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Designing and delivering live, online training

By Jo-Ann Driscoll / October 2001

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So you've decided to try some live, online training. You've bought the product and now you wonder "Where do I begin? How do I design and deliver live, online training when my experience is all in the physical classroom?"

Well, you're not alone. There are many in the training industry today who are looking to live, online training as a way to retain workers, reduce travel expenses, keep employees and customers up to date, and, in general, keep up with the rapid increase of learning that must take place to remain competitive.

To put your mind somewhat at ease, let's begin by saying that it isn't all that different.

What is live, online training?

When we're talking about an online classroom, we mean a synchronous environment with a leader and participants in multiple locations speaking and interacting with one another at the same time, much as they would in a physical classroom. Participants can raise their hands, take surveys or tests, and participate in learning activities in a number of different ways. Audio is included in some products through Voice over IP, although some products provide only the collaboration and information-sharing tools and a phone is used for audio.

What are the similarities and differences?

Our training organization has been using live, online training for over four years and our experience indicates that moving from the traditional classroom environment is not a difficult task. We train both employees and customers using this technology.

Let's look at the similarities and differences between live, online training and the physical classroom training that many of us are so familiar with.

Think of what you do in a physical classroom: raise your hand, speak to the instructor, say yes or no, participate in a class discussion, listen to lecture while looking at content, view a demo, do exercises to reinforce learning, and so on. All of these things are available to you in the online classroom as well. As a leader, you can see participants when they enter the virtual room; you can call on them when they raise their hands and allow them to speak; you can demonstrate an application and allow a participant to try their hand at performing a specific task, you can write on a slide or whiteboard, and so on.

The mapping between the physical classroom and the live, online classroom is striking and makes it very easy for both participants and instructors to make the switch. In the live, online training, you have the advantages of leader and participant familiarity with the classroom environment—something most of us have been involved in since we were quite young. The difference is that this all takes place online, without visual cues or feedback.

What are the advantages of live, online training?

The primary advantage of online training over physical classroom training is the obvious one of reducing the amount of travel both participants and instructors must do, thus resulting in a reduction of the costs associated with this travel. This advantage applies to both live, online training as well as asynchronous training in the form of computer-based training and Web-based training.

Another advantage is the similarity of live, online training to the physical classroom training thus making it easy for employees or customers to participate in live, online training sessions because they have the physical classroom experience.

Will learners accept this technology?

Based on our experience, learners are ready and willing to try this technology, and studies indicate that they learn as much as those who participate in a physical classroom. By using the Internet at their own desks, participants do not have the stress incurred with travel. They can go home to their families at night and use peers at their work site as mentors if necessary.

Is this technology replacing the classroom?

Absolutely not! There is and always will be a need for the physical classroom. Live, online learning should be viewed as an additional way to get information to participants and reduce the need for travel and time away from the job. Your instructors will find themselves teaching both physical and virtual classes.

How might I schedule live, online training sessions?

In our experience, we have found 60- to 90-minute modules to be a good length for live, online training. If the modules must be longer, a break would be helpful, just as you would have a break in a physical classroom.

There are two general types of content you might be considering: (a) an update or something similar, which would normally require only 60- to 90-minutes to cover, or (b) more complex topics which would normally require one to five days to accomplish in the physical classroom environment.

For more complex topics, you need more than one module—sometimes a series of 10 or 15 modules. Typically, organizations choose one of the following two methods for delivering live, online training on complex topics:

  1. The university model where participants sign up for a course and then participate in 60- to 90-minute modules once or twice per week
  2. The corporate model where participants sign up for a course and then participate in a series of modules over the course of two to five days. This method requires more commitment from both the learner and the learner's manager.

You may also choose a model somewhere between these two. You may choose to run three modules a day or run three modules over the course of a week, or three modules at one per week. You have much more flexibility in your scheduling than you typically do in the physical classroom environment where travel costs and logistics may dictate that students come to your location (or you go to theirs) for a concentrated length of time.

What kind of content works well and what doesn't?

Most content that you use for physical classroom is appropriate for the live, online classroom. For example, application training, new-hire training, product updates, university courses, and so on.

There are some exceptions, of course. For example, if you were teaching welding, you would want to use a physical classroom where the participant can practice under your watchful eye. Also, certain soft skills, such as interviewing techniques, where body language is important, may be more appropriate for the physical classroom. However, just as you might use video for this type of training, a combination of live, online training and video might work for those participants who simply cannot attend a physical classroom training session.

In addition, if the classroom—learning environment is being used for purposes beyond learning-such as team building—then you may want to continue using the physical classroom environment for that particular course. For example, you may have new-hire sales training to teach how to sell in your particular industry, but another reason for having that training is for new sales personnel to get to know each other and work more closely together. Part of this training probably involves going out to dinner in addition to actual classroom time. In this situation, face-to-face involvement is very important. Follow-up sessions could take place in live, online sessions.

You need to look at the class as a whole and identify its overall objective. Keep in mind that you may need to look beyond the objective written in the beginning of the student materials. If you're uncertain of a class's applicability, talk with your vendor's consultant team. They can help you decide.

How do I modify content I have already?

Let's say that you have materials you use in a physical classroom and you want to provide an alternative method of delivery for those participants who cannot attend the physical classroom. You have decided to use the live, online training delivery method for those participants. What is your next step?

First, examine the content you wish to use in the live, online training environment and look for the following:

  1. Points for interaction where you can explicitly include your participants in your session. Remember that just because you cannot see them doesn't mean that they're not there!
  2. Variety, so that you maintain your participants' attention. You don't have your body to communicate—only your voice—so you need to provide varied activities to maintain attention.
  3. Enough slides so that you do not dwell on one slide for a long period of time. When you are in front of a room, you can use your body in addition to the content to make additional points and move the discussion forward, but in the virtual environment, it is the content that advances the discussion. You can also use the markup tools available in the online environment to provide movement.
  4. Small group activity to encourage participation.

Interaction is very important in the live, online learning environment. You must keep your participants involved or other things going on in their immediate area will distract them. Remember that you do not have control over their physical environment. They may be taking a session while sitting in a cubicle where others can walk in or where the phone may ring.

For those of you who have done onsite physical classroom training, you know the distractions that can arise when the participant is in his or her own environment, rather than in a separate environment like a classroom. The live, online training environment is prone to similar distractions.

Bandwidth (the amount of data that can be transmitted in a fixed amount of time) is a major consideration in this environment. Your participants may be attending your session using 28.8 Kb dial-up modems or poorly maintained company networks. With such slow connections, it is important to consider the size of the files you are sending to them. The larger the file, the longer it will take for a participant with a low bandwidth to see that file.

You may want to have your participants download large files ahead of time while you stream smaller files. Keep in mind, however, that downloading a large file can take time over a slow connection, so be sensitive to participants' bandwidth constraints.

What do the participants need to know before taking a live, online training session?

Basically, participants need to know how to use a mouse and how to interact with a browser. Typically, they will enroll in a session through a Web site. They will also access the session through a Web site.

It's a good idea to have first-time online learning participants go through a check-in session with a help desk before they attend their first live session to get set up and increase their comfort level. This check-in session checks their audio and goes through the basic tasks a participant will perform during the event.

Most technical issues should be resolved during this check-in session so that the instructor doesn't have to be concerned with issues on the participant side during the session itself. Also, once issues have been resolved, future sessions should be pretty much trouble-free.

Audio, probably is the most common technical issue for participants. A participant may have a number of machine configurations, sounds cards, and headsets which may make it difficult for them to set up their machine in preparation for taking a class. Many of the issues are as simple as plugging the headset in correctly.

Once a participant has attended an online session, their subsequent sessions usually run smoothly.

Remember, that the leader of the session should not have to deal with technical problems during the session. There should be a help desk available for participants to call.

What kind of person makes the best live, online training leader?

When you are looking for someone to teach your live, online training sessions, you should look for:

  1. A willingness to try new technology. Some classroom instructors feel threatened by the online classroom and, therefore, are unwilling to try teaching in this environment. In order to be successful, you must be willing to try something new. Far from being threatening, most leaders find that this environment frees them in certain ways.
  2. Comfort with your training skills. If you have been doing classroom training and are comfortable in that environment, you should be able to transfer the skills you have acquired to the live, online environment.
  3. Variety in voice and intonation. You may be a dynamite classroom instructor, but now your voice must do what your voice and body did before. Your voice must express your animation, excitement, and other emotions. A monotone doesn't make it in this environment. No one is going to see the unique facial expressions or gestures you are used to making in order to get a point across.
  4. An instructor who is comfortable with the lack of face-to-face interaction for feedback and support that is encountered in the online environment.
  5. An instructor who is comfortable and proficient in delivering live, online training, and will practice with the online delivery tool. Your first project should be a class that contains material you are already familiar with. You should not be teaching new material via a new delivery mechanism.

Practice is the word. Sit in on several sessions led by other online leaders, if possible, to get tips and techniques. Practice by yourself using the delivery tool so that you can become comfortable with the tool without pressure from participants. Practice with associates who can give you tips and feedback. Record a practice session and review your delivery. Team teach with an experienced leader before you teach alone.

We have found that it takes about 20 minutes for an experienced physical classroom instructor to become proficient with the leader interface. To use certain tools may take a bit longer.

Even for inexperienced leaders, the learning curve is very short. We have had situations where the head of facilities or a 401(k) consultant have run a session. Neither of them had ever seen the delivery product before and both were extremely successful in their delivery, and excited about using the product as well!

What do you need to run the session?

From a logistics perspective, you should have a room with a door so that you can reduce the amount of noise that might interfere with your concentration. You should have your notes, pencils, paper, glass of water, and telephone (just in case you need technical support or answers to questions). It is very useful to have another computer in the room with you to use as a representative participant machine (useful when you are a new leader), a machine to record the session, or to host a remote application. Other than that, you just want to be comfortable. If that involves your fuzzy bunny slippers, then let it be so!

How do I communicate with the participants during the session?

There are actually a number of communication methods in a live, online training session. Of course, you and your participants can speak just as you would in a classroom. Typically, a participant raises his or her hand and the leader "calls on" that person by giving him or her a microphone. If the leader wants a more informal environment, they can increase the number of people who can speak at the same time.

Participants can also send chatto the leader or to other participants. This is useful if the participant doesn't have a microphone. It's also useful if the participant has a problem or has to leave early; he or she can send a chat to the leader explaining the situation and, therefore, not disturb the rest of the class.

Participants can also communicate by using yes or no buttons and laugh and applause buttons.

What goes on in a typical live, online training session?

Typically, well before the session is due to begin, the leader may send out documentation, handouts, or lab exercises to the participants enrolled in the session. They may send out a reminder notice as well.

As the leader, you should try to be the first person on the session, particularly if there are participants who have never been in an online session before. It's useful to say hello to participants as they arrive in the session in order to make them feel comfortable speaking and to check their audio before the session actually begins.

While waiting for the session to begin, you should also launch and host any application(s) to be shared, create any surveys to be used during the session, and check Web sites to be used to make sure the content is current.

Once the session has begun, you need to keep an eye out for raised hands, participants who stepped out, private chats, and so on. This is very much what you would do in a physical classroom where you are constantly scanning the room to see who has a raised hand, who looks asleep, what's going on outside the window, what your content looks like, and so on. A useful method to do this is to scan your interface in a clockwise motion every time you change to new content. Using this method, you can easily check for raised hands, stepped out participants, and chat that may have been sent to you.

It's important to set expectations for the live, online environment, particularly for the new participant. This means that if you have to check your private chat (and most of us have difficulty reading one thing and speaking something else), let your participants know that there will be a short period of time when you will not be speaking, known as "dead air." Some participants are not comfortable with this; they feel that something should be going on every minute of the session or else there must be something wrong with the technology. Make participants aware of what is going on.

What is the best way to engage learners?

As we mentioned before, interaction in a live, online training session is extremely important. Remember that your body language is no longer available to "entertain" your learners. You must put all your animation and enthusiasm into your voice and keep your participants busy.

This means lots of questions for your learners as well as activities that they can participate in. Here are some ideas:

  • Draw on slides; mark them up using the markup tools. This makes them more active. You can also use animations in your content. However, don't go overboard on animations because this can get stale quite quickly. Markups are more useful.
  • Ask participants questions—not just "Does anyone have a question?" Ask for their experiences and their ideas. Asking questions is nothing new; good instructors do it in the physical classroom all the time. Unfortunately, some instructors get online and forget that they have an audience at all!
  • Have a slide that has only one question on it. Elicit answers and ideas from participants and write them on the slide. You may want to save this slide to refer to later.
  • Think of ways in which participants can participate. Perhaps have a brainstorming session and have one participant responsible for recording the ideas on the whiteboard. Break up into smaller groups and use breakout rooms for brainstorming or small group work.
  • Share an application and have various participants work the application while you guide them.
  • Provide games and activities. One participant might play the game while other participants use the yes or no buttons to cheer them on or to tell them if they are getting "hot" or "cold." Find Web sites that provide games that participants can play individually.
  • Provide lab work if you are teaching an application. Participants can work alone or in pairs to complete a task.
  • Provide job aids or case studies that participants can print out through the live, online training session and refer to through the session.
  • If the session currently exists as a physical classroom session, sit in with a good instructor and see what goes on during that session to get some good ideas. Write down what questions are asked of the learners and what activities take place. Bring those back to your live, online training.

Some Conclusions

It's not difficult to move to live, online training from a physical classroom environment. Just as with any new endeavor, however, you must market the new training delivery methodology and encourage participants to try it as a new way of learning.

As human beings, we tend to go with what we are used to—in this case, physical classroom training. This is the most comfortable because it is what we know. For some people, if they cannot sit in on a class, they figure that they cannot learn the content.

You must not only be a leader of online sessions, but you must also be a leader in the marketing of the new technology as well. Let people know that it is available, how easy it is to access, its advantages, and so on. Let people know that they could be home with a sick child and still be able to attend the class. Get them excited about it! Show them how excited you are about it!

Some organizations have a rollout where they send headsets, "Online training session in progress" signs, and registration information to everyone in the organization to make them aware of the new training delivery method. Other organizations have used posters, e-mails, and other marketing mechanisms. Use consultants from your vendor to help you with ideas on your marketing approach.

Live, online training can be a lot of fun for both the leader and the participants and it's not a difficult transition for either.

So, relax, put your headset on, put your feet up, and start training!


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