How is designing a virtual classroom different from a face-to-face course? In recent months, there has been a rush to convert face-to-face (F2F) training into live online sessions, also called virtual classrooms. All formal education moved online within a week and businesses are still finding ways to keep offering training to their employees while they are working from home. Elearning and online learning quickly became the ‘new normal’.
I have designed and developed courses and learning programs for F2F delivery as well as elearning modules. After working on the conversion of face-to-face courses to live online sessions, I wondered how much difference there is in the design between F2F and online delivery. So, let me share some of my considerations:
1. Know the videoconferencing tool
Not every video conferencing tool has the same features. Sometimes you can only see a limited number of participants or there isn’t a breakout room function or annotation feature. That might not be an issue for a webinar, but it makes a difference for the learning experience in virtual classrooms. Ensure your design is aligned with the tool you will be using or try to use another tool.
2. Attract the eyeLooking at a talking head (and your own) gets boring very quickly. So, for an online session, you need to prepare a visually attractive presentation. This means good imagery and well-designed slides with limited text. I hear you thinking: this is the same for F2F. Yes, but for online delivery you also need more slides. Preferably, you shouldn’t talk to the same slide for much longer than a minute or two to keep your audience engaged.
3. Use your slides in a different wayOnline, it’s good practice to let your participants engage with your slides. You can include stamping for dot voting or check if your participants are familiar with a topic. Annotation of slides is another way of engagement with slides. Ask participants to write on your slides their ideas, thoughts, terminology, answers, reflections etc. Don’t’ forget to save the annotated slides to share with your participants later.
4. Keep the breakouts
In F2F we like our breakout rooms or small group work, where we ask small groups of learners to work on a task together. That could be a discussion, a summary, a mind map, a presentation etc. You can still do the same in virtual breakout rooms. Just be mindful of the time. If it takes too much time out of your course, you’d probably prefer to let them work together in between sessions and discuss the result later.
5. Include more activities
Online, you need to break up the talking with more activities. It’s more intense to listen to someone on a screen than it is in a training room. Video conferencing increases the cognitive load and we need to be more focused to pick up non-verbal cues (L. Sander & O. Bauman) . Therefore, you need to include more short activities in online sessions compared to face-to-face. This could be writing in the chat, a quick discussion with open mic, a paired chat, a collaborative mind map, dot voting, annotating slides etc. The activities will keep your participants more engaged and active, especially in longer sessions.
6. Add learning journey slidesIn a face-to-face session, I usually put a flip chart up on the wall with the agenda for the day or a mind map with the topics that will be discussed. This helps the participants to follow the progress of the course and know what will be coming. During the day I tick them off one by one. You should do the same for online sessions by including a ‘learning journey’ slide at the start and repeating the slide at certain stages, showing how much you have progressed.
7. Time it wellIn an online session, you have less ‘wiggle room’. Online sessions should be short and sharp, so there is less time for ongoing discussions or going off on a tangent. As the facilitator in an online session, you’ve got less flexibility and need to be aware of your timing. Trial how long your breakout room takes or annotating a slide. Then include the timing for every slide in your facilitator guide as well as the elapsed time.
Designing an engaging and well-structured learning experience is even more important for online sessions. You might feel limited by the videoconferencing tool and the time, but I found that a lot of activities can be converted from face-to-face to online. You just need a bit of creativity and think out of the box. Please reach out when you need a hand.