Designing Engaging, Interactive eLearning for the Virtual Classroom: Cindy Huggett, CPLP

Written By

Pamela Hogle

February 22, 2017

Cindy Huggett advises eLearning practitioners on choosing and using virtual classroom technology. She is the author of The Virtual Training Guidebook: How to Design, Deliver, and Implement Live Online Learning. Her next book, due out in the summer, will discuss designing and facilitating engaging virtual-classroom training. Huggett is a frequent presenter at eLearning Guild events. We spoke in January about converting in-person training to successful eLearning. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pam Hogle (PH): Many of our readers are new to eLearning and might be moving from face-to-face to eLearning. You’ve done a lot of work around that transition, helping people do it successfully. What are the first or most critical steps an instructional designer or instructor needs to take?

Cindy Huggett (CH): It’s so much more common to convert a classroom program to online than it is to start from scratch, so it’s a great question. It is a common question, and my answer is a little bit untraditional or perhaps not what you would expect.

I believe the very first step is to remember everything that you already know about what makes really good training. I think that people, organizations, trainers, designers think, ‘OK, I’ve got to design for this new modality, so what’s the first step? … What’s the process to follow?’

The very first process to follow is the one you already know. Design is design. Adult attention spans are adult attention spans. Adult learners are adult learners. You’re still trying to meet a business need, solve a business problem, get results; it just so happens that technology can help you reach an audience that maybe you didn’t reach before. It’s a different type of modality. That’s really step number one: remember everything you know about good design and adult learners.

Once you remember that—I’m going to talk specifically about the virtual classroom, live, online synchronous, facilitator-led—the next step is to start asking yourself: What of this belongs in that online classroom? Of all the content I have, of the eight-hour program, or the three-week program, or whatever length of time it is—what needs to be done with a facilitator versus what of this can they do on their own? What can they read? What can they watch? How do I chunk this program into segments, into components that make the most sense for learning? That’s really the next step; step back and look at your big-picture design from the lens of, ‘I already know what makes good training; I already know what makes a good learning experience.’

Think about, ‘How can I leverage the technology?’ Not: An eight-hour classroom program means an eight-hour online program. It doesn’t translate that way.

What can they just read? So that, when we come together, with the facilitator and other learners, we need to talk about it or we need to practice or we need to do hands on. That’s where you’re going to get the best value and the best benefit from it.

The question then always comes up: ‘But my learners don’t do stuff on their own. What do you mean, have them read it and then show up?’

Well, you always start with an in-person component. … Session one is: What we are going to do; what’s the program? What are you expected to do? Here’s the platform. And then you make an assignment. So, think of it a different way.

PH: It’s not so different from planning for in-person teaching. But much of what is, or has historically been, taught in person doesn’t need to be.

CH: True. Let’s think of an example; an organization that’s going through some sort of change that’s going to conjure up emotion. Some people don’t like it; they might resist it. So, even though it might be something that people could learn on their own, because of the attitude around it, you might want to do that in the in-person classroom or the facilitated online classroom. A new system implementation—people don’t like the new system, they resist it, they like the old way—so even though they could do a self-paced tutorial, you’re going to bring them together to just help with that.

That is why I recommend starting with stepping back. The first step is not, ‘OK, let’s take this PowerPoint slide deck and start thinking about how to convert it or think about how to throw it online.’

No; the first step is remembering what you know about good design and adult learning and then looking big-picture—holistically—at the whole program: What makes sense to go online? How do I chunk this down? What I’m seeing is short, mini- or micro-sessions. So you are wanting to think about chunking this down; from there, you can start designing individual sessions.

The other thing I want to say is about the length of a program.

Imagine something like a roller coaster ride. At the beginning, you pop into your seat and they put the seatbelt on. Some of my favorite rides are the ones that start Pow! And you go 60 miles an hour in five seconds, and you’re like, ‘This is gonna be fun.’ But you can’t be on a roller coaster for an hour. There’s a limit to the amount of time that you can be in that hyper-sensitive, hyper-engagement, hyper-interactivity.

I think of a virtual class like that. You’re not going to do that for three hours straight. If you happen to have three hours of content, you’re going to do 45 minutes of content and then take a 10-minute break. And then you’re going to do 45 minutes and take a 10-minute break. I mean, you’re going to chunk it down—at least, you should. Because if you are hyper-involved as a learner—we want you to be involved in your own learning, but we also know that, just as human beings, we need down time, we need reflection time, we need time to process, we need time to learn. And so it’s stepping back and looking, big picture, at what you have and knowing that, in shorter chunks, we can be really engaging.

The final thing that is related: Think about something that interests you for hours and hours and hours on end—maybe it’s binge-watching your favorite TV show on the weekends. You can be engaged in something for a longer period of time, if you’re interested in it.

So thinking about it overall—the learning topic, the training program, whatever it is we need the learners to learn: Do they know their buy-in, what’s in it for them? Hopefully, that’s being communicated ahead of time or as part of the program, and they’re really seeing it. And the design and the facilitation are matching up with that relevance; I think that’s important, too.

PH: If you don’t have a facilitator or producer, if you’re designing a virtual session that you will conduct all by yourself, do you do less interaction? Do you plan it differently?

CH: I don’t. It is a best practice to have a producer. I highly recommend it, and if you think, ‘But I don’t have budget for it,’ think of all the dollars you’re saving by doing virtual training. You can outsource; you can find producers; you can get technical experts to join you, even for the first 15 minutes—there’s all different ways you can get producers.

If you think you can’t get a producer due to costs or other restrictions, you can! Get creative and find a way.

With that said, OK, so let’s say you still don’t have a producer. I have facilitated many, many, many sessions without a producer. What do you do?

I don’t do any less interaction. I don’t do anything really different. I prefer to use a platform where I can set as much stuff up in advance as possible. Some platforms that are very popular out there are ‘perpetual classrooms,’ like Adobe Connect. You can set up the breakout rooms; you can set up all of the technology so that, when you go to facilitate, you can just click from layout to layout to layout.

With other platforms, you can’t set that up in advance. You are literally running it on the fly, or you’re logging in an hour early to upload things. So, if I know I don’t have a producer, I try to make sure that the platform I’m using is one that’s a little easier to run without a producer. [See “Five Questions to Ask When Choosing a Virtual Classroom Platform” for more guidance on choosing a virtual classroom platform.]

And then I might get some of my participants involved. If I need somebody to scribe, who from the group is going to do it? You take some of those producer roles and you ask your learners to help with them.

PH: Is there any difference in the way people should create learning objectives for the virtual versus the in-person classroom?

CH: None. Learning is learning is learning. It doesn’t matter what modality you have. If you’ve got a learning objective, that’s what people need to do on the job. It shouldn’t change, no matter what the modality—whether it’s live online or self-paced eLearning. The learning objective is what the learning objective is.

PH: Are there any common mistakes or pitfalls that people should be aware of and avoid when moving from in-person to virtual?

CH: There are a couple of them. One of the benefits of online platforms—and it’s true of all online platforms—is that you can put a lot of people into a virtual class. You can put 100 people, 300 people, 500 people—1,000 people. They fit. Just because you can put that many people in a virtual classroom doesn’t mean you should. I hear from trainers and organizations all the time when I say that. They say, ‘Can you please tell my manager that?’ Organizations look at it as economies of scale. But what happens is, it’s not the same learning outcomes.

You would not think of an in-person class and say, “OK, this is designed for 15 or 20 people, this management development program where we’re going to do skill building and role-playing and coaching from the facilitator; let’s invite 100 people because we can hold this class in the local auditorium.” You just wouldn’t do it, and you shouldn’t do it online either. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, if you’re looking for the same outcomes.

Where you’re going to find the economies of scale is when you’re doing a presentation. So many managers and business executives—they don’t recognize the difference between training and presentation.

The other common mistake is switching from training facilitation and getting into presentation mode. Designers do it because they don’t recognize the tools or they don’t learn all the tools that are available in the platform. They don’t realize they can do all the things you can do. Facilitators tend to err on the side of presentation because they can’t see the audience. There is silence, so they just keep talking. Participants do it; they think, ‘Oh well, they can’t see me, so how do they know I’m surfing on Facebook on my second monitor?’ Everybody does it, and it’s a mistake. It’s not making the best use of the platform and what we’re able to do with it.

PH: Anything else that you would like to share with our readers?

CH: I think it’s already been said, but just the idea of getting to know the technology and not being afraid of it, and remembering that it is still learning. Those are two of the key messages that are important to keep in mind.

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