A group you cannot see

Are you wary of dipping your toe into delivering your training online? Jo Cook shares her experiences

Most trainers and facilitators have started their life in the face-to-face world, working in classrooms where real people attend real events. A lot of these professionals love their job because it’s about helping people, getting them from one place to another and feeding from the emotion and enjoyment of the session. A lot of the same professionals are very wary of stepping into the online learning space for exactly the same reason – the lack of face-to-face contact, not being able to see body language, a feeling of isolation and that ‘virtual’ is not ‘real’.

Afraid of moving forwards?

I completely understand because I had those same worries. I loved face-to-face training and planned my career to focus on soft skills training. However, I was working for a large international organisation, which had all the complications of different countries, time zones, teams with specific needs and obviously non-existent travel budgets for training. It was here that I attended the Certified Online Learning Facilitator course from the Learning and Performance Institute. I started to experience the world of live online learning and the art of facilitating such a group. As someone who wanted to ignore the marching presence of online delivery and has now dived in head first, I want to help you understand that it’s all still good training!

What’s in a name?

There is a small distinction between webinars and live online training. Webinars are usually around an hour long and open to anything from a handful of people to many hundreds. They can be information seminars in a large corporate environment, or public sales/marketing/professional profile tools. A lot of people’s experience is that webinars lack interaction and are one-way poor quality lectures. They certainly shouldn’t be and there are good webinars out there. Live online training is about facilitating learning online with a small group of people, focusing on interactive activities and learning outcomes. Live online training is sometimes called the ‘virtual classroom’. I avoid this terminology as it appears it’s not ‘real’.

What the trainer sees in an online classroom

If you’ve never been in an online classroom, I urge you to visit one of any number of webinars on offer to see what it’s like from an attendee perspective. There are all sorts of vendors offering webinar or online classroom software, with two of the biggest being Adobe Connect and Cisco WebEx. All have their merits, quirks and different features, however, this is the kind of thing that I see as a facilitator in the live online classroom:

Slides, usually PowerPoint. There has to be a visual for attendees to focus on because they can’t see me or each other. Death by PowerPoint is an issue and [pullquote]slides should be designed specifically for the online classroom, being image-heavy, text-light and delivered at a fair pace[/pullquote].

The attendee panel is so important – it shows me the names of all the people logged in to my session. Depending on the software, it usually gives me the way to unmute their microphone so that they can speak, give them the rights to use annotation tools on screen and clear their feedback icons.

Feedback icons are the green ticks of agreement, red crosses of disagreement, smiling happy face emoticons and many more. These show in the attendee panel so that I can see who agrees/disagrees, is smiling, laughing, clapping or has stepped away from the computer.

Text chat panel. Often used in online classroom tools so everyone can communicate simultaneously, with me and with each other. If you’ve attended a webinar, you’ll notice it’s usually very busy with comments on the topic. If you’ve used GoToWebinar, you’ll know how restrictive and isolating it is not to be able to ‘chat’ to other attendees.

Other features depend on the software and what you want to do in your session – these include polls, video and audio files, breakout rooms for groups to work together, whiteboards like flipchart paper, a question and answer panel if it’s a very busy session and you wish to separate questions from more general ‘chat’ and more.

I spy with my little eye…

What I can’t see as a facilitator are the attendees. I can’t see their computer screen, their desktop, what they are doing while online and I certainly can’t sneakily spy on them with a webcam. Depending on the software and the participant granting me permission, I can do some of these things. The permission element provides security all round. From a face-to-face trainer’s perspective, this often brings up the comment of “but I can’t see that they are paying attention”. This is a potential problem for three reasons:

  1. It’s what people are used to in the face-to-face classroom as they can “see people disengaging”, “can get eye contact with them”, “can ask them to put their BlackBerry down” and so on.
  2. People don’t have confidence in their subject or delivery skills. Couple a boring subject with poor facilitation skills and a trainer will feel like they have to control the group and lecture to them in order for them to learn.
  3. Trainers trusting attendees. There are always naughty students and people who don’t want to be in the session for some reason. This is related to the above: if the business focus of the learning intervention has been done well and the trainer is facilitating an engaging session, people can be trusted to learn if they want to.

Green for go

Even when seeing people face-to-face, we can misinterpret body language so easily. Many years ago, when I taught one week of technical modules, I remember one delegate looking disinterested, distrusting and disengaged all week, despite my best efforts. The feedback from him about the course, the delivery and me at the end though was astounding and he passed his exams with flying colours. What little I knew. Online we don’t have body language to react to. However, we do have other facilities to use – with practise these features are good substitutes and I rely on them a lot:

Feedback icons and emoticons – green tick/red cross and variations of a smiley face and many others depending on the software. It’s useful to sometimes define how these are used and encourage them at the beginning and throughout the session. I often say “click the smiley face if you are thinking ‘oh yes Jo, I’ve certainly had that experience’ so I know we are all on the same page”. This puts some life into the session and their responses. Asking “give me a green tick if you are clear on this and want to move on, or a hand up if you’d like to discuss something” gives you the opportunity to see an equivalent of body language.

Use of the text chat area – a lot of understanding from what people type and when can be gleaned here. You can pick up on the language that they use, if there is banter or good discussion going on between the group and if people are comfortable asking questions via chat. I miss this feature a lot when I am delivering face-to-face, as it’s a useful communication tool, or back channel, that can be used simultaneously to what is going on in the session. I miss it face-to-face as I’m back to wondering if I’m interpreting body language correctly, whereas with the chat window, people are typing exactly what they want to communicate.

Following on from using chat, you can always open up a microphone and ask your attendees to expand or explain something! You can hear a lot in their tone of voice, their language and their delivery. Depending on the online session and the technology available, you should obviously design the session and the timing to get as much of your attendees voiced opinions, experiences and reactions as possible to make it more personable.

Is anyone out there?

Another issue, that those new to online facilitation have, is the feeling that they are speaking to no one, or just a computer screen. We are used to seeing actual people in front of us, rather than a monitor. When we pause speaking, we look at our audience, but online it’s just silence and this throws people. The only way to get over the silence is practise and get comfortable with it, it’s ok to be silent online to give people thinking/typing time. It’s also a good time to sip water or coffee!

When I’m facilitating workshops online, I find putting the names and images of the cohort on the wall next to me reminds me exactly of the human beings on the other side of the internet. During the session, I find that a lot of the time I’m delivering, or listening to attendees, I’m physically looking at the attendee panel where it lists their names. It’s my online equivalent of looking at people!

One thing you can do online which isn’t so easy face-to-face, is have your printed slides, notes or online guide handy. Also, you can easily write notes about the topics and attendees to refer back to, which makes things more personal.

Practice makes permanent

After ensuring that the design of a business- and action-focused session has meaningful and varied attendee interactivity every three to five minutes, and a topic-knowledgeable, enthusiastic facilitator to hand – the main thing that will ensure a great online delivery is practise. It will build facilitator confidence with technology, problem-solving and the skills and techniques for online delivery and therefore allow them to concentrate more on the training, content and, most importantly, the attendees.


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