Cindy Huggett, CPLP, is a pioneer in the field of virtual training. She’s been providing virtual training solutions since the early 2000s, and is a recognized industry expert in teaching training professionals how to design and deliver interactive online classes. Partnering with clients, Cindy helps them transition from face-to-face to virtual classrooms, and works with them to design online and blended learning solutions. She is the author of numerous articles and three books on virtual training, including Virtual Training Tools and Templates: An Action Guide to Live Online Learning and The Virtual Training Guidebook: How to Design, Deliver, and Implement Live Online Learning.
As part of our series of interviews with experts to mark ATD’s 75th year, we spoke to Cindy about trends in virtual training and skills practitioners need to succeed.
ATD: You’ve written several books on virtual training, can you share some of the must-have skills for professionals who design virtual learning? Will any new skills be more important in the future?
CH: I believe there are three must-have skills for professionals who design virtual learning. The first skill is the ability to engage a remote audience. You might think of this as a skill just for facilitators, but really the best virtual learning starts with an effective, interactive, and engaging design.
The biggest benefit of virtual learning is that participants don’t have to leave the workspace to participate in the learning event. On the flip side, that’s also the biggest challenge. For starters, designers need to remember to do things like involve the audience from the very start. They need to set expectations with learners that the course will not be a passive event and they are going to be asked to be involved. What’s more, designers need to know the best ways to use the tools at their disposal to engage that remote audience.
The number 2 skill goes hand-in-hand with first skill: be tech savvy and willing to learn the specific technology. Platforms are consistently evolving, and designers need to stay current on the technology that the L&D field is using to deliver virtual learning. That means learning all the tools and features that are available within a platform and how they can be used. Even more, it means learning how to get creative with those tools.
Finally, the third must-have skill is to be digitally literate. This is related to being tech savvy, but there’s also a communication component. The best designers and facilitators of virtual learning are able to communicate well in the modern, digital world. This ranges from knowing what to include in messages and how best to phrase information, to knowing when to turn webcams on or off. I think this ability to combine technology know-how with communication skills will only grow in importance for our industry.
ATD: What are some of the common pitfalls designers of virtual and blended learning face? Do you have any favorite tools or hacks for overcoming these stumbling blocks?
CH: I’m so glad you asked this question. There are several common pitfalls designers run into. The first—and biggest—issue is that many designers forget there is a difference between virtual, online presentations and virtual training classes. Virtual presentations, which we typically call webcasts or webinars, are for information dissemination, and are generally delivered to large audiences. But virtual training classes really mirror their in-person counterpart. Generally, these are delivered to much smaller audiences, and need to offer much more interactivity.
Unfortunately, some designers make the mistake of taking a small, interactive in-person class and turn it into a lecture when moving it online. That’s a design issue. Just because we can put hundreds of people into a virtual classroom doesn’t mean we should.
Instead, designers need to be intentional about how many people really belong in a specific training class, and how they can make it interactive and engaging—so that participants can learn, so they can practice new skills, and so they can get feedback. I find that too often we blur the difference between presentations and training classes when we move online.
The second pitfall is that designers need to be intentional about what belongs in a facilitator-led virtual classroom versus what we can ask learners to do on their own. If you’re going to have a facilitator who just lectures (in other words, who shares information and does not involve participants), why not make that a recording? Make that an asynchronous, self-directed element of a blended learning program. Then, bring in the facilitator and participants together for things that require a skills practice or would benefit from Q&A and dialogue.
ATD: Let’s change gears a bit and take a broader look at the industry. Are you noticing any trends or developments that may shake up online learning in the next five years?
CH: I believe two trends are positioned to make a great impact on online learning. Number 1 is that we are moving to shorter and shorter chunks of learning. That’s not necessarily a new trend, but when we look at it in the context of online learning—specifically, facilitator-led, live online classroom—we see that number decreasing significantly. For instance, many years ago, it was common to see two-hour to four-hour virtual classes. By 2012, a typical virtual class was 90 minutes. And I did a research study last year of 330 global virtual learning professionals and found that length of time for most courses had decreased to one hour, and more people than I expected said they were holding virtual classes that were just 30-45 minutes in length. And this trajectory is likely to continue.
This leads to the second big trend: mobile. Emerging research shows that people and consumers are using mobile devices more than desktops and laptops. How does this relate to the virtual classroom? If learners are connecting with their facilitated, live, online learning through a mobile device, that has huge implications. For starters, many platforms have different features available when someone is using the app version than if they are using the desktop version. Think about that from a design perspective. Perhaps a participant using mobile isn’t able to use the whiteboard drawing tools or join a breakout group.
This means designers have three choices. Number 1, they can educate learners and organizations, telling everyone that in order to join a certain class, they need to be on a desktop or laptop. The second option is to let the chips fall however participants decide to join—laptop, desktop, tablet, smartphone. In this case, the facilitators need to be educated on the different versions and how to handle learners who may not be able to participate in all the activities. For example, if a learner cannot use the whiteboard function then the facilitator needs to be ready to let the learner type in chat and paste the content into the whiteboard for them.
Or, choice number 3 is to only design for delivery via the mobile app version. In this case, designers need to educate themselves on such visual design considerations as font size and color, functionality issues like slide/swipe design, as well as which interactivity features are most appropriate. This option also means educating learners that they still need to be in a suitable place for learning.
Clearly, thinking about how participants use mobile devices to connect is going to have huge implications. Once the platforms progress—and the mobile versions are the same as the desktop versions—we’ll have other design choices to make and education to do.
ATD: How do you prepare yourself and your team for evolving and new technology?
CH: I am a voracious reader. I read everything I can get my hands on. If there’s a topic I’m interested in exploring—for instance, if a platform comes out with a new version—I will intentionally seek out information. I may try to get my hands on new reading materials and take the time to go deep so that I feel comfortable with whatever new technology before using it.
To help me organize the information, I do a couple of things. I also use online reader tools to help me find key words, such as highlights from new research or specific platforms. Then, that gets organized into online folders. I make sure to curate all the information that’s coming in. I use those search terms to categorize and narrow down what I’m seeking.
Outside of reading and gathering information that way, I think it’s important to be involved with and learn from others—whether that’s face-to-face meetings and conferences or via something online like webcasts where people are presenting the latest trends or research. The bottom line is that it’s important to connect with people who are interested in the same topics.
ATD: Do you have any additional advice for people coming up in the ranks? Or, any advice for experienced practitioners on how they can stay relevant?
CH: Yes! Getting involved—and staying involved—with ATD. This is everything from networking at the local chapter to attending larger conferences at the national level. As I look back on my career and the various opportunities I’ve had, almost every single one has come from my relationships—connecting with people that I meet in the companies where I’ve worked, organizations that I’ve consulted with, and people I’ve met during industry conferences and through online communities.
My advice for both new practitioners and experienced professionals is to network and connect with others. More important, remember to not just get something from these connections, but to give to others too. Think about how to give back and share information. Doing so will help you learn, stay current, and position yourself for any career goals you have for the future.
ATD: Finally, how has ATD supported your work and career?
CH: My initial involvement with ATD was with my local chapter. I believe everything in my career comes from that decision. When I realized how important it was to get involved with the L&D community, I joined my local chapter and started volunteering as a chapter leader.
Then, I discovered ATD at the national level and all of its resources and opportunities. I started networking and building relationships, and I served on several committees. I also earned the CPLP (Certified Professional in Learning and Performance) when it first came out. As an independent consultant, I saw the value in that credential.
As I think about all of my work projects and the various opportunities I’ve taken advantage of, they all come from the relationships I’ve built though ATD. I encourage anybody wanting to advance in the profession to get involved in with their local chapter or international network, as well as find ways to connect with others through ATD.