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From Crisis to Opportunity - Live Virtual Training is prime for Center Stage

COVID-19, the Coronavirus, has erased business as usual, at least for the near future. K-12 education, colleges and universities here in the United States have suspended classes for the rest of the current school semester. Many businesses have closed, or at least closed their offices in order to comply with social distancing requirements. Most restaurants have opted for take-out service only. The NBA and NCAA seasons are suspended. No, this is not business as usual.

The crisis that is before the world demands change. Our environment is more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) than ever. Just 60 days ago, people were out and about, planning vacations and travel, looking forward to spring break. Fast forward to now, and the world is very different. Civil liberties are being infringed upon. Easy access to consumable goods, dining out, going to church, school or concerts is very different if not prohibited by law due to COVID-19. This is a fact.  Everyday life and our work life as we have come to know it is has been impacted. Many client consulting and speaking engagements, if you are an external consultant or public speaker, have been canceled. As an employee, you may have been instructed to stay home until further notice.  

I am a firm believer that from crisis comes opportunity. The coronavirus and related restrictions should, at the very least, motivate business leaders and educational administrators and teachers to take a more strategic look at the capability, capacity, and advantages of delivering live virtual education and training. Three meetings that I would have normally attended in person this week were held virtually, viaZoom, a platform that I use frequently for 1:1 executive coaching and conducting general meetings. Though virtual training has been available for at least two decades, most live training is still traditionally instructor-led in a physical classroom, conference room, or in hotel meeting rooms. There is no doubt that bringing people together to learn has its advantages. It’s also an opportunity to meet and spend time with colleagues and build relationships.

Back in 2003, while working as a consultant teaching project and program management to Silicon Valley firms, I was tasked with converting traditional instructor-led project management courses to live, virtual courses. I will admit that, after delivering hundreds of hours of training in the traditional ILT format (face to face), I was very doubtful that live, virtual training would work. Nevertheless, I immersed myself in the process and became not only a content developer but also a virtual instructor. That was 17 years ago. Throughout this time, I’ve worked across the globe with many companies, converting training content from traditional ILT to live v-ILT. Topic areas of courses converted included: Project Management, Program Management, Influencing Skills, Leadership Skills, Strategy Execution, Project Portfolio Management, Building Effective Teams, and others.  

Seventeen to twenty years ago, live virtual training (and virtual meetings) was a nice to have option. With what’s happening in the world today with the COVID-19 outbreak, the digital, virtual world of connecting is solidly front and center. Though many organizations have added self-paced eLearning solutions such as LinkedIn Learning and Harvard Manage Mentor to their LMS offerings, live virtual training still represents a small percentage of delivery options adopted. There are several reasons for this, and these reasons are often rooted in myths. Below I will list and explain what I believe to be the top six myths or falsehoods associated with live, virtual training.

Myth 1: Virtual training is not as effective as traditional classroom-based training

The truth: When a course is properly designed, the correct delivery platform selected, and the instructor is not just a content expert but also knows how to effectively engage learners in the virtual environment, the delivery can be equally effective as a traditional ILT course. Additionally, participants can attend from the luxury of their work or home office, or just about anywhere in the world.  Now, there are exceptions. If learners are physically assembling components or parts, or there is some other type of learning that makes being in-person with an instructor an absolute must, then the virtual environment may not be the most appropriate.   However, soft skills courses, or in the education sector, for general courses like English, History, Management, Math, Geography, and many others, live virtual deliveries can work and work well. However, if a course or program design is flawed, or the platform is ill-suited for the course, or if the instructor is not comfortable or knowledgeable as to how to deliver virtual training effectively, then a great experience for the learner cannot be reasonably expected.

Myth 2:  The virtual platforms (e.g. Zoom, WebEx, Adobe Connect, GoToTraining) are very difficult to learn

The truth: As with anything, there is a learning and ramp-up process. When I first started teaching virtually for one client, I was afforded the opportunity to have a virtual Technical Administrator (v-TA) to support the course. The role of the v-TA was to make sure that everything with the platform was set up properly. Additionally, the v-TA monitored the Chat Room, the Q/A box, set up breakout groups and handled any technical issues learners experienced. This was great! After a year, the client decided that paying for two resources to deliver a course was not feasible. Therefore, I transitioned to becoming both the content expert and the platform expert. Again, a bit of ramp-up time but nothing extraordinary. Once I moved on to live, virtual training delivery for different clients, who had chosen different virtual platforms,  my prior experience as both an instructor and v-TA came in handy. Most of the popular platforms today have similar features and functionality that make transitioning from one to another pretty simple.

 Myth 3: Live, virtual training is NOT interactive

The truth: When a course is designed properly (virtual or face to face), interactivity will be high. This is especially necessary for live, virtual training. When delivering, there are several best practices to employ to capture and hold the attention of the learners. Best practices to be considered are:

a. Engage learners in an activity even before the session starts. This can be done via the Chat room or via a Whiteboard. Learners can share where they are located, what their job role is, something special or unique about themselves, or anything else that will ignite engagement.

b. When there are more than 10 people in a virtual class, do not spend time going over individual introductions. Have participants introduce themselves to the class via Chat. This is a time saver and keeps others from being bored.

c. Have some type of small group or whole class activity every 3 - 5 minutes (Poll questions, whiteboard entry, chat entry, raise their hand, yes/no response, etc.)

d. Encourage learners to share personal experiences related to the course content. The instructor is not the one who should be talking all the time.

e.  Maximize the use of break out room work. This facilitates learners to work in small groups on a focused, objective-driven assignment and then present back to the larger group.

f.  Encourage the use of emoticons and tools such as “smiley faces”, “applause”, and others to provide real-time peer feedback.

g.  Ensure that, when a course is multi-day, a detailed agenda and plan is created. Real-time is not the time for the instructor to figure out the lesson plan.  

Myth 4: Anyone who is an experienced ILT Trainer can immediately excel in a live, virtual training environment.

The truth: Live virtual training takes much more effort and energy than delivering in a traditional ILT classroom. It can be mentally taxing. Your voice, and how you use it, your listening skills, your questioning skills, using polls, whiteboards, chat, and fielding incoming questions can become very, very taxing for the inexperienced virtual trainer. I’ve known ILT trainers who have tried transitioning to v-ILT only go give up it. The technology, the lack of face-to-face interaction (though with most technology now you can see the learners), managing the platform, etc. proved overwhelming. Nevertheless, in today’s climate of the coronavirus, investing in the transition in order to continue serving employees, clients and students I believe, is an absolute must.

Myth 5: Learners today prefer traditional ILT over live v-ILT

Digital platforms, microlearning, podcasts, blogs, etc. have changed the game as to how people learn and where they go to learn. I’ve found that because learners have often had a bad v-ILT experience or no v-ILT experience at all, the option is usually met without much enthusiasm. This should serve as motivation for trainers and consultants to invest time and energy into doing what it takes to create and deliver a “WOW” virtual learning experience.

Myth 6: A Webinar is the same as virtual instructor-led training (perhaps the biggest myth of all)

False, and this is what often gives v-ILT a bad rap. There are literally tens of thousands of webinars held each day. The typical webinar duration is 60 minutes. Some are great, some are good, and many are just bad. Most are often one-way, with perhaps a poll here and there, or one or two pauses for questions. Nevertheless, the purpose of most webinars is to disseminate information to a lot of people (hundreds or even thousands). Because of the size of the audience, webinars are typically one-way communication forums. With v-ILT, the optimal size is roughly 15 – 20, though I’ve had larger. With a small audience size, there is a tremendous opportunity for interaction at the highest level, assuming a course design that is engineered for this. The goal is NOT for the facilitator to do all the talking, as is the case in a typical webinar. Unlike webinars, v-ILT is about igniting and facilitating learning through experiential individual and group activities.  

With the business and education sectors struggling to maintain and build new connections to employees, clients, and students, if there ever was a time to give live virtual training serious consideration, it is now! How long the current crisis will last is not known. What is known is that an opportunity currently exists to take advantage of great technology that can facilitate, through this difficult time, the continued education of students, employees, and clients. However, if mental models of delivery stay limited, and such a crisis was to happen again, industries will be back at square one because of the failure to capitalize on or learning from the opportunity that the crisis of COVID-19 has presented.   “You never know what you can do until you try, and very few try unless they have to.” – C.S. Lewis

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