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February 2018
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TD Magazine

Convert Your Classroom Training to Virtual Training

Make your classroom training content virtual-ready by following three simple steps and avoiding three common mistakes.

Around the globe and across all industries, training programs are moving to the virtual classroom. In the 10-year span from 2006 to 2016, the percentage of formal training hours delivered with in-person classroom instruction dropped from 70 percent to 49 percent, with a significant increase in online offerings. According to the Association for Talent Development's 2017 State of the Industry report, virtual classes—live, facilitator-led online programs—now make up 10 percent of all formal training programs. And the 2017 ATD research report Virtual Classrooms Now reveals that 86 percent of all organizations already are using virtual training or planning to start soon.

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What does this shift mean for traditional classroom programs? While they aren't going away altogether, many organizations are repurposing them as virtual programs. Virtual training expands the reach of your programs and increases productivity of employees who don't need to leave their desks to learn.

Moving your classroom programs online changes the delivery method, but it doesn't change the desired learning outcomes. It's still important for participants to learn and apply the new skills. So how can you ensure learning success?

Three common mistakes

Mistake number one is taking an interactive, instructor-led classroom program and turning it into a presentation-style webcast. That happens if you are short on design time or if you don't have skilled designers who are able to thoughtfully repurpose the program. While it may be tempting to just take the program slides and dump them into an online classroom, don't.

Keep in mind that you are converting a training program, not a presentation. Just because participants are dispersed doesn't mean that your live online class should be a lecture. Remember what you know about adult learning and how to engage participants. Those guidelines apply to all types of training, including virtual. Your virtual training design should be just as engaging and interactive as if it were delivered in person.

Mistake number two is thinking that an eight-hour, instructor-led class will be an eight-hour, live online virtual session. The reality is that one minute of classroom time does not equal one minute of virtual time.

Most live online classes are 60 to 90 minutes long. That means an eight-hour class would be broken into smaller chunks of time, with a mixture of self-directed and facilitated activities. Also, the activity times will differ in the online program.

When you convert in-person classes, especially lengthy ones, recognize that you often can find ways to shorten activities and economize time. While every activity may not move faster, you can use technology tools to your advantage.

For example, in an in-person class, you might have participants go around the room and introduce themselves one by one. But in the virtual classroom, participants can type their introductions in the chat window. The in-person introductions could take more than 20 minutes, while the online chat introductions might only take two minutes.

On the other hand, when showing a video during an in-person class, the facilitator can just dim the lights and click "play." But in the virtual classroom, the facilitator needs to set the stage for the video, explain how the video will play, mute everyone's telephone lines, and give instructions in case of technology issues.

Mistake number three is to inflate the number of participants in the live online class. Most traditional in-person training classes are designed for a small number of participants. Usually programs have 10 to 25 participants, depending on the subject matter and other logistics.

The temptation to vastly increase participant numbers in the equivalent live online class seems difficult to resist. But just because you can put hundreds of participants in an online classroom doesn't mean you should.

It's possible to have an interactive session with large participant numbers. However, you lose out on the small-group dynamic that's often necessary in a training class. And perhaps more important, if your training design is for a small group and you apply it without modification to a large group, you will not achieve the intended learning outcomes.

You can avoid these common mistakes when transferring your training classes to the online environment by making better choices about your virtual training design. And now that you know what mistakes to avoid, let's learn how to move your traditional training to the online classroom.

Three steps to convert

There are three simple steps to convert your traditional training classes to the live online classroom.

Start with the learning objectives. When you're ready to adapt the program, the best place to begin is with the learning objectives. Review them to confirm your answers to these key questions: What do learners need to know or do at the end of the session? What skills should they have? What changed behavior should there be? What do they need to start doing or stop doing?

Then, examine each learning objective to decide which ones belong in the virtual class versus which ones might better translate to pre- or post-class activities. In other words, ask if learners need a facilitator to help them with the task or if it's something they can learn on their own.

For example, could participants read a case study on their own and then come to the class for a small-group discussion about it? Or could they watch a demonstration video on their own and then come to class to role-play it?

The ability to chunk and break down components of your in-person program into a well-designed blended curriculum is one of the greatest benefits of converting to the virtual classroom. It provides flexibility and a better overall learning experience.

Think of your program as a set of building blocks that can be pulled apart and put together in different ways. You can chunk the class into topics or sections and then build it back together in ways that make the most sense to your participants and their learning needs

Select the best activities for each learning objective. Once you have determined which learning objectives belong in the live online event, the next step is to select the best activity (or activities) for each one.

The process of selecting activities for a virtual program is similar to the process for a traditional training class. What's different are the tools available in the virtual platform: chat, polling, whiteboarding, breakout groups, file transfers, annotating, and so on.

Some activities in a traditional training class easily translate into the live online environment. For example, a paired discussion activity could become an online paired chat activity. Or a classroom competition between teams to answer questions could become an online competition using poll questions. Or a small-group brainstorming session could become a breakout activity. And a live software demonstration could become a virtual demonstration through screen sharing.

Your use of the technology tools is only limited by your imagination and creativity. For example, if you usually toss a foam ball from one participant to another in the in-person classroom, think about how that could work in the virtual classroom. You might select the first person by typing their name in the chat window, then ask them to select the next person, and so on, until everyone has been chosen.

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Also, think about ways participants can use all of the online tools available to them. Have participants "raise their hands" when finished with a worksheet exercise. When asking questions, direct participants to respond via chat. When surveying the group, create challenging poll questions to check for knowledge or get participants thinking.

Engage participants with tools and dialogue. The biggest benefit of virtual training is that participants don't need to leave their workspace to attend a class. However, it's also the biggest challenge. Distractions abound, and participants may be tempted to multitask.

An interactive design is one of the best ways to overcome this obstacle. Create a program that engages participants at least every four minutes. Keep their attention on the screen and away from the distractions around them.

Of course, your goal isn't to keep participants busy, but to engage them in their learning. As you design for interactivity, ensure that everything in the class leads toward the learning outcomes.

Pay special attention to the opening moments of your virtual session. Within the first few minutes, participants will decide if they will stay engaged or if they will turn their attention to other things. Planning a meaningful and engaging activity within the first few moments of class will start you off on the right foot and will set the tone for an interactive session.

A few final tips

One common question is about converting lengthy, in-person classes into virtual ones: What should you do if you start with a two-week orientation program? Or a six-week in-depth technical series?

In both cases, you would follow the same process: Return to the learning objectives, select the best activities, and engage participants in the online classroom. You most likely will break the training class into many smaller chunks. The two-week orientation may become 10 live online sessions with assignments in between. The six-week technical series may become a shorter, in-person class, with follow-up virtual sessions and on-the-job coaching. Your possibilities are endless, provided you engage participants in their own learning.

In addition, remember to apply good design principles when sequencing activities in your virtual classes. Create a pattern, such as "introduce it, practice it, and apply it," that's repeated throughout the session. Use a variety of interactive exercises and creatively use technology tools to keep participants interested. By following a logical order and engaging participants frequently, you will help them learn.

Online training is an effective way to reach more learners and expand your program offerings. By following these steps and avoiding the common conversion mistakes, you will be on your way to achieving success with your virtual training classes.


Tackling the Tech

Be sure to consider the technology capabilities within your organization and of your participants when selecting activities. Some of your virtual training design will be driven by these technology capabilities (or limitations).

For example, if you want participants to watch a demonstration but their Internet bandwidth is too slow for streaming video, you might need to use another method, such as still screenshots, to show the demonstration.

Or if you want participants to practice a skill in small groups but your organization’s web-conferencing platform does not support breakout groups, you could design the training program so that small groups meet on their own after a virtual class and then report back to the large group the next time.

To ensure your technology capabilities match your training needs, partner closely with your organization’s IT department to select and implement the appropriate virtual classroom platform.

About the Author

Cindy Huggett, CPLP, is an independent consultant, professional speaker, instructional designer, classroom facilitator, and author who specializes in workplace training and development. With more than 25 years of experience, Cindy has successfully designed curriculums, facilitated classes, and led training rollouts in almost every industry and every size organization. She partners with her clients to help them transition from the face-to-face to the virtual classroom, and works with them to design online and blended learning solutions.

Cindy is the author of three books on virtual training: Virtual Training Tools and Templates: An Action Guide to Live Online Learning (2017), The Virtual Training Guidebook: How to Design, Deliver, and Implement Live Online Learning (2013), and Virtual Training Basics, 1st edition (2010). She is the co-author of two Infolines, “Simple, Effective Online Learning” (2008) and “Designing for the Virtual Classroom” (2009). She’s also contributed to several compilations, including the ASTD Handbook: The Definitive Reference for Training & Development (2014) and 101 Ways to Make Learning Active Beyond the Classroom, and written several articles for TD magazine.

Cindy holds a master’s degree in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh, and a bachelor’s degree from James Madison University. Cindy is also a past member of the ATD National board of directors and was one of the first to earn the Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP) designation. You can find Cindy sharing training tips on twitter as @cindyhugg, or on her website, www.cindyhuggett.com.

9 Comments
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Great resource!! Thank you so much!!
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Awesome, Simple and to the point article. Thanks Cindy
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Thank you Cindy for sharing the insights. You really kept me engaged throughout and beautifully covered all nuances of the topic. Like everyone else has said, the timing of the article is perfect, needed these insights and reminders the most during this phase when conversion requests are everywhere. Thanks.
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