Let's review the common features available in most virtual classroom software programs.

We'll briefly discuss each tool, its common uses for virtual training, and any unique characteristics to be mindful of when using it.

This is not an exhaustive list of all features - just the ones regularly used in virtual training. You should double check with your software program to discover which features it has, what is unique about the tool in that program, and if any software updates have changed its functionality since this book was written.

Sharing documents

Sharing documents is one of the most commonly used features in a virtual class. The trainer uploads a file into a viewing window and all participants can see it. When the trainer navigates through the document, moving from one page to another, the participants' screens follow along (see Figure 1).

Source: Adobe product screenshot reprinted with permission from Adobe Systems Incorporated

Common uses: Almost all virtual training classes use document sharing to display Microsoft Office PowerPoint slides. In addition, other documents, such as training manuals or pages from the class handout, also can be displayed. Most programs can share Microsoft Office documents (Word, Excel, or PowerPoint), plus Portable Document Format (PDF) files. Some programs allow media files to be shared using this feature.

Unique characteristics: Some programs have participant privilege settings that give the participants free control over viewing the shared documents. This means they could move to a different slide than the one everyone else is viewing. Other programs give you control over whether or not participants can print the shared document. Check to see what privileges your attendees have for viewing shared documents.

Most virtual classroom software programs have a "Sync" or "Synchronize" command that can be used by the presenter to synchronize all participant screens. In other words, if participants are viewing different parts of a shared document, clicking on the Sync command will bring everyone together.

Check for file compatibility with the virtual classroom software: first, that the file type you wish to share can be uploaded, and second, that the version (such as Microsoft Office 2007 versus 2003) of the file you wish to upload is supported by the software. Note that some virtual classroom software programs use the document-sharing feature to play audio or video files. In some programs, you simply open the media file as a shared document. Other programs require you to embed the media file into a PowerPoint slide using a proprietary add-in.

Chat

Chat enables you to communicate with participants through real-time typed messages, similar to an instant messenger software program. Chat messages can be public so that everyone sees the note, or sent privately to one individual user.

Private chat allows a participant to communicate directly with the host and/or the presenter. For example, I was delivering a virtual class and one of the participants sent me a private note explaining a personal reason why she wasn't able to complete an in-class assignment and requested that I please not call on her to share her answers to it. Private chat also allows participants to chat with each other. For example, two participants in a training event could communicate with each other by sending messages back and forth in the chat window. In some virtual classroom programs, this conversation would be completely private. Other programs allow the host to see all private conversations.

Common uses : Chat enables you to engage participants during a training class in meaningful ways. The trainer can invite participants to send feedback, ask questions, and make comments during the program. The chat window can be a running commentary throughout the session.

To increase participation during a discussion, a trainer could ask a question and direct participants to respond in the chat window. This method allows everyone to respond and get involved with the discussion.

The chat window can also be useful for the trainer to pass messages along to the participants during activities. For example, during a breakout session, the trainer can use the chat window to give timing reminders (such as "three minutes remaining" or "it's time to begin Round 2"). Private chat could also be used to create a "paired" discussion opportunity in class. Similar to a classroom session where a trainer says, "Turn to the person sitting next to you and discuss your response to this question," a trainer in the virtual classroom could direct participants to have a private chat.

Now, of course, private chat between participants opens up the possibility of them passing notes back and forth between each other, perhaps commenting about the training or their experience. While some trainers shy away from giving participants this type of control, I prefer to allow learners full access to the chat room and encourage them to communicate any way they wish.

Unique characteristics: Rules about private chat vary from program to program. In most programs, the host can choose whether or not private chat is allowed, and if it is allowed, whether participants can privately chat with each other. If your participants include non-native language speakers, extra time may be needed for chatting answers. Some participants do not type as fast as others, which may also affect the timing of chat responses.

In one of my virtual training sessions, we play a trivia game on a topic related to the content and award points to the first person to correctly answer the question. Participants were directed to answer questions via chat. Interestingly, the first name that appeared on my chat window was not the first name on others' chat windows. So when I announced the winner, everyone erupted in protest. We discussed it and decided it was due to Internet bandwidth, although it could have also been user error on my part. We joked about it and turned it into a lighthearted event and learning experience, but it was a good lesson learned. In future sessions, I changed the directions and process for awarding points.

Annotate

The annotation tools allow for real-time "drawing" on top of shared documents or a whiteboard. Annotation adds visual flair to your screen. Annotation also focuses participant attention to specific areas of the screen. The exact annotation tools available vary from program to program. However, most allow you to

  • draw lines and other shapes
  • draw freehand with an electronic pencil or marker
  • type text on the screen
  • highlight words.

Common uses: The annotation tools help keep the screen visually interesting when the trainer "highlights" key words while speaking. For example, if the trainer displays a Microsoft Office PowerPoint slide with words, she would use the highlighter annotation tool to select words of importance.

In most virtual classroom software programs, participants can be invited to annotate the screen. When they are able to draw or mark on the screen, it helps engage them into the learning content. For example, during a group brainstorm activity, the annotation's text tool can be used to add text to a slide or whiteboard.

Unique characteristics: Check the participants' privileges to ensure they have (or can have) annotation rights. Some programs allow participants to annotate the screen if the option is selected. Other programs only allow presenters to annotate the screen.

Also learn how the eraser works. Find out who is able to erase what. Are you able to erase just your own annotations or all annotations? Find out the participants' privileges for erasing: Can they erase only their own annotations or all annotations? Are participants able to erase the presenter's annotations? If all annotations can be erased, be aware that this may affect one of your planned activities if someone accidentally erases all the marks on the screen.

Whiteboard

A virtual whiteboard is similar to a classroom whiteboard or flipchart. It's a blank screen that can be typed, written, or drawn upon using the program's annotation tools.

Common uses: Whiteboards are used for brainstorming and other class activities that engage participants. Although the whiteboard screen starts as a blank page, the trainer can set it up ahead of time by adding drawings or other marks for an activity.

For example, in one of my classes, we ask participants to brainstorm a SWOT analysis - Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats - using a whiteboard exercise. Prior to the class, I use my own annotation tools to draw two lines to make the grid, and type in the labels: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. At the appropriate time in class, participants are asked to type in suggestions on the screen.

Unique characteristics : Check to see how many whiteboards can be open or shared at one time. If you plan to use more than one, see if you can rename the whiteboard for easy reference during class.

Check the participants' privileges to ensure they have (or can have) annotation rights for the whiteboard. Also check to see if there are any limitations to how many participants can annotate at one time. In addition, be sure to find out how the eraser tool works for both the presenter and participants.

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Polling

Polls allow the trainer to ask survey questions in real time to participants. The questions can be multiple choice, multiple answer, or, in some programs, open ended. Poll questions need to be initially created and then administered during the class.

Creating a poll involves typing in the question and all possible responses. Administering the poll means sharing the poll at the correct time, opening it up for responses, closing the response window, and then sharing results with participants.

Common uses: Polls can be used to survey participants in an unlimited number of ways. For example, a trainer delivering a class on adult learning techniques who has just finished an activity for the participants to discover their own preferred learning style, may poll the class to find out their results.

Poll questions can also

  • quiz participants' knowledge and understanding of a topic
  • generate discussion using opinion questions
  • solicit feedback from participants.

Unique characteristics: Some virtual classroom software programs allow for multiple questions in the same poll. Other programs limit each poll to one question only. Therefore, plan the sequence of your poll questions accordingly. Some virtual classroom software programs allow you to create polls ahead of time and store them as separate files that can be uploaded to the classroom when needed. In other programs, you may need to type in the poll questions and answers as part of your day-of-class setup.

Raise Hand/Change Status

Participants have the ability to communicate with the trainer by changing their status or raising their hand. When someone clicks on this command, the trainer sees a small icon next to the participants' name indicating their status.

Common uses: This feature is often used for responding to closed-ended questions and quick yes/no polls. For example, a trainer might ask, "Who has seen this feature before? If you have, please 'raise your hand.'" A trainer could also inform participants that raising their hands is one way to ask a question during class. When someone clicks on the "raise your hand" option, the trainer will call on him or her to speak. In the virtual classroom software programs that offer more options than just raising your hand, this feature can also be used for more advanced polling. Participants can choose to agree or disagree with a statement, or respond "yes" or "no." This feature could also provide pacing feedback to the trainer (such as "speed up" or "slow down").

Unique characteristics: In some programs, only the host and presenter can see the status change or "vote" of the participants. Other programs allow everyone to see the hand raised or status change.

Breakout Groups

Breakout groups mimic small group activities in the face-to-face classroom. If the trainer wants all participants to divide into smaller groups to complete a learning exercise such as a skills practice or brainstorm activity, then the trainer would assign participants to a breakout group.

For example, a class with 15 participants might split into three teams of five people each. In the virtual classroom, it's the same thing: The trainer would divide the class into smaller groups and then activate the breakouts. Participants move into a virtual private meeting room where they only hear their private conversation. They can share documents and whiteboards among themselves and collaborate together. The trainer has the ability to move in and out of the breakouts, just like he or she would walk around the room in a face-to-face session.

Common uses: Breakout groups can be used to practice skills learned during the training event. For example, if the class learns techniques for how to start a coaching conversation with an employee, the individuals could practice those techniques in a small group setting. In a practice breakout, one participant could practice the new coaching skill, another participant could be on the receiving end of the practice, and a third participant could be the silent observer. The participants could then rotate roles, each having a chance to practice the new coaching skill.

Another common use of breakouts is for small group brainstorming. Different groups could discuss different aspects of the same situation, or they could each discuss a different situation. You could even have the groups all discuss the same situation and then compare notes afterward. In addition, any time you need to maximize participation, you might consider using breakout groups. These private collaboration sessions involve every participant because it's much tougher to "hide" in a small group. In other words, if you assign three participants to complete a group task versus assigning 15 participants to complete a group task, participants in the smaller group may be more likely to engage in the activity.

Unique characteristics: The audio choice in use during the virtual event will dictate how the audio functions in the breakout. In other words, if you are using the virtual classroom software's VoIP integrated audio, then when you create the breakout groups, the audio will automatically update. Participants in a small group will only be able to hear each other, as if they were on their own private line. However, if you use a separate conference calling line for the audio, then participants will need to manually move into their audio breakouts.

The number of breakout rooms available depends upon the virtual classroom software you're using. For example, Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro currently has a limit of five breakout rooms at one time. On the conference call provider I use most, I sign into the conference call as the moderator and press *21 to activate the audio breakout groups. Then when it is time for participants to break out, they press # and their group number on the telephone. At the end of the activity, they press ## on their telephone to rejoin the main line. As the moderator, I can press #0 to "force" everyone back to the main group.

Application Sharing

Application sharing allows trainers to open up their computer, specifically a certain software program, web browser, or desktop, to the participants. Trainers select which application will be shared, and then participants will visually see it on their screen. When the trainer navigates through the program, participants follow along.

If the trainer shares her desktop, then the participants will view the trainer's computer, including all keyboard typing, mouse movements, and switching between programs. If the trainer shares a web browser, then the participants will see the trainer navigating the Internet. If the trainer shares a software program, then the participants will see just that one program.

The main difference between sharing your desktop and sharing just an application (either a software program or a web browser) is that when you choose to share your desktop, participants see everything. They will see your desktop's wallpaper, icons, and everything else you do on your computer. This feature can be useful if that's your goal. However, it is too revealing if you only want them to see one software program or just your web browser window.

A separate but related feature available in most virtual classroom software programs is a shared remote control. A participant can be given control of the mouse pointer so that they can navigate and edit in the shared application. This can be useful during software training when you want a participant to gain hands-on experience with the program. The participant can use the remote control to practice a new skill learned. However, most programs only allow one person to be in control, so large classes might not benefit from taking turns one at a time.

Common uses: You could use application sharing when you need to display a file that is not supported by the virtual classroom program's document sharing. You could also use application sharing when you need to edit documents during class. For example, if you are demonstrating how to enter text into a file, then you would need to have the file open in editing mode, which is another way to think of application sharing. Perhaps the most common use of application sharing is when you are conducting software training in the virtual classroom. With application sharing, the software program becomes visible to all participants.

Unique characteristics: There is often a lag time between the time the trainer selects the "share application" or "share desktop" command and when the participants see the trainer's screen. During this pause, let participants know that it might take a few moments so that they don't think something is wrong with their screen. Some virtual classroom software programs distinguish between desktop sharing, application sharing, and web browser sharing with separate tools for each. Other virtual classroom software programs combine these options into one command.

Getting It Done

It is critically important for you to know your software tools inside and out. A unique characteristic could be that the tool is only available under certain circumstances. For example, the annotation tools may not be visible to participants if they have not been granted privileges to use them. Or, the "assign breakout" command might only be available after you have clicked on a participant's name.

Mastering your virtual classroom software means knowing every command and when each command can be used. Mastering the software also means knowing it from the presenter's perspective and from the participant's perspective. The participant's screen will not look exactly the same as yours. For example, the participants may see a "raise hand" button, while the presenter sees a "make presenter" button in its place. As the host or presenter, you will often need to teach participants how the virtual classroom software works, and therefore, you need to know it from their point of view.

Finally, it's not enough to just read how tools work in an online help screen or user manual. You have to try them out yourself. There may be an undocumented quirk, or something about the feature that works in a way you didn't expect it to do so.

Cindy Huggett has spent the last 18 years in various training, consulting, and learning management roles. She currently owns an independent consulting practice (www.atrainerslife.com) and is also a Training Performance Consultant with AchieveGlobal (www.achieveglobal.com).

She co-authored two ASTD Press Infolines, "Simple, Effective Online Training" (January 2008) and "Designing for the Virtual Classroom" (November 2009). She has also contributed to the The Trainers' Warehouse Book of Games (Pfeiffer, 2008) and the forthcoming The Leadership Challenge: Activities Book (Pfeiffer, 2010).

This article is excerpted from her latest ASTD book, Virtual Training Basics (http://store.astd.org/Default.aspx?tabid=167&ProductId=21153).