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Tips from a year of online training

March 17, 2021

A year ago, the world moved online.

I still remember the last in-person training session I facilitated before the COVID-19 pandemic. The topic was transforming toxic teams, and the participants and I joked about whether we should really be together in a small room, but none of us were worried. We had no idea what the next year would bring.

One year later, more than just our work teams have been transformed. Our social lives, family gatherings, meetings, workplace investigations, and, yes, most of our training programs have moved online. Virtual training presents challenges, but also great opportunities. If you need to implement online training, here are some helpful tips we’ve learned over the last year:

1. Set expectations. Tell participants in advance of the training, and again at the start of the session, that we want to facilitate group discussions and create a learning community like we’d get in person, because that’s how people learn best. Therefore, participants should keep their videos on throughout the session, participate in discussions, and minimize other distractions.

2. Active learning is even more important online. People always learn more through group discussions, activities, case studies and role plays than by listening to lectures, but the disparity is only amplified online. Too often, people half-listen to one-way webinars while doing other work. To keep their attention, we need to integrate discussions, exercises and activities into every part of the learning experience. Our online training now includes even more active learning than ever before, including some trainings in which the entire session has been a series of group activities with discussions and debriefs, with great results.

3. Establish an engaging tone. When training online, it’s essential to capture participants’ attention early and establish the tone for an engaging learning environment. Keep your video on and greet people as they enter. Playing music as participants arrive (and as they’re returning from breakout rooms) can also be a great icebreaker; in Zoom, click on the screen share button, go to the “advanced” tab, and select “share computer sound”.

4. Use breakout rooms effectively. The breakout room feature in Zoom (also recently added to MS Teams; Webex has an audio-only version) allows participants to have discussion and work on activities in small groups, which is essential to learning. To use breakout rooms effectively:

  • Provide clear instructions about what the small group should discuss and what its deliverables are to the larger group. Repeat the instructions at least twice and type them into the chat.
  • Tell participants how much time they will have in the breakout rooms, and give them a warning before closing the rooms.
  • Visit breakout rooms regularly, so you can hear the discussion, help groups stay on track and answer questions.

5. Keep it short by “flipping the classroom”. Zoom fatigue is real, and it’s challenging to focus on a screen for hours. We’ve found it most effective to train in two-hour modules with no more than two modules (four hours in total) per training day.

To make the best use of limited session time, ask participants to review content (e.g., read a document or watch a video) on their own and then discuss it during the session. This model is called the “flipped classroom” because participants gain factual information outside of class and then apply it through discussions and activities in class; versus a traditional classroom in which information is provided during in-class lectures and then applied through out-of-class “homework”. Flipped classrooms can be very effective for in-person training, too.

6. Keep Powerpoints to a minimum. It’s hard to encourage group discussion when participants’ screens are filled with Powerpoint slides. Screen-share a Powerpoint to convey critical information, but do so sparingly. “Gallery view”, where you and the participants can see each other’s videos, is far more engaging and helps to create a classroom feel despite the online environment.

Even after the pandemic is over, virtual training will likely continue. We hope these tips will help you create an engaging and educational online training experience.