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ATD Blog

Avoid Learner Distractions During Online Training

Thursday, October 29, 2020

As so many of us are spending our days on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or some other form of video communication, it’s easy to be blasé about it. But if you’re an online presenter, it’s important to consider how the video experience is affecting your learners.

During her session “Top Five Principles for Incorporating Instructor Video Into Virtual Classrooms,” Diana L. Howles, CEO and co-founder of Howles Associates, offered guidance for this new literacy of being on camera.

Howles first pointed out the video frame, the space that others see during online trainings or meetings. That space subconsciously sends the message to the viewer that “everything in this frame is important.” Learning can be affected when there are distractions in that space that take them away from what the instructor is trying to convey.

Before delving into her tips, Howles posed the question of whether the instructor should be on camera at all. Several years ago, the quality of video was generally poor, so it was not unusual to have a static picture of the presenter. But today we have effective video, she continued, and the gains of being on camera include increasing the learner experience as well as the level of perceived connectedness and presence. But that doesn’t mean that a presenter necessarily needs to be on screen all the time, Howles noted.

The five principles for being more effective, as Howles outlined, are:

  1. Minimize distractions in the video frame.
  2. Adapt instructor movement for the video.
  3. Establish an on-camera presence.
  4. Improve the video’s technical quality with small adjustments.
  5. Be on camera when the focus needs to be on the instructor.

To highlight potential distractions, Howles showed a static depiction of the video frame for an instructor facilitating a course on emotional intelligence. Attendees chatted about what they noticed that was distracting, among them an open closet door to a crowded, somewhat messy storage space; the presenter being off-center in the video frame and truncated at the top of her neck; and in general too much space in the frame above the presenter’s head.


A second picture showed a gentleman in front of a fireplace with a plant on the mantle piece. To viewers, it appeared as if the plant were growing out of the presenter’s head. Other faux paus include sitting below a ceiling fan that is operating, making it look like the facilitator was wearing a giant rotating hat.

You can easily remedy your background when facilitating, advised Howles, either with a virtual or blurred background that many video technologies offer or by purchasing a physical screen for your office space.

She continued to demonstrate images of presenters who were offering less-than-an ideal learner experiences. One example was the positioning of the camera so that the presenter was looking down into the camera. That means learners are looking up to the presenter, an intimidating stance. Instead, presenters should be at eye level. You can do that by raising your chair or, if need be, sitting on a book or something to elevate yourself when presenting.


Contrasting the background and foreground is another important tip to remember. Either light on black or black on light, Howles recommended, and to prove her point, she showed a distracting “floating head” of a presenter wearing dark clothes against a dark background.

Throughout the remainder of her session, Howles offered more in-depth looks at the remaining four principles. Using her tips, especially presence, can actually lead you into honest conversations with attendees, making it feel as if you’re together. Because, after all, we are all in this together.

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About the Author

Connection Point is the daily news source written by ATD staff for the ATD Virtual Conference, relaying news, session coverage, and other updates.

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