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Case Study: Engaging Learners in the Synchronous Distance Environment

by Kim Bahr, Rebecca Bodrero

January 23, 2012

Feature

by Kim Bahr, Rebecca Bodrero

January 23, 2012

“The goal of the distance learning pilots in this case study was achieved; learners in the distance classes had a similar experience to learners in the F2F classes. Challenges were addressed by preparing participants, designing activities for the environment, and using the environmental features to engage learners. Learners were able to establish a social presence, participate in team activities and other interactions, and access technical support as needed.”

To accomplish more with fewer resources, many organizations are turning from costly traditional face-to-face (F2F) training to alternate methods, such as self-paced eLearning and distance learning. Distance learning is beneficial for various learning events, such as semester-long academic courses, which are often asynchronous, and shorter events, such as Webinars, which are typically synchronous. Although asynchronous methods, where learners interact with content and each other on individual timetables, can provide significant advantages, some learning experiences warrant synchronous real-time human interaction.  Engaging synchronous distance learning can provide the economy of distributed learning while retaining the human element of F2F environments. In this article, we summarize the techniques we used to convert a four-day F2F course to a synchronous distance format, highlighting design considerations, successes, and best practices.

A case study in transitioning to distance learning

To reduce costs through economies of scale and minimizing travel, a learning academy within a federal agency is expanding its current programs by leveraging learning technologies. Through distance learning, the diverse talent and expertise found throughout the agency can be available to a broader audience.

To kick off its distance-learning effort, the agency chose to pilot a new course deemed ideal for distance learning because the topic is in high demand by 500 employees from multiple locations. The distance learning option, using Adobe Connect™, would expedite the training to these employees.

Considerations and challenges

The instructional design goal was to develop a blended learning course that we could teach effectively in both F2F and distance learning environments. Both an expert-instructor-led approach and synchronicity between the two formats were highly desired because the course content is highly dynamic, requiring frequent updates and practical working knowledge. The agency chose a model based primarily on synchronous distance learning, because not only could it meet these requirements, but it would also ease the cultural transition from the traditional F2F lecture format to a blended format that increases learner engagement, promotes application, and improves workplace performance. Using the blended learning approach, course activities should employ a variety of methods including group projects mimicking typical work assignments, self-paced eLearning, and interactive classroom presentations. The desired ratio of activity to lecture was 60/40. We referred to course instructors as facilitators to encourage departure from a “talking head” approach to an approach that encourages a learner-driven environment that fosters collaboration among class members.

Achieving the goal

Effective learning involves participation. Avoid using synchronous eLearning tools to simply “broadcast” from the instructor or teacher (Wenmoth 2008).

We designed the key activities of the course for both F2F and distance formats. After conducting two F2F pilots, the goals of the two distance pilots was to ensure that the learners in the distance classes had similar experiences to what the learners in the F2F classes did, and that they achieved the 17 course-learning objectives. Pilot challenges included preparing participants for the distance learning experience, executing the activities in the distance environment, and engaging the learners in a distributed situation.

Preparing participants

Participants in the distance pilots fell into three categories: learners, facilitators, and observers. Learners were both experienced and inexperienced in the course of study. Facilitators were subject-matter-experts (SMEs) and technical staff, known as a producer or host. Observers of the pilot were course stakeholders and developers, whose purpose was to evaluate and refine the course based on the pilot results. All participants received access to the environment and technical support before and during the class as needed, including live support. Participants had access to Help resources that answered frequently asked questions and assisted with environment features, such as using status icons or chat. (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Help resources provided participant support for environment features.

Executing activities

Course activities included discussions, polls, knowledge checks, and team presentations in the main room and team tasks in breakout rooms. Prior to class, the hosts, facilitators, and technical staff reviewed and practiced the timing and execution of the activities in the environment.

We modified some activities from how we executed them in the F2F pilots, enabling learners in the distance environment to focus on the content instead of the tools. For example, although the distance environment had drawing and text tools for team presentations, it was easier for the learners to use familiar tools, such as Microsoft Word® and PowerPoint®, and share their screens rather than to use the tools within the online environment. (Figure 2)

Figure 2: It was easier for participants to share their screens than it was for them to use unfamiliar drawing and text tools in the online environment.

Another modified activity was to create a mind map connecting the various roles and responsibilities in a process. In the F2F pilots, teams used whiteboards to draw their mind maps, but in the distance environment, drawing and adding text boxes, even in PowerPoint, was time consuming and distracted from the objective of the activity. We solved this problem by creating a single-slide drag-and-drop activity with pre-made objects that enabled the learners to focus on the content and achieve the objective. (Figure 3)

Figure 3: A single-slide drag-and-drop activity for the mind map, using pre-made objects, enabled the learners to focus on the content.

Engaging learners

Due to overarching requirements, the pilot classes consisted of four consecutive days of mostly synchronous training. During the F2F pilots, facilitators and learners seemed comfortable with lecture between activities. In that environment, facilitators interpreted learners’ body language to sense learner engagement. In the physical classroom, learners were able to focus with minimal job-related distractions, such as e-mail, and they appreciated the opportunity to network with others in the room.

In the distance environment, the design encouraged facilitators to use discussion as a tool for both learner participation and learner engagement. Discussion areas promoted textual interaction in support of the audio discussion. The distance environment influenced a beneficial shift in course delivery from lecture to more discussion, which not only engaged the learners, but helped with social interaction, a key benefit of F2F.

To help learners focus during the class, facilitators encouraged them to use chat and status icons and employ distance-learning best practices, such as using a headset, creating an out-of-office reply for e-mails, and posting a Do Not Disturb sign.

Host and facilitator preparation and practice in the distance environment were critical in maintaining learner engagement. This preparation enabled the class to flow at an appropriate pace and allowed facilitators to focus on content delivery and learner engagement.

Successes

The distance pilots were successful – a distributed group of individuals achieved learning objectives for critical course content. This was due to the employment of techniques fundamental to the successful implementation of synchronous distance learning, namely, creating a social presence, generating interaction, and providing technical support.

Creating social presence

Class discussions in DL [distributed learning] courses will rarely be able to provide the same visual and auditory clues to the instructor and the learners that they can receive in a classroom course. For that reason, it is important to develop social presence using other methods (Marcellas, Kurzweil, and Smith 2010).

As a pre-class assignment, we asked learners to add their information to the class roster. The class roster provided contact and work information for networking, and an opportunity for learners to introduce their presence in the class and build a community. To further promote a social presence, best practices suggest a visual roster with each participant’s photo or a map where learners can mark their location.

Content teasers (short ice-breaker-type activities based on course content) throughout the length of the class supported team building, informal content reinforcement, and learner engagement and collaboration. Normally, a content teaser in the morning served to draw in the learners. It also worked well after lunch to help refocus energies. Through collaboration and a healthy dose of competition, content teasers provided opportunities for social interaction and a little fun.

A chat window was always available, and it helped with formal and informal interaction. For example, the facilitator posed open-ended questions to the class and multiple learners responded at the same time in the chat window. The facilitator could then incorporate the answers into the presentation. Informally, when a learner had questions regarding a specific topic, another learner could provide a link to an online resource. Chat helped to maintain open communication among all participants.

Generating interaction

Virtual classrooms only work when instructors employ frequent, relevant (job-based) interactions (Kwinn 2007).

The facilitators asked learners to share their experience with a topic and used those comments (text and verbal) to reinforce content and relevancy. Open-ended questions provided discussion points to customize the content to the learners’ needs. While a typical Webinar is mostly monologue, training should include dialog.

Team activities in breakout rooms served to achieve course objectives and provide opportunities for learners to interact in smaller groups. Each breakout room had its own conference line. Learners exchanged ideas and shared accountability for the team task. Team members took turns as the team captain, leading the task, and sharing his/her screen. Team activities in breakout rooms gave learners an opportunity to share their experience and collaborate.

Knowledge checks employed diverse polling strategies, including multiple choice and multiple answer questions, chat/discussion (text and verbal), and use of status icons. This variety of interaction helped to maintain learner engagement (Clay 2011).

            A wiki served as a parking board, where learners could note questions for discussion at a more appropriate time during the class. Best practices also suggest providing a wiki or discussion board prior to class where learners could note questions and/or an applicable real-life situation usable as an example in class. Using current work challenges or examples from the learners enhances engagement, motivation, and relevancy.

Providing technical support

The Producer’s job is to be sure that the software, the content, the presenters, panelists, and speakers, as well as the participants, can get up and running and have a relevant, successful session (Hyder 2007).

For this project, numerous individuals, including agency training specialists and instructional designers, filled the role of the producer.

Prior to the class, course facilitators attended preparation sessions that provided practice working with a producer to execute activities and engage learners. Practice in the online environment was vital to the success of the project. Learning the facilitator’s resources, such as how to poll or view activities in breakout rooms, assisted with their preparation and execution of the course in the online environment.

Prior to class, we asked learners to test their system and enter the online environment. Upon entering, learners accessed a brief orientation covering distance learning recommendations and features of the online environment. We gave learners an opportunity to practice interacting in the environment, and technical support was available before and during the class.

During the class, the producer/host assisted as needed and coached all participants to perform tasks associated with course activities, such as sharing a screen for a team presentation. Quick references helped with the use of technical features. (Figure 4)

Figure 4: Quick references helped participants use technical features during class.

Best practices

Synchronous eLearning improves employee productivity by reducing travel strain, eliminating unnecessary time away from home, and connecting with learners at their point of work (rather than in unfamiliar classroom environments) (Murray 2007).

Organizations wishing to enhance their learning offerings through incorporation of distance learning methods, and actively improve the distance learning experience, could benefit from the following best practices.

Weave with asynchronous

The asynchronous learning assets provide both the means and opportunity for creating a pre-existing knowledge base. This enables synchronous event facilitators … to focus on higher-order learning objectives, within a limited timeframe, in ways in which they were not previously able to do. Adding asynchronous events after synchronous events also provides … a means to more adequately assess learning… (Chrouser 2008).

Best practices recommend dividing the class into non-consecutive days with asynchronous activities between synchronous sessions enabling learners to apply their learning and reflect on content. Figure 5 shows how you can structure a course that blends synchronous and asynchronous activities.

Figure 5: Blend synchronous and asynchronous activities within a course.

Blending the modes of delivery requires learners to be more accountable and pull the content rather than having it pushed to them. Other forms of asynchronous learning could include application activities such as:

  • Collaborating with a small group to create a mock work-product based on a case study
  • Interviewing co-workers at their location, and organizing feedback to share with classmates in a synchronous session
  • Researching answers to provided questions using organizational resources
  • Preparing a presentation on a course concept to teach at the next synchronous session
  • Performing a procedure taught in a synchronous session, and documenting the results and any clarifying questions to discuss at the next synchronous session

Promote distance learning

Communication and promotion of the learning experience are among the most effective pull strategies (Moshinskie 2001).

After defining their vision for distance learning, organizations should proactively help their customers, including stakeholders, subject matter experts (SMEs), facilitators, and learners, embrace that vision. Organizations can encourage customers to transition from lecture-based classroom training to distance learning that employs a blend of educational methods by:

  • Continuing to offer effective distance learning options. As learners and supervisors see the results from practical training that provides opportunities for immediate practice and refinement in the workplace, the demand for distance learning should increase,
  • Marketing the benefits of distance learning, including decreased costs associated with travel reductions and time away from the workplace, and
  • Providing instructional design and technical support, such as the distance environment itself and producers to aid in the smooth execution of classes.

Emphasize preparation and practice

A myriad of tips and best practices stresses the importance of technical support and practice. Learners lose their way easily when technical issues occur, or when a facilitator stumbles due to lack of adequate preparation. Establish back-up plans for environment dysfunctions or a loss of connection. Record synchronous sessions for use of learners who encounter unplanned circumstances, such as loss of power or a personal emergency. Recordings can also become learner resources, for review after the session.

Practice is critical for producer’s and presenter’s success. Successful synchronous distance programs employ a talk-radio type of delivery with a host, SME, and producer (host and producer are two different roles). The host focuses on energy, engagement, and collaboration. The SME focuses on content and provides instruction. The producer facilitates the technical aspects of the learning event. In distance learning, delivery is critical and requires significant practice.

Conclusion

We achieved the goal of the distance-learning pilots in this case study; learners in the distance classes had a similar experience to learners in the F2F classes. We addressed challenges by preparing participants, designing activities for the environment, and using the environmental features to engage learners. Learners were able to establish a social presence, participate in team activities and other interactions, and access technical support as needed. Organizations can provide high-quality training programs in a distance environment by capitalizing on the technology and applying best practices.

References

Chrouser, Kelley, as quoted in 144 Tips on Synchronous eLearning Strategy and Research (California: The eLearning Guild, 2008)

Clay, Cynthia, From Blah to Aha! Six Strategies to Engage Your Online Audience, (Webinar presented by NetSpeed Learning Solutions, July 2011)

Hyder, Karen et al., The eLearning Guild’s Handbook on Synchronous eLearning (California: The eLearning Guild, 2007) 

Kwinn, Ann et al., The eLearning Guild’s Handbook on Synchronous eLearning (California: The eLearning Guild, 2007) 

Lewis, Martyn, The Case for Live Virtual Training, (Webinar presented by 3g Selling, October 2011)

Lewis, Martyn, Moving to the Virtual Classroom, (Webinar presented by 3g Selling, October 2011)

Marcellas, Karen E., Kurzweil, Dina M., and Smith, Dale C., “Transitioning Classroom Based Learning to a Distributed Learning (DL) Environment,” (paper presented at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation, and Education Conference (I/ITSEC), 2010)

Murray, Matthew et al., The eLearning Guild’s Handbook on Synchronous eLearning (California: The eLearning Guild, 2007)

Moshinskie, Jim, Ph.D., “How to Keep E-Learners from E-Scaping,” Performance Improvement, Vol. 40 No. 6, July 2001

Piskurich, George, “Preparing Instructors for Synchronous ELearning Facilitation,” Performance Improvement, Vol. 43 No. 1, January 2004

Wenmoth, Derek, as quoted in 144 Tips on Synchronous eLearning Strategy and Research (California: The eLearning Guild, 2008)

 


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These are well-written lessons learned and best practices I’m sure many will benefit from. I will definitely be referring to this for my next blended effort.
How did you build the drag and drop mind mapping activity? Is that just a PPT slide, or does Adobe Connect offer a functionality where you can build objects to move on their whiteboard?
It was a PPT slide - isn't simplicity wonderful? They used screen share. In the first pilot, per our original design, the learners used the whiteboard drawing tools to draw mindmaps, but found it was simply easier to use software tools they were already familiar with and simply share the screen. This kept the focus on the course content and was a more efficient use of time.
Thanks Rebecca--that is a great solution. We struggled with that in a previous team. Eventually, we bought tablets for facilitators to draw on for their whiteboarding, but that didn't really help the learners. A PPT slide would have worked really well there. I wish we'd thought of it!
You are welcome. Once we thought of it, it seemed so obvious we were surprised we didn't think of it earlier. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the easiest to overlook.
I cannot tell you how timely and beneficial I found this article to be. I am currently working on a project that is eerily identical to what you described, and your article really helped to support most of the design decisions that I made for my class, and to rethink others.

I particularly liked the topic on generating interaction, and plan to take another look to see if I could do better in that regard. I’m also using synchronous elements every day of the ten day course, and now wonder if I should alternate days and incorporate more asynchronous elements as you suggested.

Thank you again, this was a great article.
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