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ATD Blog

Are You Ready to Facilitate in the Virtual Classroom?

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

You’re about to facilitate your first virtual classroom session. You’re familiar with the content, have delivered it face-to-face in a classroom setting, and have been a participant in the virtual classroom before. Surely it can’t be that hard to facilitate online.

As an ATD facilitator for the traditional classroom and the virtual classroom, I’ve seen firsthand how important it is to prepare differently to lead the virtual training experience. It has taken me many years to build up my skill set to aim to perform flawlessly in the online environment.

Whether you are about to lead your first virtual classroom facilitation or have been facilitating virtually for a while, freshen up on best practices to ensure superb participant satisfaction, engagement, and learning transfer.
Here are five best practices that are essential for a positive experience for yourself and your learners.

1. Set up your technology for success.

  • Connectivity is critical. You need a stable Internet connection, a landline phone, a backup mobile phone, and a headset.
  • Two monitors are key—and laptop ones are not ideal. Their screens are small, you cannot view the facilitator guide electronically, and they feel clunky. Do yourself a favor and splurge on the second monitor.
  • Have a backup plan for when technology fails. I have a hot spot that I can connect to if my power goes out. I have ear buds in case my headset battery runs out. I have extra batteries for my mouse in case the originals die. And yes, your technology will fail at some point.

2. Ask to work with a producer (or partner).

  • It pays to have a technical partner in the virtual classroom. A good producer allows you to focus on the content and the learner experience while they handle logistics and technical snags. I give sincere thanks to all the producers I have worked with in the past.
  • Discuss expectations with your producer before the course. Talk through how you want to communicate, ask for timing reminders, and review how the producer should handle participant questions in the chat while you are facilitating.

For instance, I communicate with my producer via text rathethan WebEx chat to keep the communication lines different from the participants.


3. Leverage interactive features.

  • Use a conference platform that allows for interactivity, like Adobe Connect or WebEx Training Center. When these tools are used appropriately, the virtual classroom experience can be as interactive as a typical classroom experience.
  • Try to include an interactive element every three to five minutes. Use whiteboard annotations, chat, agree/disagree, and emoticons. Having a balanced mix of these features sprinkled throughout the session will keep learners engaged.

For example, it could be as simple as, “Who has facilitated in the virtual
classroom before? Green check for yes, red x for no.”

  • Use breakout rooms to send learners into small groups just as you would in the face-to-face classroom.

For example, separate learners into virtual breakout groups and ask them to discuss key findings on different topics. Instead of asking learners to use flip charts, add whiteboards to virtual breakout rooms so that learners can draw, type, and annotate thoughts. At the end, bring everyone together and share the whiteboards as part of a large group debrief.


4. Use a discussion board.

  • Use the discussion board to send a warm welcome to the group with your photo before the class. Share facts about yourself and expectations for the course. Ask learners to respond with photos and similar information.
  • After each session, use the discussion board to post follow-up resources or respond to questions that you did not have time to fully address. Post discussion questions to keep the conversation going between sessions and grow peer relationships.

For example, in my instructional design class, learners share design
materials—PowerPoints, participant guides, infographics—and respond to
each other by giving and receiving feedback on the materials. Some
designers never get this type of experience in their day-to-day jobs, so they
love bouncing ideas off like-minded peers.

  • When the class is finished, post a congratulations, note recommended next steps, and create a thread for learners to share contact information.

5. Personalize the experience.

  • Try calling individuals by their first names and initiating conversations before and after class. Remember experiences and questions that learners share so that you can refer to them in later conversations.
  • Think about what you do in the face-to-face classroom and work to create that same vibe in the virtual space.

For example, I do a pace-checker activity in the face-to-face classroom
where I have a flip chart that has three circles on it:
1. Slow Down
2. Just Right
3. Speed Up.

Learners leave sticky dots to indicate what they need changed in relation to
pace. I use this same technique as a slide in the virtual classroom. Instead of
a sticky dot, learners use their drawing tools.

Another activity I do in the traditional classroom is called “one word.” I ask a
question and ask someone to catch a ball and respond with one word.

For example, “One word: What’s your favorite travel destination?”
Then, we take turns passing the ball around. I do this same activity in the
virtual chat when we return from a break. I ask each learner to reply with
one word in chat to various questions. This allows us to learn more about
each other and re-energize the room.

As you gear up for your next virtual facilitation, commit to trying one new tip or technique to elevate the learner experience. Once you master one technique, add on another and build from there. Over time, the best practices become habits and part of your normal virtual classroom preparation and execution routine.

Please reach out to me directly at [email protected] if you need further details on this content. I would gladly assist. You can also connect with me via LinkedIn!

About the Author

Nikki O’Keeffe is an internal ATD Facilitator. She is dedicated training specialist who delivers a positive, memorable, and meaningful service that repeatedly meets or exceeds the expectations of the client. She has experience creating strategies and visions to ensure training requirements and deliveries are in line with quality, probability, and client need. 

Nikki has worked in varied industries, including education, healthcare, and pharmaceuticals. In her role as the global senior training and development specialist at PAREXEL International, her focus was on managing and developing courses for new and existing staff on technical systems, process changes, new products, and soft skills.  Her educational background includes a BA in psychology from Butler University and a master’s degree in exercise science, health, and wellness from Northeastern Illinois University. Her specific areas of interest include virtual training, facilitation techniques, and mentoring new trainers. 

Nikki is skilled at providing face-to-face and online learning programs for global participants of varying experience levels. In addition to delivering training, she has performed training needs analyses to identify gaps and recommend training solutions, worked with SMEs as a consultant to develop courses and curriculums, and evaluated programs for effectiveness. 

As a certified ATD Master Trainer and certified ATD Master Instructional Designer she understands the value of solid training plans and strong facilitation. Nikki looks forward to sharing her experiences and expanding her knowledge base by learning from her participants in the upcoming ATD courses that she leads.

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Relevant and need of the hour for the virtual facilitators... thanks for sharing
Hi Mohammad,
Of course! Happy to share. Glad to hear you found it relevant in this time of need.
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Thank you for this insight! I liked the point on setting up technology and having a backup. It's crucial for delivery of the session.
Hey Elizabeth! Thanks for reaching out! Oh yes, always have a backup:) Most of us learn the hard way and then have multiple back ups the next time technology fails us. Take care!
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Great tips, Nikki! 2 questions: 1. When passing the ball, is it entirely imaginary? Or is there some WebEx feature we can use for this purpose? I find that if I don't call on people (which feels too much like school), then at first no one talks, and then after a pause multiple people try to talk. It would be neat if we could randomly select participants. Also, what's your best advice for orchestrating those breakout rooms? Tell the group, "Meet you back in the main room at 3pm for example?
Hey Amy! Yes, I use that technique too. "We will start with Amy and then Amy will select the participant that will respond next. Remember "pass" is always an option or using chat works too!"
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Heidi part 2- For breakout rooms, have them arranged/set up before the session along with a whiteboard that has the instructions that can be loaded into each room. This would include the timing. Ex: Take 10 minutes. Send them a reminder when 5 minutes remains and another when one minute is left so that they can wrap up the discussion. Email me if you need more help!
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Hey Heidi!
1. It is a "real" ball in WebEx. My producer passes me the ball to handover control. For example, if I have the ball I can advance the slides on my own. Maybe try the raise hand feature- "Raise your hand if you would like to comment, I would like to hear from one person by voice?" Then you can call on someone. Or to make it random you can go in order of the participant panel list (Round Robin). Team Shake is a great phone app I use for random participant selection.
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