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ATD Blog

Meeting Human Needs in the Virtual Classroom

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Training participants often log into our virtual classrooms ready to passively observe a monologue. It's up to us to create the kind of learning environment that shifts them from passive to active learners.

As you prepare to deliver an online training experience, think about the human needs of your participants: the need to be included, the need to feel safe, the need to be right, the need to be competent, and the need to be appreciated. More importantly, think about what a skilled virtual facilitator should do to meet those needs. Let’s take a closer look at each need.

The Need to Be Included

Many of us want to feel that we are a valued member of a group. As a virtual facilitator, break down the feeling of anonymity and strive to include everyone in the session.

Arrive early to your online session. Create a warm, friendly online learning environment that welcomes people, rather than a formal, stuffy event that screams "Don't step out of line on this webinar!" Use people's names when you read or debrief chat comments. If the group size is small enough, invite people to elaborate on their chat comments by having them unmute their phone lines and talk with each other.


The Need to Feel Safe

It's tempting for any participant to lurk in the background. To make it safe to participate actively in your virtual classroom, spend time prior to the workshop orienting people new to your web conference platform in the use of the online interaction tools. Make sure everyone is comfortable using chat, emoticons, annotation tools, web cameras, and polls.

The Need to Be Right

There are some people who pride themselves on their intelligence and experience. You'll recognize them because they may contradict your key points in chat, or constantly add their two cents in chat or over the telephone. The key to meeting this need is to acknowledge their expertise aloud. You might say, "Inderjeet, you clearly have a great deal of experience in this area. I hope you'll continue to share your perspective in chat. It's great to have another point of view." Then choose when to read Inderjeet's chat message aloud or when to let it speak for itself without your comment.

The Need to Be Competent

To make these participants feel at ease, as you design an online learning experience, include application activities where participants can try out models and techniques in small steps. If you are training them in the use of a software application, for example, chunk down the process steps, demonstrate each step, and let everyone try them out on their own. Allow individual volunteers to demonstrate mastery of the process steps in the web workshop.

The Need to Be Appreciated

People with a need to feel appreciated or recognized often engage in helping activities during the online session. Of course, this is OK as long as they don't monopolize your attention. The path of least resistance is to acknowledge them with a genuine "thank you". If someone is volunteering to share an example for the third time, you might say, "Ben, thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I really appreciate it because we all benefit from your examples. I'd like to open this discussion to people who haven't shared their examples yet."


When we are facilitating in the virtual classroom, it can feel as if we are not as connected to participants as in the face-to-face classroom. But the truth is, people log into the virtual classroom with the same human needs they bring to an in-person event. As you read the clues to their motivations, you'll become a more effective virtual facilitator.

If you’d like to learn how to facilitate engaging virtual learning, plan to attend my session, Captivate and Accelerate: Ensuring Results in the Virtual Classroom, at the ATD Core 4 conference in Anaheim (session TH301 on Thursday, March 14, at 1:30 p.m.).

About the Author

Cynthia Clay is the CEO of NetSpeed Learning and the author of Great Webinars: Interactive Learning That Is Captivating, Informative, and Fun. Her company helps people increase their effectiveness in virtual work environments.

Her company provides instructor-led virtual programs that help employees and leaders communicate effectively, resolve conflict, serve customers well, and lead effectively in the virtual workplace. They also work with clients who are transitioning from the face-to-face classroom to interactive, blended virtual learning. Cynthia is a passionate advocate of brain-based learning and works with training professionals to apply stellar practices in the virtual classroom.

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Cynthia: Several years ago, I took your NetSpeed Virtual Facilitator course. You advice today is as helpful as it was before. Thank you!
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Several years ago, I facilitated online learning. The course lasted several weeks via an hour-long class. One best practice that made a huge difference was scheduling one-on-one time with each participant (usually 50 people per course) to understand their motivation, their concerns about upcoming changes and anything else they wanted me to know. It helped increase learner engagement for the rest of the sessions. It was a great way to build trust within a virtual learning environment.
I totally agreed. I also used to call my students by phone and have an intro and middle conversation.
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