Here’s the good news: A lot of what great instructors know about teaching in a classroom is still needed in the virtual classroom.

Cindy Huggett, an eLearning consultant who advises many clients on moving face-to-face instruction online, said: “It’s the same set of skills, but you add on to it. So things like basic platform skills: How do I articulate a sentence when I’m speaking without using ummms and ahhhs? How do I check for learning transfer? All that is still the same.”

She identifies three key differences between facilitating online and teaching in person:

  • Increased role of technology
  • Different strategies needed to engage learners
  • Necessity of multitasking

These differences, described in detail in “Three Key Differences Between In-Person and Virtual Teaching,” necessitate what Huggett calls “five key competencies” that she has identified in her research and through experience. Mastering these skills is essential to facilitating live virtual classroom sessions that are engaging, polished, and professional.

1. Hone your ability to multitask

Many facilitators focus heavily on presenting and forget all the other aspects of teaching online, Huggett said. “It’s really about engagement and dialogue. I need to be focusing in on different parts of the screen, watching the chat, looking for people raising their hand, and facilitating an activity. So that’s a skill.”

She’s encouraging, though: “Multitasking is a skill that you can learn, you can get better at; there are some techniques that you can use to do that.”

2. Master the technology

When facilitating in a virtual classroom—teaching a live online session—the instructor needs to be comfortable with the virtual classroom platform. This is necessary for basic lesson-planning: To use the features that enhance online sessions, the instructor needs to be able to switch among presenting, the whiteboard, and interacting with learners, multitasking all the while.

But it’s more than that. It’s inevitable that something will go wrong: A learner won’t be able to connect or can’t find the chat box. Your Internet connection will go down. A facilitator who is comfortable with the technology and the platform can cope with these minor disasters without getting flustered—and while continuing to teach. Better yet, she’ll have developed a backup plan to help her recover from technical issues on her end.

“You need to be able and comfortable enough to use technology while you’re delivering,” Huggett said.

3. Create a comfortable learning environment

Though this might seem obvious, Huggett said, it’s important to put learners at ease. Particularly in corporate eLearning, facilitators might be teaching learners who are new to the virtual classroom. They could be generally tech-savvy and accustomed to asynchronous eLearning—or they could be employees whose daily jobs and lives do not require them to use computers at all.

Focus on “making them feel comfortable, making them recognize that it may be new for them as well,” Huggett said. Let them know that “it’s OK if they’re not sure where ‘raise hand’ is.”

A face-to-face instructor, one hopes, strives to create a comfortable learning environment. While doing so online might demand different—or additional—skills, it is equally important.

4. Build rapport

A challenge unique to virtual classroom instruction is creating a bond with learners when you can’t see them and often can’t hear them. It’s important to “build rapport with people, make them feel like you’re a real person, that there’s a human connection there,” Huggett said, comparing the task to that of a TV personality, like Oprah, who is addressing a largely invisible audience.

Engaging with learners, rather than just presenting information, can help. Encourage learners to ask questions, and solicit participation through frequent engagement—ask poll questions or ask learners to type a response in chat; share the whiteboard with learners so they can contribute to a discussion or help create a list.

5. Be a teacher

“The very last one is just applying everything you know about adult learning principles. That’s not different than the in-person classroom,” Huggett said.

It’s easy to get caught up in presenting, particularly since the learners are quiet and unseen. Huggett cautions, paraphrasing Bob Pike’s famous quote: “You’re not the sage on the stage, just because you can’t see people. It’s not lecturing; it’s not presenting. You’re facilitating.”

At the same time, “Don’t feel like you need to react to every chat question and comment as they come in,” said Karen Hyder, a Certified Technical Trainer (CTT+) and online event producer, in an email interview. “Pause regularly to respond to chat questions in batches.” This is what an instructor generally would do in person; keep the session flowing while remaining attentive to learners’ needs.

Practice—and be authentic

Mastering these five skills requires practice and preparation. The only way to become comfortable with the platform and improve multitasking skills is through experience. Preparation is also helpful: Plan the session in detail, including interactivity, and set up the virtual classroom, including creating poll questions, ahead of time.

Hyder suggests a procedure that is equally applicable to face-to-face teaching. “Write a script. Edit the script. Master the content in the script, but don’t read from the script. Learners can hear in your voice that you’re reading,” she said.

Finally, a bit of advice from Hyder that instructors can apply inside and outside of the classroom: “Own your message and deliver authentically.”