Most office workers are quite familiar with the variety of online communications tools available, from e-mail to instant messaging to social networks. Over the last decade, the merging of phone and Internet services has led to easily available and often inexpensive technologies for video and audio conferencing, webinars and shared desktops, surveys and instant polling.
Unfortunately, as training programs move online, they tend to lose many of the collaborative components that have made these new technologies so effective in other domains. In many cases, lively interactive group sessions are replaced by tedious conference calls and presentation-heavy webinars. It’s no wonder participants tend to lose focus and start multi-tasking, treating learning events as welcome opportunities to catch up on e-mail. Many trainers report that their biggest challenge is keeping participants engaged.
There are four proven strategies to create more effective collaborative learning sessions with a distributed workforce. They address session design, participant engagement and the appropriate use of technology to conduct virtual instructor-led training, as well as facilitation of productive brainstorming sessions and team collaboration exercises with participants in multiple places. When done right, collaboration tools enable critical thinking, action research, case study analysis, problem solving, reflective learning, coaching and assessment.
Apply Successful Tactics From Face-to-Face Events
The need to transition from face-to-face to online events often brings up a sense of fear and trepidation. While comfort with technology and the Internet is generally high, instructors fear the loss of competency and control when they are no longer at the front of the room, and they miss the visual cues they rely on to sense the levels of attention, engagement, understanding and agreement.
Everything we already know about running good meetings still applies. Most learning organizations already know how to design effective collaborative learning events face to face, so this is the place to start. Moving to a virtual or blended learning format provides an opportunity to revisit objectives and reconsider the learning components, such as presentation from an expert; private study or reading; assessments and surveys; case studies and simulations; small group exercises; brainstorming and idea generation; problem-solving; and action learning. By revisiting each element and how it fits within the overall learning design, instructors can identify separate and distinct activities that can be redesigned for a virtual format.
Effective virtual events tend to be short: no more than 90 minutes. With this yardstick in mind, instructors can divide up the original face-to-face learning program into a set of shorter activities spread over a period of time — perhaps weeks or months. Pre-work is often an essential tool to limit actual meeting time and ensure that precious “real time” with the group is focused and productive. Having a short, focused agenda is the best way to keep participants engaged in a virtual meeting.
Collaborative learning can happen both synchronously in real time and asynchronously in multiple increments. Create a variety of ways for participants to interact that do not require everybody to be on a teleconference at one time. This opens up many possibilities for one-on-one interaction, small group activities, and individual research and reflection. Asynchronous collaboration also helps the team manage the difficulties of multiple time zones and provides additional insight or on-the-job practice time between real-time sessions. This blended learning approach can improve the quality of the interaction and tailor the content to each participant’s work environment.
CLOs can support this type of learning environment by encouraging learning professionals to engage in virtual meetings and explore online collaborative technology. Familiarity with a range of Web meeting, Web conferencing and social networking options will help instructors recognize the tools that best support objectives and facilitate the successful design of synchronous and asynchronous collaborative activities. Team learning among designers and instructors will quickly enable them to adapt their design expertise to a virtual environment.
Here’s a checklist for converting from a face-to-face to a virtual event:
• What are the learning objectives for each element of the program?
• What level of participant interaction is needed?
• What materials — written, audio, video — will support each step of the program?
• What can be done asynchronously?
• What needs to be done in real time?
• What technology tools will best support each step of the program? How can the needed level of communication and interaction be achieved?
• How can subject-matter experts be used?
• How can participants best be prepared?
• How can managers be engaged in the learning process and ensure time for on-the-job application of what is learned?
• How much time will it take to coordinate this event or series of events?
• What difficulties are anticipated? How can these be addressed?
• What technical support is needed? What additional help is needed?
• Will this virtual program meet learning objectives? What expectations need to be adjusted?
• How will the success of this new learning model be measured?
• What feedback loops can be built in to adjust emphasis and improve the session as it is conducted?
Build Trust to Create Readiness for Collaborative Learning
Time spent prepping the group will pay off in a more effective learning experience. One of the most common complaints from instructors is that virtual meetings lack visual cues and don’t allow for interaction among participants. This makes it difficult to build rapport, as well as to know whether participants are engaged and paying attention. One of the most effective ways to mitigate this problem is to get to know participants in advance of the session. Rather than waiting to see who shows up, reach out and build connections first. A bit of advance phone and e-mail work will put both the session leader and the participants at ease and help create a more productive and supportive learning environment.
Another effective way to link participants is to build a group identity. For a one-time webinar, this might be as straightforward as asking participants to post a photo and introduction to a shared online agenda or social networking site. For longer learning programs using learning pairs or small team exercises, having participants call each other or exchange introductions by e-mail can help build rapport within the group.
Always be clear about the learning objectives for these pre-work activities. Provide a set of questions for participants to explore. Lay out a simple process of exchange, such as an appreciative inquiry technique, to help set the tone for an interactive, trustworthy and collaborative learning process. Other forms of pre-work such as self-assessment surveys help introduce learning content to participants and sharpen their focus for the group discussion.
CLOs can facilitate this learning strategy by providing a platform that groups can use to easily build social networks. The learning organization can become a learning laboratory, experimenting with tools and approaches and helping the organization develop best practices. The goal is to find the most effective methods of engaging virtual participants for both short- and long-term learning programs.
Leverage Technology to Create Interactive Environments
Shift course delivery away from one-way presentations to collaborative learning environments. Webinars and virtual instructor-led events tend to be dominated by slide presentations with a very limited amount of group interaction. The main challenge to running effective virtual meetings is keeping participants engaged. While video conferencing can provide visual stimulation at first, it typically fades after a few minutes.
Often, the technology is driving the process rather than the other way around. Even more than with face-to-face learning events, virtual learning begs for highly participatory exercises in which everyone can be actively involved, rather than passively listening. While most Web conferencing tools have some interactive components such as audio, video, shared whiteboard, simple polling and chat, none of these elements is as effective as what people can use when they are together: flip charts, sticky walls and colored dots for voting and prioritizing.
Alternatives do exist. Web-meeting collaboration software has been around for a decade and has evolved from the field of group-decision support systems. Designed for and by facilitators, these tools provide options for brainstorming and idea generation; categorizing and organizing; voting and prioritizing; action planning; and documentation. While traditional Web conferencing tools are primarily designed for pushing information out to participants, Web-meeting collaboration software is designed to pull information and ideas from participants. For example, this software allows everyone to speak at once by typing ideas onto a shared electronic flip chart. Ideas are quickly sorted, prioritized or evaluated by the group. These tools are simple in concept but powerful in their ability to draw on the wisdom of the group and keep everyone engaged. Web-meeting collaboration tools also have the advantage that they can be used for both synchronous and asynchronous activities.
CLOs can support these interactive strategies by working with learning professionals and course designers to identify the range of technology requirements for collaborative learning. Investigating Web-meeting collaboration tools commonly used by facilitators provides new options for increasing participation and learning results. Technology solutions need to be simple, ensuring that participants focus on the content and collaborative process, not on the technology.
Enable an Environment of Continuous Improvement
Virtual events tend to be most effective when broken up into a series of short events spread out over a period of time, with participant engagement in between. Building learning circles for sharing and interaction over the length of the learning period is a great way to keep participants engaged and help them apply what they are learning.
As with facilitators shifting from in-person meetings to virtual meetings, the role of instructors shifts as they move into a virtual environment. Virtual instructors need to devise ways to keep the group engaged and on track between real-time meetings and conferences. This includes creating small learning circles to foster continuous learning and adopting the role of a coach rather than an instructor.
Virtual learning works best with small teams organized around clearly defined activities and deliverables, such as action research, case studies, discussion materials, problem solving and feedback. Rather than struggling through a long exercise on the phone or with a Web conference, give teams tasks to work on together offline so they can offer relevant feedback during the next online session.
Once tasks have been assigned, the role of the facilitator shifts. The emphasis now is on coaching participants and ensuring they remain on schedule and are working together effectively. They should proactively engage with learning groups and be ready to assist them if they fall off schedule — which they are more likely to do in a virtual environment. Facilitators should devise ways and set up times to check in on a regular basis, as well as be available to answer questions and offer guidance as necessary.
Learning coaches also should keep managers engaged and ensure that time and reinforcement is available at the job site. It is important to maintain momentum and motivation between events.
CLOs can support these efforts by shifting expectations. Learning is not merely a one-time event, but a process of continuous learning. Learning organizations should engage with managers and department heads to integrate learning events with on-the-job learning activities. They also should allocate time to participate in structured learning circles and help these groups apply collaborative technology to enhance their meetings.
Virtual instructor-led training is the way of the future. While virtual training events are already common, the predominance of same-time, one-way push technology offers limited options for collaborative learning.
Lessons from online facilitation have helped identify technologies and strategies that improve group participation, interaction and collaborative learning.
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