July 2019
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July 2019
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Lessons Learned From a Virtual Classroom

I started in learning and development for a professional services firm in 2015 and was immediately staffed to an onboarding program for experienced new hires. At the time, it was a multiday, face-to-face course ranging in size from 30 to 300 participants.

Most are familiar with the energy and stamina it takes to work effectively at on-site conferences. Whether coaching instructors, tracking learners, or overseeing logistics, we are on our feet and in the mix. Often at the end of the day, our heads are spinning and our feet ache.

Last year, when we reimagined the model of the program and created a more scalable, cost effective, innovative, and virtual delivery model, I imagined that my days of sweating it out in smart casual attire were behind me (at least with regard to the this particular program).

Not so.

The days I now spend onboarding experienced new hires virtually, via a web conferencing platform, require a level of physical and mental stamina that took me completely by surprise. As I approach the one-year anniversary of this new iteration of the program, I would like to mark the occasion by sharing some of insights I’ve garnered thus far.

Timing is everything

Just like our face-to-face program, our new virtual onboarding program has a detailed agenda with topics and timing spelled out clearly. The difference between the face-to-face agenda and the virtual is the level of vigilance required.

Every slide of the presentation has a budgeted amount of time, and our team annotates the actual time and keeps an eye on the variance. Any variance over five minutes of the planned time is noted within our online group chat. (“Hey team: We’re five over.”) Anything beyond 10 minutes of the planned time, and you can literally sense the collective rise in blood pressure, despite the fact that we all sit miles apart. (“Code red! Code red! We’re 11 minutes past!”)

Why the sense of urgency? A minute in a face-to-face classroom feels like an eternity in the virtual training center. Whole lives have been lived in a WebEx minute! Anyone who has experienced a technical glitch and gone dark while hosting an important virtual meeting or class knows this. In the virtual world, every minute counts down to the tenth of a second, and learners have the time at the bottom of their computer screens, directly in their field of vision.

We value and respect our learners’ time. To date, we have never gone more than seven minutes over our called session end time. This record is far from happenstance. To stay on time takes extreme attentiveness, strategy, and ongoing communication. Try to multitask; I dare you! Look away, and I guarantee that you are inevitably a few seconds away from someone skipping over a required question. The sense of relief our team feels when we manage to make up five minutes in the final module is akin to having successfully dismantled a ticking time bomb. (Sounds dramatic, but my colleagues are nodding their heads in agreement right now.)

Written communication is key

In the face-to-face onboarding program, we had instructors fly in from different relevant areas of the firm, such as HR and finance. These same people show up to instruct now, only they get to do so virtually.


Communicating with these stakeholders in the virtual world is tricky because we rely almost entirely on online chat. What one can say with a meaningful look or a hand wave from the back of a classroom must literally be spelled out in a virtual environment.

There are many different conversations to maintain at once, while also staying on top of all that is happening in session. Furthermore, when communicating via online chat, one must account for the following:

• With a constantly rotating set of presenters, we work with people who are often new to virtual instruction and struggle with the multitasking required to communicate. This isn’t their fault; it’s hard! Teaching in a virtual classroom can be like teaching in a vacuum. Instructors are often so absorbed in content, timing, and worrying if learners are laughing at their jokes (I always tell them to assume they are), they don’t notice the pings from panicked L&D administrators. I already mentioned our feelings about time, so you can imagine why this is problematic. Without fail, whenever an instructor “goes rogue,” an image of Edward Munch’s painting “The Scream” pops into my mind.

• The potential for miscommunication is incredibly high. Have you ever tried to relay sarcasm in a text message? How did that go? What about exchanging general pleasantries and banter that cultivate positive relationships? We do our best to support our instructors and make it an enjoyable experience. That said, without the ability to employ facial expression and tone, communication has the potential to go wildly awry. Everyone has their own style in online chat communication, and it’s often hard to gauge what’s appropriate.

One must take into consideration the following in each conversation:

o If you type in shorthand, will the instructor realize it’s for the sake of brevity or will they assume you don’t fully grasp the English language? Similarly, how do you accurately assess their level of fluency in the vernacular of chat (LOL, BRB, B4N, ISO)?

o There’s always the risk of embarrassing typos. (“Your doing great!!”)

o Timing also plays a big role here! How about when you react to your instructor’s delivery in real time (“Nice one. I think the learners really enjoyed that”), but she doesn’t get around to seeing it in chat until after she shares as an aside that her cat passed away.

There’s no quick “undo” button in online chat, and you often sit staring at and silently cursing your typed mishaps for hours on end, so you must be on the top of your typing game!

Be a good understudy


Picture this: You are just coming back from a scheduled break, and your team is working frantically to track the web icons indicating that learners are back at their desks. Your virtual classroom host welcomes everyone back from break and then verbally hands the program over to your client service instructor. “And now, Jonathan, back over to you…”


Your instructor has gone AWOL. Could he be in the bathroom? Perhaps. Could he have suddenly fallen ill? I hope not. Could his wireless connection have failed? Likely; it always seems to go down at the most inopportune times. The main point here is that you have no clue what has happened. Unlike in a face-to-face course, you are sitting alone at your computer on one side of the country, and your instructor may be on the other side of the country locked in his powder room. You can’t run down the hall and knock on the door or find him standing outside taking a quick phone call.

What do you do?

Start talking! As mentioned, 10 seconds in WebEx feels like an eternity, so you better be prepared to fill in quickly. Hence, the need to know the content.

Your team has created a comprehensive slide deck and speaker notes and you should be as well-versed in the content as your instructors. A slide about finance? No problem. Queuing up the next virtual whiteboard activity? Got it. Be prepared to take charge and pitch in until one of your instructors is able to take over. The show must go on.

Walk the walk

We are serious about the mental and physical well-being of our learners, and our L&D team has found creative ways of adding wellness into our virtual classroom. At break times, we offer up suggestions for learners to do stretching exercises or tell them to check out Last quarter we incorporated a virtual exercise activity and asked learners to commit to 45 seconds of activity while we count down the time with electronic dance music.

It’s easy when you’re working in a virtual space to use a 30-minute break to respond to emails or attend to other assignments, but it is pivotal that L&D practitioners practice what we preach by stepping away from the computer at times and participating in “desk chair disco” alongside learners when instructed.

Furthermore, it’s important to stay positive as an L&D team and laugh whenever possible. After all, sometimes all you can do is laugh. When an instructor’s children come home unexpectedly or he surprises you by calling in after break from the front seat of his car, you must laugh. When a learner suddenly goes off mute and the class hears about her Friday night dinner plans, you laugh. The virtual breakout rooms don’t open, the case study simulation software suddenly goes down, a learner tries to be the next Picasso with the annotation tools—laugh, laugh, laugh. You may be sitting alone, but you are all truly in it together, so it’s important to go with the flow at times to find humor in the uncontrollable.

Though there are difficulties working in a virtual classroom, I love my job and am thankful to work with such an incredible team on an innovative program. Furthermore, I fully appreciate the challenges inherent in working on site. Happy one-year anniversary to our virtual onboarding program! I’m off to Lululemon to get some more work clothes.

Have you staffed a virtual classroom? Share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments section below.

About the Author

Cathryn Smeyers is a manager in the Learning Studio at PwC. She graduated with high distinction from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and a minor in French and Francophone studies. After graduation,she earned an M.A. in teaching from National-Louis University in Chicago. She started her career as high school English teacher, whereshe was able to put into practice education theory and principles of instructional design.  From there, she moved into higher education administration positions at both Northwestern University and The University of Chicago.

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This is so helpful. Thank you for sharing.
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Thank you for sharing this insight into the nuances of virtual classrooms. It sounds like flexibility and preparedness are two key factors in a successful session.
Thanks for the comment, Jody!
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Thanks for being open and honest about the challenges of the virtual classroom. Wondering if you and the others on your team each have specific roles during the sessions, or does everyone sort of pay attention to everything?
Hi Tom! We definitely do have specific roles - someone to annotate and keep us on time, someone to coach instructors, etc., but quite often we will play dual roles. Oftentimes, the division of duties and how many L&D administrators required depends on class size.
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