Virtual Reality Check: Remote Learning Frustrations

I’ve been spending quite abit of time of late working both within my current role and in discussion with a few other practitioners talking about Virtual Learning.

The concept of delivering some type of upskilling or behavioural impact remotely is certainly not new. Even looking at “modern” tools like the webex’s of the world, they’ve been around long enough for a million and one white papers, books and blogs to outline some great howto’s. Continually however, I am finding organizations frustrated at the quality or impact of the Virtual Classroom.

My first foray into virtual training was in 2003. I delivered a training program through webex. The course design was sound and followed the “rules” (another blog post could come out of THAT comment…) and I was a seasoned classroom facilitator. I prepared, was comfortable with the material and logistically the session was organized.

It was ok. Not a complete disaster. But for me it was a REAL eye opener. I hadn’t anticipated how unprepared I was for the experience. The tools are significantly enhance since then and have a lot more bells and whistles, but the obstacles I came across and have fought to find ways of clearing are exactly the same as what I’m hearing now.

I think that taking style into account, there are many ways of solving the following problems, and I’m sure some of you have great methods I haven’t thought of, but I think noting the obstacle itself is an important step that many don’t seem to do (or notice).

The very first and most important challenge to note. You aren’t there.

Quite often, when I’ve worked with virtual facilitators, they recognize the value of being prepared, taking time to organize themselves, do great prep, setup the system, audio, video, cables, glass of water, guide, etc, etc.

They are serene and relaxed..Coiled to drive a focused result.

What often happens however is they have forgotten to consider what’s going on for the learner…

Chaos reigns. The session was registered weeks ago, they got an email reminder 2 days before which was quickly buried, meetings all day, milestones to hit, clients to call, teams to run… thankfully Outlook reminders saved the day and they are at the session on-time (ish).

This is the primary driver for all the other challenges below. These learners are not in a controlled environment. They are likely to be surrounded by distractions that, lets be honest, are way more important than you. Make sure you recognize it before you move on.

Keeping them engaged

Now that you recognize that you HAVE a battle to fight, how do you do it? First, you need to interact with them.. ALOT. This doesn’t mean talking AT them. Any adult learning model you follow outlines the need for adult learners to make content their own, reflect on it’s impact and do something with it. Otherwise, 90% will wash over them and become noise. (Which will encourage them to start reading email….)

The course has to have regular engagements with your learners to FORCE them to interact with you. Many tools have raised hands, checkboxes, exclamation marks, whiteboards, polls, audio etc. USE THEM… every 3 to 4 minutes. Have them do something like signal they are ready to move forward or that they have completed a task. It’s a simple way to ensure they are at least partly involved in the session.

Going deeper than that, when you design your structure, don’t fall into the “Any Questions?” trap. I’ve seen this one overused alot Everyone does it, I have. It’s easy and quick and helps keep you on time without distractions, but it NEVER keeps those NOT interested involved. I strongly suggest directed questions. Verbally select individuals to help you find the answers, or make use of knowledge tests where they have to do something. The “Any Questions?” should be used sparingly when you know folks are all waiting on bated breath to push you.

Keeping them Interested

Not remotely the same thing as engaged. You can whip a clown and it will dance. (I’ve wanted to say that all day…) But to trigger some kind of value out of the content is a two fold challenge.

First, if you are finding this a challenge, ensure you have a solid objective from the Affective domain. You will then be thinking outside of just having them understand and do, you want them to find value that means something to them.

Secondly, be real. This is a style thing I suppose, but it’s my way. If I were at a party and wanted to keep everyone interested in my story, what would I do? To stand up and start talking about xyz in a monotone voice and then asking everyone their thoughts on my boring-ass lecture will get me no where. BE the show. Don’t be afraid to facilitate! Add some colourful analogies, dig into your experiences and elaborate and be funny. Virtual training is VERY hard on style. Some very funny, great facilitators I’ve seen, become vanilla when training remotely. Why? Ask a Radio DJ. It’s hard to be funny when you can’t see your audience’s reaction. They might moan, groan, cheer, clap and you have no visual stimulus to trigger the stop/continue in your brain. The fact of the matter is though, it will be interesting. Bad jokes still keep people listening. Don’t AIM for bad humour/colour/stories, and be appropriate for the audience, but don’t be afraid of it. It so completely works.

The Flow is CRITICAL.

In my top 3 for sure. I think the previous comparison to the Radio DJ is again useful. I’d almost go so far as to suggest profiling one. If you are listening to your funniest, most interesting morning radio show, and it suddenly goes silent. How long until you change the channel?

Why is your virtual training any different? If you hit a lag, technical glitch (VERY common with participant audio!), or get abit lost in content, you can basically hose the success of your session. Be prepared. Have extra stories prepped to bring to the fore, have an exercise ready that does not require a complex technical interaction for them ready in the wings, have a host on the line with you to sort out technical audio issues with a learner so you can keep the rest moving forward. There no amount of apologies that will rectify a 5 minute gap in your session. Design these into the course. EVERY time.

Ultimately, regardless of the tools/tips you use (and I’d love to hear them!!), your virtual session HAS to be engaging, interesting and move like clockwork… or they’ll turn the channel.

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About Andrew Ambrose
I am passionate about the learning longtail for formal and informal learning solutions, leveraging social media and networking technology for learning projects, innovation through mLearning, collaborative learning and applying solutions that fit within the learners personal learning environment.

9 Responses to Virtual Reality Check: Remote Learning Frustrations

  1. Alice says:

    I am an instructional design student and a high school teacher. Reading this blog was a real AH HA moment for me! I like to think of myself as a fairly engaging teacher. I think my lessons and lectures are well planned and very interesting. I always have a back up plan if things go awry. How do I know when things are going awry? Oh, by the rolling eyes, lolling heads, chatting, the girl applying mascara in the back if the room. I can’t see any of that if I am doing a virtual presentation!
    I had envisioned myself being the instructional designer for willing participants like myself, but I do not want to be a college professor but rather an educational consultant. Who are the worst students in my world? My fellow teachers! They may have better manners than to apply make up but they all think their time is more precious than any other person’s so they should at least be checking email while you are talking! So to think of designing a virtual class for them is really daunting.
    This week in my learning theories and instruction class we have been studying neuroscience and information processing. I know see how understanding how we learn and learning theories are critical to the instructional design process.
    In order for learning to occur, the lesson must be organized and clearly structured and the participants must feel that the material is of use to themselves (Smith, 1999). A metacognitive strategy that good learners use is to budget enough time for the task (Laureate Education, 2009). The remote educator has done all of these things and needs to communicate these things to the learner. An agenda or mini syllabus with a time frame might be helpful to show at the beginning of the session. Also, learning outcomes should be stated as these busy, distracted people are not going to define them on their own (Laureate Education, 2009). People tend to learn best when they can hear and see something (Orey, 2001). That does not mean that people are going to learn by hearing and seeing me talk. I need to SHOW them what I am talking about; graphs and pictures should be used heavily,
    Using tools to force the learners to interact with the presenter, encourages the learner to stay engaged and focused, a self regulation strategy that reluctant participants are not necessarily going to use (Laureate Education, 2009). The use of these tools as well as directed questions will assist the participants to check their own comprehension. Using some kind of signal to indicate when the learners should “buzz in” can keep attention elevated (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009).
    Keeping adult learners interested will always be an issue! I think that the use of jokes or stories is one of the best ways to maintain attention and can assist with retention of new material. Anecdotal memories are more readily stored in long term memory (Orey, 2001) Being too predictable or repetitive is a sure fire way to decrease attention (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009).

    Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2009). Information processing and the brain [DVD].
    Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2009). Information processing and problem solving [DVD].
    Orey, M. (2001). Information Processing. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved September 10, 2011 from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/
    Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition). New York: Pearson.

    Smith, M. (1999). Learning Theory. Retrieved September 09, 2011, from The encyclopedia of informal education: http://www.infed.org/bibkio./b-learn.htm

  2. Thank you for a very informative post. I am an experienced Technical Writer and trainer that is adding Instructional Designer to my portfolio. Since I will be working in the Corporate environment it will be very important to remember that most of my students will be sitting in cubicles, wearing headsets, and subject to every distraction possible.

  3. tinank says:

    We are currently discussing the use of blogs in an educational setting and as a supplementary learning tool. I stumbled across your blog as one of my classmates mentioned your blog on her site.

    I work in an online university, and believe me we have some most amusing as well as headache encounters with modern technologies, in regards to what can possibly go wrong in an online presentation. In the middle of our own training, computers have crashed in the middle of training; the network did not connect, etc. You name it, I have seen a few.

    But honestly, taking the errors out, using online training in a corporate world, I think personally can really be useful in getting the info out there fast and effective. I had to smile about your comment in regards to whipping that clown. That’s always the danger in any online surrounding, of how to keep the folks up and interested without them wondering off in their own daydream. I mean we all know that in the corporate world we are sitting in front of computers all day, and the learning being so computerized these days, I can only imagine that the attention level is rather limited at a certain point. I am enrolled in the instructional design program at the university where I also work and it is an interesting experience to look at the processing of information from different perspectives (as the employee, the student and the instructional designer . At the moment we are discussing the information processing theories in our class, in context with the learning theories and how this is useful when looking at owns own personal learning strategies.

    In the corporate world we are after the fast track delivery of any material: ‘Time is money’. And too make matters even worse, I find us adults are the worst learners of them all! I mean honestly, who feels like learning some more when you are helping customers or in my case advising students all day on their educational needs all day long on the phone. We blog, we facebook, we are flooded by apps and multimedia flash presentations where ever we look. Sometimes I feel the whole world is going virtual. Are there any real humans out there?

    We all know successful learning strategies are rather time intensive. We try and cram the agenda of the learning outcomes into a 2 hour live sessions, of which, as mentioned in your article, can be ruined by the technical hiccups. But on the other hand, what would we do without all this technology?

    In my workplace we break down boarders by live conferencing with our colleagues thousands of miles apart from each other, share a somewhat common goal on at agreeing that being surrounded by ‘online and virtual-mania’ of the technical-millennium, we might as well get the best out of it, that we can. We have discussed this at work with the trainers and we have brainstormed and when we have finished moaning and groaning about the glitches of the online learning, we take a moment and remember … … our teachers holding endless monologues about topics that no one really cared about… Then I know we are truly blessed with all the interactive learning strategies out there!

    I am certain if the ‘photosynthesis lesson’ in my biology class had been delivered in a multimedia format I would have gotten that A+!
    😉

  4. We are currently discussing the use of blogs in an educational setting and as a supplementary learning tool. I stumbled across your blog as one of my classmates mentioned your blog on her site.

    I work in an online university, and believe me we have some most amusing as well as headache encounters with modern technologies, in regards to what can possibly go wrong in an online presentation. In the middle of our own training, computers have crashed in the middle of training; the network did not connect, etc. You name it, I have seen a few. But honestly, taking the errors out, using online training in a corporate world, I think personally can really be useful in getting the info out there fast and effective. I had to smile about your comment in regards to whipping that clown. That’s always the danger in any online surrounding, of how to keep the folks up and interested without them wondering off in their own daydream.

    I mean we all know that in the corporate world we are sitting in front of computers all day, and the learning being so computerized these days, I can only imagine that the attention level is rather limited at a certain point. I am enrolled in the instructional design program at the university where I also work and it is an interesting experience to look at the processing of information from different perspectives (as the employee, the student and the instructional designer .

    At the moment we are discussing the information processing theories in our class, in context with the learning theories and how this is useful when looking at owns own personal learning strategies.

    In the corporate world we are after the fast track delivery of any material: ‘Time is money’. And too make matters even worse, I find us adults are the worst learners of them all! I mean honestly, who feels like learning some more when you are helping customers or in my case advising students all day on their educational needs all day long on the phone. We blog, we facebook, we are flooded by apps and multimedia flash presentations where ever we look. Sometimes I feel the whole world is going virtual. Are there any real humans out there?

    We all know successful learning strategies are rather time intensive. We try and cram the agenda of the learning outcomes into a 45 minute live sessions, of which, as mentioned in your article can be ruined by the technical glitches. But on the other hand, what would we do without all this technology?

    In my workplace we break down boarders by live conferencing with our colleagues thousands of miles apart from each other, share a somewhat common goal on at agreeing that being surrounded by ‘online and virtual-mania’ of the technical-millennium, we might as well get the best out of it, that we can. We have discussed this at work with the trainers and we have brainstormed and when we have finished moaning and groaning about the glitches of the online learning, we take a moment and remember … our teachers holding endless monologues about topics that no one really cared about… Then I know we are truly blessed with all the interactive learning strategies out there!

    I am certain if the ‘photosynthesis process’ in my biology class had been delivered in a multimedia format I would have gotten that A+! 😉

  5. Pingback: EduSkills » My comment on classmates Blog

  6. Pingback: EduSkills » My Comment on Virtual Reality Check: Remote Learning Frustrations

  7. Only wanna comment on few general things, The website style is perfect, the subject material is real great : D.

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