If your organization is like most, you have a wealth of face-to-face classroom courses that you wish to convert for delivery in a virtual classroom, an inexpensive and quick-to-develop form of eLearning. While this is clearly possible, it does take some effort. Here are some tips that will help you manage this process.
Analyze your existing instruction and your audience
The first three steps in the conversion process are to edit, focus, and plan.
Put your instruction on a diet
Virtual audiences will not sit through a long instructional segment. Most major television national news stories are only two to two and a half minutes long, and local pieces get only 30 seconds. Strive to make your virtual instruction modules about 45 to 60 minutes long. Do not make your modules less than 20 minutes. Attendees tend to feel that anything less than 20 minutes is trivial and not worth their time.
Analyze your audience
You need to determine how many participants will attend, who they are, specifically how the instruction is relevant to them, and their history regarding the topic. Also, be very clear about what you would like attendees to do because of your instruction, such as buy a product or fix a software glitch. Then focus your virtual instruction on what is most important to them, so that you can achieve the goal that is important to you.
Create and complete a virtual instruction planning form
Sit down with your instructional assets (e.g., handouts, web links, and media) and determine the quality of your materials. Are they serviceable? If not, you may as well start from scratch. If they are, create an instructional plan that clearly identifies what you intend to do, when you intend to do it, and what virtual meeting or instruction tools you will use. I recommend that you document your plan in a chart identifying each of the above elements for every topic.
Carefully design your virtual curriculum
At this point, you have analyzed your existing face-to-face instruction and the audience for your virtual instruction. You have also created a planning form to guide your efforts. The next step involves several design decisions.
To chat or not to chat?
When you are presenting to large audiences, you may prefer the control that you have when you use chats. You or your producer/moderator can determine which questions or comments you display and respond to. You may also decide to group and answer them during a natural break point in your instruction.
Who can talk with whom?
Designers often believe that all voices deserve to be heard during discussions. That works fine with small audiences. With larger audiences, however, it creates anarchy. In those cases, provide attendees with the ability to ask questions or make comments through the producer/moderator. You may also wish to provide participants with the ability to chat with other attendees on a limited basis.
Webcams are an interesting idea, but can you really live with them?
You may be enticed by the ability of others to see your shining face, but do you also want them to see you reading your notes? Will you always look your professional best? Think about it. Also, webcam feeds can run painfully slowly. As webcams get better and Internet connections faster, this limitation will be less of a concern.
Will more be merrier?
For larger and longer training modules or courses, consider using one or more presenters, or even a panel. Be sure to provide (or do a “quality assurance” review of) each presenter’s materials. As best you can, make sure that the presenters rehearse alone and that they participate in at least one dry run all together (virtually or face-to-face).
Where can you plan to be spontaneous?
Do you really think that Ellen DeGeneres, Jim Carrey, and Tina Fey do not work at being spontaneously funny? Well, think again! They do. You can seem spontaneous only when you are meticulously prepared. Sure, you can improvise from time to time, but only when you have a wealth of routines nailed down that you can draw upon at will. As an example, most late-night hosts have prepared lines that they use when they fumble or when a joke falls flat on its face. If you pay attention, you will notice at least one of these events during every monologue.
How can I get attendees to stick around until the end?
Hold back some useful content, such as a job aid, pocket chart, or timely article, and distribute it at the end of the module. Let attendees know that you will be doing this. Try to make this last-minute gift very “wow.”
Where can I find additional materials for my instruction?
The answer is “just about anywhere.” These materials can include audio testimonials, quick yet professional video demonstrations, collaterals, and graphics. Besides using your existing materials, I recommend that you speak with people in sales, product management, marketing, and a variety of other technical and corporate departments (e.g., human resources, safety, and facilities) for materials that are appropriate to your virtual instruction.
Meticulously develop your virtual curriculum
With your analysis done, and your planning form and current curriculum assets in hand, you can begin to modify your face-to-face instructional materials to support virtual training.
Here are a few activities that will make your virtual classes resonate.
Increase the number of slides in your instruction
Break up key points into individual slides, and find graphics that emphasize and complement your verbal remarks. Since you are not there in person, the more visual stimulation the viewers have to hold their attention, the better. In addition, breaking up the key points means that learners will not be staring at the same content for extended periods. However, consider the following point.
Use less text and more graphics in your slides
Stop using your slides as an outline. Remember to design your slides so that they are visual and telegraphic. Get over the feeling that you must use text or that you need to use full sentences when you do use text. When you are creating or revising slides, they should look more like signs than like paragraphs. They are aids for your attendees, not a crutch for you.
Transfer detailed information to handouts
Large amounts of text, data, graphs, URLs, or other reference information should be included in handouts that are separate from your slides. Make your instruction about the value and use of the content, not about the content itself. If a listener cannot actively use the data while listening to you, the data does not belong in the presentation.
Get rid of extraneous graphics and video
Do not use cute visuals that are not critical to your message. As important as it is to hold your audience’s attention, your visuals and video presentations should be more than just eye candy. A simple visual theme, such as a timeline, can be helpful. Make sure that the graphics and videos that you employ serve a purpose. Otherwise, get rid of them.
Reformat your slides to make them easy to read in a smaller area
Use high-contrast colors that allow the reader to easily see the foreground text and read over the background. The area in which you display your slides in your virtual instruction is small, and your slides need to be completely readable.
Reorganize your instruction, placing the most important information up front
Because virtual instruction tends to be of shorter duration than face-to-face instruction, you should ensure that the most important points come early. Identify slides near the end of your instruction that you can skip if you are short on time. It is better to eliminate content than to rush through it in a panicked attempt to jam everything into a time slot. If you do elect to leave out information to meet your schedule, do not call attention to that fact. Let attendees think that you had always planned to deliver exactly as much information as they heard or to have them do exactly what they did do.
Use web conferencing features wisely
If your web conferencing software supports them, small and subtle animations can be useful in focusing your audience’s attention. For instance, you might use animation to add an arrow pointing to a key item on a slide. Avoid the temptation to add repetitive and distracting animations. You can also use annotation features in your web conferencing or virtual instruction software to quickly draw lines, arrows, boxes, and other highlights “telestrator style,” pulling your audience’s focus to the screen and synchronizing their attention.
Do not make your attendees wish they had a pillow
Sitting quietly and staying fully focused is tough enough in face-to-face training under the gaze of all your colleagues. Doing so when you are alone with plenty of distractions is much harder. It’s your job, as a facilitator, to keep your attendees tuned in to what you are saying. Add rich interaction and variety to your instruction, so that your attendees stay engaged.
Plant and you will reap
Prepare planted questions for each important topic. Your producer/moderator can use these questions to seed discussions and question-and-answer sessions.
Make life easy on yourself—be prepared
There are many more ins and outs to a virtual instruction learning experience than to an in-person one. You want to double-check to make sure that you square everything away before you get started. Place copies of your media in one folder. Create files of polling questions, planted questions, and URLs labeled by when you will need them.
Small can still be beautiful
The presentation window on attendees’ screens will be much smaller than the attendees are accustomed to in a meeting room or standard desktop presentation. To make sure that your presentation is still effective, you need to take a few precautions, including testing that your presentation is readable when you resize the main slide area to 50 percent.
Use simple backgrounds, fonts, and colors in your content
Complex backgrounds may look cool, but they distract attendees’ attention. Too many fonts and colors begin to look amateurish. Stick to a couple of fonts and maybe three “related” colors. Use font sizes of 30 points or more. You may be able to go as low as 20 points in a pinch, but never below that. Do not use shadowed type styles because they do not translate well into most virtual meeting services and applications. Utilize labels and directional cues (e.g., arrows or boxes) discreetly and well. Simplify, simplify, and simplify some more. Avoid using builds. The meaning of a click changes when you use a build. This increases your chances of making a mistake during the instruction itself. You can always fake a build by using multiple slides. Design the last build first, and then work backward by deleting selections.
Create a quick and dirty instructor’s guide
This should be the shooting script for your instructional presentation. It should include the following:
- Handouts of your presentation with two or three slides to a page
- Talking points on the right-hand side where they are easy to see
- A completed virtual instruction planning form
- Carefully scripted notes for your introduction and ending; this will help you begin your instruction forcefully and end with a bang.
Plan to update and simplify your materials as you gain more experience conducting your virtual instruction.
Converting classroom training to virtual instruction is an organic process that merits ongoing refinements by content-development practitioners. Temper it with your own intelligence, and enhance it with your own expertise to make it work for your organization.