As difficult as disruption is, times of disruption can also spark innovation. These periods force us to change what we have always done. According to author Charles Duhigg in his book Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, innovation can emerge from disturbance and tension “if we’re willing to embrace that desperation and upheaval and try to see our old ideas in new ways.”

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we may feel like we have been disrupted and plunged into a world of virtually all things virtual. If virtual classrooms are new for you, there are likely many questions you have. To help with this transition, here are some principles to consider as you make the shift to virtual training.

Principle #1: Watch for opportunities to improve design

The adage “a fish doesn’t know it’s in water until it’s beached” reminds us that one’s lens changes dramatically when perspective changes. Let’s apply this to virtual training. When we shift content from in-person training to virtual delivery, we may start to see weaknesses in original learning design. This modality shift provides a new lens that exposes opportunities for improvement. For example, in a new wrapper you may discover that a didactic instructional method was used too much in your in-person training. In the virtual environment, you might experiment instead with more inductive methods like presenting challenges for learners to solve in your live, online classroom. More inductive methods can also reduce learner multi-tasking or task-switching by keeping them actively involved in the learning process. Look for ways to improve your instructional design as you transition content to the virtual classroom.

Principle #2: Realize it’s not an apples to apples exchange

It is a common mistake to think that an exact replica of a six-hour, in-person training can be converted to a six-hour, virtual training session. Although this may be tempting, it is not best practice for several reasons. In-person training is not an equal exchange with a virtual classroom because they are entirely different mediums. Remember when radio announcers first appeared on television? Initially, radio broadcasters read scripts and spoke into a microphone just as they had always done but with a camera placed directly in front of them. Once they began to experiment more with television, they realized its far greater potential. Virtual instruction is different than in-person training because it requires even more interaction with participants, removing technical barriers, affirming participants’ comments, frequent visual movement, more visuals (the opposite of static slides), adding in additional breaks and shortening chunks of time online because everyone is looking at screens, participant prompting, frequent instructor feedback, and more.

Principle #3: Leverage creative and relevant use of platform tools

One way to engage virtual learners is to leverage the many tools shared among platforms. Be careful not to use them for the sake of using them, though. Instead, exercises should be substantive and thoughtful, relevant to the topic, and accomplish learning objectives creatively. Some common tools include the chat queue, Q/A pod, collaborative whiteboard, polling, randomizer tool, break-out rooms for smaller group work and discussion, and virtual hand raising so participants can unmute and join live discussion. Chat is the most popular and is available in all modern platforms like Adobe Connect, WebEx, Zoom, GoToTraining, and Blackboard Collaborate. Break-out rooms have also definitely improved over the years, and in Zoom, for example, break-out participants can remain on camera. Turning on the instructor’s webcam is also useful to welcome learners, explain exercises, lead discussions, and conduct other strategic activities so learners can read instructors’ non-verbal cues and facial expression. Use of annotation tools such as highlighting, circling, and arrow pointing also help learners know where to focus attention on projected instructional materials.

Principle #4: Use a blended learning approach

A blended learning approach often works best with virtual instruction. This means that in addition to providing live, online instruction through a virtual platform, the instruction is blended with pre-work and post-work learning activities. For example, before and/or after the virtual session, learners may be required to complete an eLearning tutorial, listen to a podcast, complete an assignment, review an infographic, read an article, answer reflection questions, complete pages from a workbook, view a related LinkedIn Learning course, or read a blog. This way, live class time is freed up for higher levels of learning such as analysis, discussion, application, example review, and evaluation. This approach primes the learner ahead of time and incorporates spaced repetition throughout. This is the “flipped” virtual classroom model.

Principle #5: Pair instructors with technical producers

To alleviate the stress of managing the logistics and technical pieces of the virtual platform, it works well to pair an instructor with a technical producer for the entirety of the training. The role of the producer is to bookend the session, as well as manage the technical aspects of the platform. By adding this supportive role, it enables the trainer to focus on the content and do what they do best—teach. For example, tech producers can manage technical issues, welcome participants, establish netiquette (things to keep in mind while online), provide a brief platform tour, introduce the presenter, moderate the chat, field questions, close the session, etc.

In the early 2000’s, I taught a handful of attendees at a conference in Orlando, Florida about the promising possibilities virtual instruction offered the field of learning. I had carefully coordinated with a colleague from Wisconsin to join the virtual platform in Orlando’s time zone to help demonstrate its capability to a live audience. My colleague successfully joined through audio and her limited webcam using Placeware as the platform at that time. We had no way of knowing that nearly two decades later, several virtual training platforms would exist for a world desperate to stay connected.

In this time of uncertainty, one thing is certain. Virtual training will continue to evolve and is here to stay. Even in a post-pandemic, post-COVID vaccine era, we know that we can teach effectively across time, space, and distance. By incorporating and experimenting with some of these principles, continue to innovate and discover what works best for your virtual learners. After all, it’s times like these when being virtual isn’t just an option, but a necessity.