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