E-Learning Book Review: The New Virtual Classroom by Ruth Colvin Clark and Ann Kwinn

Linda Warren headshotThe New Virtual Classroom is a terrific resource for designing and delivering effective webinar training. One of the biggest differences between this book and others is that it focuses primarily on strong instructional design strategy while many other resources tend to focus on more superficial "gimmicky" interactions.

The authors remind us there is no need to start from scratch when designing training for the virtual classroom. Best practices are offered for adapting delivery of five content types: facts, concepts, processes, procedures, and principles. Effective use of visualization, audio, and interactive features are important factors.

Compared to designing face-to-face training, there are a few things that need special attention when planning a webinar.

  • Plan for visuals right from the start.
  • Plan for fine-grained interactions from the start. Define a detailed sequence of content along with ideas for interactions. Remember to vary the response formats.
  • Consider media options for delivering content.
  • Plan for adjunct projects and/or assignments to support virtual classroom sessions.
  • Storyboard your lesson flow. PowerPoint is a good tool for this.

Webinars require the instructor to consciously include more frequent interactions than are used in face-to-face instruction.  

"Developing interactive webinar sessions is the single most important investment you can make for successful events!"

Typical Interactive Features in Webinar Applications

  • Polling
  • Chat
  • Whiteboard
  • Audio
  • Icons (communicate feelings)
  • Breakout rooms (small group work)
  • Application sharing (software practice)

Interactions should be used every three minutes. In small sessions participants can be given the ability to speak. The instructor can ask a question and ask participants who want to answer to raise their hands; then call on a participant to answer.

"Calling on learners keeps them on their toes and paying attention. Speaking is better than 'chatting' for long responses."

What is seen on the screen/whiteboard should change every 90 seconds (on average).

There are helpful solutions for dealing with challenges unique to the virtual classroom. Commonly reported criticisms include technology problems, lack of interactivity, high dropout rates, and poor facilitation skills. Of course, we're all aware of the difficulty we face when we can't see the audience. Anonymity through remote attendance enables multitasking - the #1 enemy of webinars. The main antidote to learner multi-tasking is frequent and relevant interaction involving all participants. Webinar demonstrations on a CD that comes with the book are particularly helpful.

"Recent adopters of virtual classroom technology cite instructor training and preparation as the most critical steps for successful virtual sessions."

Tips for success:

  • Practice with your webinar application until you are comfortable with the tools.
  • Use a skilled virtual facilitator for each session in addition to the instructor.
  • Keep class size small if you are teaching skill-building where you need to closely monitor activity and give feedback. (12 - 15 participants)
  • Use photos of the facilitators/speakers in the introduction. (This supports a personal connection.)
  • Use more visuals than onscreen text and provide narrative explanation of the visuals.
  • Avoid lecturing - keep sessions interactive.
  • Keep sessions as brief as possible.
  • Ask participants to turn off distractors such as cell phones and email. Turning off email often increases streaming bandwidth.
  • Use a variety of interactions.
  • Don't use every interactive tool in your first webinar, start with the easiest tools, get comfortable with them; then try additional tools such as application sharing and breakout rooms.
  • Arrange a quiet and distraction-free working area for the webinar.
  • Turn off cell phones, desk phones, email, and other distractors.
  • Have water available.
  • Use the bathroom ahead of time.
  • Have a clock visible.
  • Be online 30 to 45 minutes ahead of time. You need time to test your materials and audio.
  • Begin and conclude your event on time.
  • Give participants a help desk phone number. When you don't have a technical support solution, the facilitator becomes the help desk.

The New Virtual Classroom is a comprehensive guide to planning webinar sessions. Much of the advice is also applicable to designing asynchronous E-Learning and classroom instruction. It is well worth reading.

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