The straight answer to what we’ve learnt is simple – it’s not as easy as it seems.
But, with preparation and a lot of creative design, we’ve seen incredible results.
Virtual training isn’t new to us. It isn’t something we started at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We began delivering virtual training in March 2019 when we launched Skills Garage. But with so much focus on virtual delivery since the start of the pandemic, we’ve learnt a lot more about how to make virtual delivery work.
The first thing we found back in 2019 was that you can’t just take what you do in the classroom and deliver it as a virtual course. It just doesn’t work. We knew this already as our brand of training – large interactive exercises, facilitated and smaller group discussions to name but a few – wouldn’t work in a virtual environment. We had to build new sessions from the ground up. And, more recently, as we brought more and more courses to virtual, we had to do the same thing again.
Another challenge we had was that in the classroom environment we had removed the use of PowerPoint from our courses. We knew we’d have to bring it back for virtual. So, we took great care over the use of PowerPoint and made sure it was used sparingly, and where it was used, the slides were as engaging as they could be.
Engaging Virtual Training
Making virtual training engaging is the key to success in my view, and there are lots of components to this. If it’s not engaging then you’re going to find your audience wandering off and checking emails, their phones etc. – it’s so easy to do when the course is online.
Engagement starts with the content. Making sure that there isn’t too much crammed in with little substance or too heavy on theory. We use a simple formula for designing courses. Highlight or draw out a problem or situation – introduce a tool or skill that will help and attach it to the problem – an exercise around the tool or skill – discussion about the tool or skill and using it the real world – rinse and repeat but changing the type of exercise used each time.
We use a number of different methods for exercises. Breakout rooms, whiteboards, Google JamBoard, video clips, audio clips, flip-chart work (yes, we do use flip-charts in virtual courses), quizzes and self-assessment questionnaires to name but a few. Anything that we can do that has the delegates involved in something is a win.
Next our visuals. We kicked out boring PowerPoint slides and made more of an effort to design engaging slides with images and animations. We wanted them to look interesting and tell a story. But, we didn’t want our trainers to get sore fingers from constantly clicking so automated these as much as we could during the design phase. We knew we could always pause them when we needed to.
All of the above is meaningless though if the person delivering the training doesn’t play their part. We really thought about how we should deliver virtual sessions, and there were a few key things that we settled on. While there is no way of getting away from the fact that its virtual training, we wanted to try and make it…well…a little less virtual.
The ideas below are not necessarily right or wrong, these are just my own views and what works for us.
- Our trainers will always stand when delivering a virtual course and not sit. We have them stand slightly back from the camera so the delegates get to see a bit of the trainer’s body language. One problem we had to overcome with this was getting access to the PC etc to do slide changes and change screen share, so we invested in standing desks that allow a BlueTooth mouse and keyboard to be operated from where they are. Really, we wanted to avoid the talking head view.
- We don’t use headsets. Nothing screams virtual more than a trainer wearing a headset. We use either boom or podcast mics out of view of the camera or a lapel mic instead.
- We opt for plain backgrounds over busy backgrounds. Yes, it can be a good area for discussion, but we didn’t want delegates distracted by trying to work out what book the trainer has on their book-shelf, what type of plants they own or who is in the picture to the left
- We still use flip-charts. It’s completely possible and works well
- We use a separate camera to the one built into the PC. This offers greater flexibility and allows us to place this somewhere that we can see the delegates and look at the camera. One common thing we found without this is that the trainer always appears to be looking down because they are looking at the delegates on the screen. We want our trainers to be staring down the camera lens as much as they can be as it gives the impression they are talking to the delegates. Where space permits, we use dual monitors (in my case I use a large flat-screen TV that has the delegates camera feeds with my camera placed in front of this and then a smaller screen with my slides and notes.
Know Your Platform
I obsessed over which platform to use for virtual training. I tried every one I could find. I worried about how comfortable clients would feel about having to download software or an app. Initially, we settled for BigBlueButton. It worked well for us but it had to be installed on a server that we looked after and updates were released every few days. That feeling of ‘what if it breaks’ when we update it was constant and the software wasn’t without its problems either.
So, what is the best platform for delivering virtual training? Easy, there isn’t one. None of them in my view have everything you could ever need. Since COVID-19 brought virtual delivery to the forefront, many of the platforms have got better. We use Zoom for no other reason that most other people are too and are now somewhat comfortable with it. We’ve also used Teams with some clients, GoToMeeting, Zoho Meet and WebEx. With a bit of time and preparation, they are all easy to master.
Will we continue to deliver virtual training? We were already delivering before the pandemic so we will continue to do so afterwards. But, with the lessons that we have learnt, we can now use virtual to offer much more flexibility, better blended solutions. We’ve got some other creative ideas in the pipeline too such as hybrid events and also we are looking at how virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality can be used in the subjects that we deliver. Watch this space!