up.
Use polls and live chatI find these to be the most powerful tools in the synchronous learning arsenal. The reason for synchronous learning is to make people connect. By encourage them to "chat it up" while you're talking, ensures that people are not just sharing perspectives, but also building connections. These connections help set people up for using the social media associated with your course. More importantly, it helps the presenter know exactly how the audience feels at any given time. Polls too, are a great way of checking background knowledge, understanding and reactions, so use them well.
Post Webinar Learning OpportunitiesAs I mentioned earlier, learning is a process. The webinar is not the end of the story - its only the beginning. If you've spiked people's interest sufficiently, it'll be quite a dampener if they don't have anything to do with the new found knowledge. Again, what you do between two webinars depends totally on the topic, but think field assignments, online forums, chat rooms, wikis, databases, microblogs, blogs -- the list is endless. If people do things between two webinars then your synchronous learning sessions gain momentum and people learn from each other. Be sure though, to state very clearly what you expect people to do between the two events.
Package materials for Online DeliveryThink effective presentation skills. I strongly recommend Presentation Zen and Slideology as must reads for all online presenters. If you're stuck with loads to do in limited time, please read my blogpost on Rapid Instructional Design with Powerpoint. Remember your slides are only a tool. The real presentation is you! So do what you need to, so that you can put up a great performance.
Short and OftenAs with everything online, people have short attention spans. If you have 2 hours of content to cover online, then you MUST break it out. A rule of thumb I've discovered, is to ensure that no webinar should be any more than 45 minutes, with 15 minutes for QnA and a quick summary. Remember, the virtual classroom isn't the only place to deliver your learning. Its a place to excite people, to get them together and to get them connected. Traditional elearning wisdom can still augment the virtual classroom, as can social media. Bring in variety to keep people interested and ensure that you follow up on people's learning.
This is the last of my posts in The Agile Elearning Design Manual series. How did you find this series of posts? Please comment or write to me to let me know. Here's the complete set of previous posts in this series.
Problems with existing Approaches
Think Small (Iterations, Action Maps, Storyboards, and Mini-Modules
Of Project Spaces and Project Managers
The Role of Social Media