Instructional designers or eLearning instructors might believe that moving their face-to-face teaching online is a simple matter of choosing a virtual classroom platform and speaking to the webcam.

They’re in for a rude awakening.

While some elements of in-person instruction translate well to a virtual classroom, others need some adjustment. “A lot of what they [instructors] know about really great in-person facilitation applies online,” said Cindy Huggett, a virtual training consultant. But some skills need to be tweaked or expanded. “It’s like, you already know how to drive a car; now you’re learning to drive a truck. It’s the same set of skills, but you add on to it.”

Huggett identifies three key differences:

  • The role of technology—while a face-to-face instructor might use technology, in the virtual classroom, technology becomes the main platform
  • Engaging learners—different strategies are needed to engage and build a rapport with learners the instructor cannot see
  • Multitasking—instructors need to simultaneously present, engage learners, and use the technology platform

Investing time preparing in these three areas can improve the odds of a successful transition.

Tools of the trade

The instructor must, of course, master the technology—the virtual classroom platform she’s using to deliver the eLearning. (See “Five Questions to Ask When Choosing a Virtual Classroom Platform” for tips on choosing a platform.) Then, the content must be structured with the virtual platform in mind. (See “Going Virtual: Tips for Moving Instructor-Led Training Online” for advice on making the transition.) Finally, the instructor needs to create and rehearse lessons that work with the online platform.

Karen Hyder, a Certified Technical Trainer (CTT+) and online event producer, cautioned in an email interview, “Start by accepting that it doesn’t work to upload content and activities from a traditional, physical classroom session into a virtual classroom and expect to ‘make it play.’”

Both the instructor and the learners need to adjust to the new platform. “Everything operates a little differently online. Things that were easy in the physical classroom become difficult in the virtual classroom,” Hyder said. “Something as simple as verbal response requires the learner to overcome several technical hurdles!”

The instructor might need to plan, script—and practice—each session to a greater extent than she does for in-person teaching. And Huggett emphasized the importance of creating a learning environment that is comfortable for learners, which might mean teaching them to use tools like raising their hand.

Hyder concurred, advising instructors to realize that the amount of time needed for activities can be very different online. On one hand, introductions might go more quickly online, where learners can all type a couple lines into the chat box rather than spending a minute or so per learner on verbal intros. On the other hand, simply starting class can take longer.

“Buffer the start time and allow several minutes for participants to log in, join, test audio, and prepare to learn. If you expect to log in at 10:00 ET and begin at 10:00 ET, you’ll always be late,” Hyder said. “During that login time, greet newcomers and give them a reason to test the tools.” She suggested asking learners to introduce themselves in chat, respond to a poll question, or type a question in chat.

Doing so has a bonus: It sets the expectation that the class will be interactive.

Build in opportunities to engage

Hyder and Huggett emphasize the importance of frequent engagement and interaction online.

Interaction between an instructor and learners might occur naturally in a classroom, and instructors get constant feedback: “In the traditional, physical classroom, trainers can expect learners to respond a few different ways. They might smile or laugh, speak, sigh, or groan. They might raise a hand to ask permission to speak. The trainer can see, hear, and respond to all these things,” Hyder said. Even if online learners exhibit the same audible or body language cues, the virtual instructor won’t see them!

To ensure that learners engage and participate, Huggett asks for feedback and builds in interactions. “I script it out! I don’t script out word for word what I, as the facilitator, will say, but I create, just like I would for an in-person class, facilitator guides,” Huggett said. She creates materials for the learners, for her producer (if she’s working with one), and for herself. “Usually, the facilitator guides are much more in-depth for an online program than they are for an in-person program because you’ve got to include all of the technical details.”

This can include writing poll questions and, if the platform allows, opening several screens so that it’s easy to switch from presentation to poll to chat—which touches on the third area of difference, multitasking.  


While teaching in a virtual classroom, the instructor might need to simultaneously present information, engage students, field questions coming in via chat, and switch between screens and activities. Most people are not naturally good at multitasking, but they can improve.

“Multitasking is a skill that you can learn, you can get better at; there are some techniques that you can use to do that,” Huggett said.

It’s also important to recognize the limits and plan the lesson accordingly. “Be realistic about what is simple to do and what is difficult to do,” Hyder said. “It’s simple to have everyone type questions into chat; it’s difficult to have everyone move into subgroups (breakouts) to have private verbal conversations. It’s simple to show PowerPoint slides and click Next through pre-created graphics, questions, and instructions; it’s difficult to draw on the whiteboard freehand.” Especially for instructors who are working alone—no producer—it’s essential to create and rehearse a virtual session that is engaging without being overwhelming for learners or for the instructor.

Learn more

Join Karen Hyder and Melissa Chambers at Learning Solutions 2017 Conference & Expo; register now for their Pre-Conference Certificate Workshop, “How to Adapt Traditional Classroom Design for Virtual Instruction.” You will need to bring a laptop with Internet access to this BYOL (Bring Your Own Laptop®) session.

Also at Learning Solutions 2017 (March 22 – 24 in Orlando, Florida), Cindy Huggett will present a BYOL session, “Ready-to-Use Activities for Engaging Virtual Training.” Karen Hyder is presenting two sessions: A BYOL, “Solving—and Preventing!—Your Worst Virtual Event Snafus,” and “Amping Up Adobe Connect.”