Virtual classroom platforms now include a plethora of tools meant to encourage learner participation. We have whiteboards, breakout rooms, polls, and text-based chat. Including them appropriately in our programs positively impacts our modern learners’ experiences.

One modern learning challenge we face, though, is the type of engagement these tools generate: is it interaction or collaboration?

“Ask learners to do something every three-to-five minutes” is an old bit of advice. This approach, when used correctly, generates interaction. Learners must put fingers on keyboard to contribute something to the event: contribute an answer in chat, respond to a poll question, put a green mark next to their name if something applies to them.

Many people believe, though, that running a poll every three minutes like clockwork results in learner engagement. Not true—anyone can press a button, but that doesn’t mean they’re engaged.

Defining interaction

We talk a lot about boosting interaction in the virtual classroom. Interaction provides learners with the opportunity to communicate during the event amongst themselves and with the facilitators, often through technology. We can use chat, emoticons, polls, whiteboards, breakout rooms, application sharing, and web browsing.

Interaction keeps our programs moving. While it motivates our learners to stay awake, it doesn’t mean they’re learning. Including interaction is important but isn’t sufficient to generate deep learning.

Creating collaboration

In training, we want genuine collaboration. If we make the effort to bring people together, we want them to learn from one another.

Learning happens during collaboration. It allows our learners to build on baseline information that they may have gotten through course content, like readings or videos. Learners get to practice through collaborating. It gets them to higher-order thinking, like problem solving.

Are you hosting a webinar or virtual training?

How do you know if the online learning event encourages true learning?

Ask yourself, “If a learner watches a recording of the session, will they have the same experience as they would if they attended the session live?”

If you answer, “Yes,” you’re presenting a webinar. It may be a super interactive webinar with meaningful content that captures learner attention, but it’s not a full-blown training event.

If you answer, “No, learners won’t get the same impact from a recording of this session,” then you have created virtual classroom training. For example, when you design lessons using Adobe Connect and put learners in breakout rooms, then they interact and learn from each other. This design creates collaboration similar to what we do in the face-to-face classroom. In these situations, recordings become less useful, as you’ve created a true training event that impacts on-the-job performance.

Let’s build on that foundational knowledge with a deep dive into different subtypes of interaction and collaboration, and intelligent ways to use them.

Serial engagement

Serial engagement activities ask learners to contribute one at a time, one after another. We often use serial engagement in the face-to-face classroom during icebreakers.

For example, we may ask learners to say their name and a fun fact about themselves one at a time, until everyone has introduced themselves to the group. While this kind of activity engages all learners, they often struggle to remain focused while others share their information, especially when we don’t require learners to memorize that content.

We very rarely use serial engagement in the virtual classroom. It takes a long time and we lack personal context clues that make these activities memorable. I have, however, seen serial engagement used in live online learning sessions successfully. The keys: small groups of learners and tight design.

One client I worked with provided software to travel agents around the world, and they were moving agents into a new web-based environment. The interface agents worked with daily was changing, but wasn’t available for demo. How do we train people on a product that’s not widely available? Serial engagement provided the solution.

We invited 8-10 learners at a time to virtual classroom sessions and used application sharing within that platform. I would application share the new platform and turn it over to the participants. The participants said, “I need to go from Point A to Point B and back.” The learner appointed “travel agent” asked questions of the “travelers” as they booked this trip. Whenever the travel agent got stuck, other learners helped figure out where that information belonged in the new platform. Then the next learner would book the next aspect of the trip. The learning built on itself in a small group, with everyone depending on everyone else. In this case, serial collaboration worked really well.

Because we weren’t teaching people how to become travel agents, this approach worked. Learners knew what questions to ask when booking client travel, they just needed practice with the system.

If choosing to use this approach, some things to know:

  • The exercises take a long time
  • It’s orderly and well controlled
  • Learners can easily hide

Concurrent engagement

Activities that engage all participants at one time constitute concurrent engagement. You really only see this approach in the virtual classroom because the lack of structure and chaos make it difficult to implement in the face-to-face classroom

In the virtual classroom, we can ask all learners to write on the whiteboard at the same time. Everyone can “pick a spot” and write their name and interesting fact. Afterwards, the learners review the board while facilitators engage learners about their comment. We often use this activity to kick off a learning program. In a few minutes, everyone participates and facilitators get an idea of what tool instruction the group needs.

Using concurrent engagement helps all learners feel important, as everyone has the same voice and their opinions have the same value. It works well for brainstorming and other learner-centric activities.

We need to learn how to facilitate this engagement technique, since we can’t present as much content as we would if we didn’t include these activities in our designs. I often hear, “I don’t like using breakout rooms because they take too much time.” When leveraged correctly, concurrent engagement fosters collaboration and leads to deep learning. It’s time well spent.

Remember: adding more slides and clicking through them is not an accelerated learning technique. With all interaction and collaboration, people need time to process and practice and interact and ask questions for learning to really happen. Design these opportunities into your virtual learning programs and give your learners room to practice and try.

From the editor: Want to learn more?

On March 29, 2020, Jennifer Hofmann will present a one-day workshop at the Learning Solutions Conference & Expo. In "Designing Engaging Virtual Classroom Experiences," Jennifer will show you how to evolve your approach past the “listen-only,” no-engagement webinar that attendees dread. Virtual classroom tools like Adobe Connect, WebEx Training Center, and Zoom are filled with features that can help facilitate collaboration and true learning.

Jennifer will help you build the skills to support using this unique learning environment in new ways and engaging virtual classroom attendees on an emotional, intellectual, and environmental level. She will also show you how to manage the transition from traditional to virtual delivery and then use what you’ve learned to design your own customized virtual classroom exercises.

If you are a designer, developer, or virtual classroom professional whose current or future job responsibilities include designing for and/or facilitating virtual online sessions, or one whose responsibility involves understanding and supporting the unique role of the virtual online facilitator, you will benefit from this program.

You will need to bring a laptop with Adobe Connect Virtual Classroom (free trial is okay) and Microsoft Office pre-installed for practice activities.

Registration is open! Registration for the full Learning Solutions Conference and Expo 2020 is required in order to attend this workshop, and you can do it all in one stop, right here.