Moving to the Virtual Classroom: 8 Steps to Keep Learners Engaged

As our workforce becomes more scattered, organizations are being forced to rethink how they deliver training. While the array of solutions may vary, one trait these organizations have in common: They are scaling back or altogether eliminating classroom training in favor of distance learning. Most don’t have the experience or tools to make this move from “real-life” classroom to a virtual classroom very easily or quickly.

For this edition of Communiqué, I am joined by my colleague Dave Yakonich, Learning & Development Manager at Boston Scientific Corporation, in mapping out just a few steps necessary in transforming a classroom course into a successful distance-learning program. For this piece, we are focusing on what it takes to move an existing classroom “skills” course to an instructor-led interactive virtual classroom program. However, many of these concepts can be applied when creating a completely new virtual program from scratch. In an upcoming issue, we’ll explore what competencies are needed for those who facilitate learning in the virtual world.

  • Clarify learning objectives and performance goals. This may sound obvious, so it’s surprising how often this step is overlooked in favor of deconstructing the course content first. Are objectives the same for all participants? If you have multiple audiences, identify which people require mastery of a certain skill and which need some level of knowledge or simply a passing awareness. Create a map that lays out the learning objectives of each audience, linked to certain topic areas and content. You may need multiple modules that can be snapped together. These may take the form of synchronous virtual classroom sessions, asynchronous online sessions, independent learning, management coaching, or some combination.
  • Assess your audience. How many participants of each audience type need to go through this training, and over what period of time? How much time can we reasonably expect each audience to invest in the overall program? Those who need to master a particular skill may expect to spend 10 hours learning and practicing, while those who need a cursory knowledge may get what they need in only 90 minutes.
  • Decide which comes first – the chicken or the egg? That is, do you design your program to get the maximum number of people through it as quickly as possible? Or do you determine how much interactivity is required to achieve performance goals, and then plan how long it will take to get everyone through it? A general rule of thumb: The more real-time interaction required, the fewer the participants who can be involved at any one time. If sheer volume of participation and speed of completion is most important, you’ll still need to find ways to build in opportunities for interaction at frequent intervals to maintain focus in a virtual world.
  • Determine sequence and builds. Any kind of virtual classroom must be kept brief to maintain attention. As a result, your overall learning program may comprise multiple segments, some of which may be prerequisites for others. Clarify how the learning from one segment will feed into another. Can some participants complete a prereq other than taking a course (e.g., by reading or completing some “off-air” assignment)? How frequently and at what junctures will people need to stop learning and start applying new skills before they go on to the next segment? Will you have “homework” assignments that expand on concepts or apply new skills that participants complete between learning sessions? Build on your earlier map (or create a new one) to show the inflows and outflows of each segment, and show how they relate to each other. If these relationships are different for each target audience, show the differences.
  • Create a level playing field from the word “go.” Making sure that everyone has the same level of familiarity with the topic at the start of your virtual classroom session can chew up a lot of time, and it doesn’t have to. Find ways to ensure a level playing field beforehand by determining what type of prework will help ensure that all will derive maximum benefit from this program. For example, can you ask some to review certain material or take a computer-based instruction session in advance? Make sure to explain why prework is essential to the overall learning experience, and be prepared to remind participants several times. Make any assignments specific and realistic, otherwise, people may not take prework seriously.
  • Evaluate what type of interaction will contribute to the learning process. For example, are real-time conversations critical, or can asynchronous online participation (either during the session or at another time) also be an effective way to interact? Interaction can also take place independently, such as by providing participants with a workbook in which they can record or reflect what they’ve learned, either before, during or after the sessions. Small-group interaction can also be encouragedatany time. Think through the best combination of interactions that will best accelerate learning and make it stick.
  • Apply tools creatively. The learning experience can be compromised by limitations imposed by certain technology tools. Let’s use a “spork,” that handy three-in-one eating utensil as a metaphor. You can eat certain things pretty well with a spork, but tackling a big bowl of noodles would be a lot easier with a combination of just the right tools-namely, a fork and spoon. Same for virtual collaboration tools. Some do a few things pretty well, but few do many things very well. Some make slide sharing easy, for example, but don’t enable effective group brainstorming. Breakout sessions are possible with some and others not. Consider the best way people will learn each skill or task, and be prepared to exploit the capabilities of a combination of tools to the fullest extent. Find someone who’s really conversant on the capabilities of each tool so you don’t have to become an expert (unless you want to!).
  • Accommodate a variety of learning styles/preferences: Consider how job functions, titles, cultures, learning styles, demographics, and other variables will play into your design and delivery methods. It’s true we can’t please all of the people all of the time, but we can make some well-informed best-guesses as to what’s likely to work for most people most of the time. You may also have opportunities to offer some either/or choices, such as reviewing a few book chapters or joining a peer roundtable or listening to a podcast to learn more about a particular topic. If conversation is a central piece of the program, make sure that you offer at least a couple of ways people can converse, such as via phone and online virtual conference room.

While slide-heavy webinars may be the most typical way organizations serve up virtual learning, they are almost never the most effective. Designing and running an engaging virtual classroom experience is a complex undertaking that takes a special kind of knowledge, brand new skills, and many times, trial and error until everything clicks just right. But the alternative – a virtual learning experience that saps energy and drives people to tend to their email—is far more costly.

Check out our ezine articles: Better Performance in Troubled Times Through Distance Learning and Eight Essential Ground Rules for Great Virtual Meetings.


Wondering how I can help?

Let’s schedule a 30-minute meeting so we can explore how to work together to address your most pressing challenges.

Find Articles

Recent Posts


Sign Up Today to Get Free Tips for Creating a Level Playing Field Across Your Virtual, Hybrid Team