Five Things VIRTUAL Learners Want Us to Know

A while back, I wrote a blog post about what learners really want trainers to know about their experience and expectations in a learning environment, especially when it comes to the instructor setting ground rules. We thought that since virtual learning seems to be here for the foreseeable future, we should update that post to include what we’ve been hearing from virtual learners and what our own experience has been as learners in the virtual space.

A lot of what the original post talks about has been intensified by being in the Zoom room, especially the points about the inevitability of distraction and the desire not to be called out. Virtual meetings of any kind can feel lonely, but training—where some of the best parts of the in-person process are learning from your classmates, discussing real-life examples, and giving and getting feedback—feels especially isolating when it happens through a screen, so trainers need to take special care to plan for a virtual environment. For example, in the earlier article, I talked about icebreakers being an annoying waste of time. For people sitting alone in their living rooms unable to really connect with their classmates and disappointed about the lack of interaction, icebreakers are an even bigger waste of time. Get to the point, and let people get back to work!

If you are a trainer or instructor, it’s not enough to simply pivot your materials and in-class exercises to accommodate the technology. You also need to modify your own expectations of your learners to ensure that they get the most out of your instruction with minimal annoyance, embarrassment, or boredom. Here are the things we’d like you to know. Let’s call them The Virtual Learner’s Ground Rules:

  1. We need you to meet us where we are—literally and emotionally. Of course, as a trainer, you would like to see people’s faces and be able to make the “eye contact” cameras and screens allow. But if we’re sitting in our bedrooms because that’s the only quiet place in the house, you’ll have to accept that we don’t want to show that to the rest of the group. And if we’re just not feeling interactive—we’re tired, we’re sad, our bangs came out weird that morning—but we’re eager to get the information you’re sharing, that has to be okay unless it really interferes with the purpose of the learning. If that’s the case, please explain it to us well in advance with the reasons attached: “It’s important to see your face on camera because . . . “ and then we can plan and adjust.
  2. We know there are going to be tech glitches; how you handle them is how you show us who you are. If your screen sharing doesn’t work or you lose wifi, it’s nothing we haven’t seen a million times since March of 2020. But if you continue to demand our attention while you figure it out, you’re wasting our time and losing our respect. Either it’s a minor issue, so you can tell us, “Take a bathroom break, refresh your coffee, and we’ll reconvene in five minutes,” or it’s pretty major, in which case, let us get our other work done: “This is going to take a while. Please check your email in about half an hour, and I’ll let you know when we’ll reconvene.” The corollary to this is know how your tech works in the first place or have someone nearby who does and can troubleshoot for you.
  3. Don’t scrimp on breaks. Staring at a screen is exhausting. If we were in a conference room or training room with you, there would be lots to look at: each other, you, our course materials, a window, if we’re lucky. Think of ways to help us get our eyes off the screen. Maybe you send printed materials in advance that we can have near us as you speak. Maybe you prerecord parts of your training so we can watch them asynchronously, which would shorten the time we spend looking at our screen today. Or maybe you simply build in two breaks in the morning and afternoon rather than one.
  4. Be thoughtful about how you modify exercises and activities. Putting us in breakout rooms with the same instructions you use for in-person learning won’t do. Without the ability to see and read each other’s nonverbal cues, group work is really hard. We also don’t have intuitive materials like flipcharts and markers that we can share. If you use another piece of technology, like a whiteboarding app, give us a low-stakes way to practice with it before we need to do real work on it. Ideally, set that up and invite us to play with it in the days before the session starts. Consider whether, instead of working in small groups, the activity in the virtual space might be better if we work independently and then share out or build on each other. In sum, put real effort into thinking about the purpose of your exercise and how to best achieve it in the virtual space.
  5. Be a leader and manage the conversation. Of course, people with dominant personalities or pressing issues they need to solve are going to talk a lot in any space. But when we meet in person, you have body language and other nonverbal cues you can use to let such people know it’s time to move on. You can have side conversations during breaks, and you can write their issue down to discuss one-on-one later. In the virtual space, you have to be blunter when someone takes over the conversation or gets on a tangent, and we know that’s hard. “Devin, I’d be happy to talk more about this during the break, but we need to move on now,” or “Stuart, I think Alex had something to add. Let’s hear it, Alex.” If you won’t manage the conversation and keep us on track, we will definitely be checked out, and it will be difficult for you to get us to check back in.

These are the main ideas we’ve come up with. What should we add to this list? What do you wish presenters and trainers in the virtual space knew about what you need?

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About the Author: Dale Ludwig

Dale Ludwig has a Ph.D. in Communication and, prior to Turpin, taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He founded Turpin Communication in 1992 with the mission of providing the best presentation and facilitation skills training available. Since then, he has worked to do just that. In addition to being one of Turpin’s lead instructors, Dale is our Chief Learning Architect when tailoring learning engagements for our clients. He holds a Bates ExPI™ (Executive Presence Index) coaching certification. Dale is a frequent blogger and the co-author of “The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined,” “The Virtual Orderly Conversation,” and Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide to Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning,” all written with Turpin’s VP, Greg Owen-Boger.

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