When your training program includes participants from different cultures or across borders, there are inherent sensitivities that can derail virtual instructor-led training experiences. Skilled facilitation and advanced technology combine to create effective VILT, but hiccups can happen. With planning and preparation, some of those hiccups can be avoided, or at least minimized.
First and foremost, realize that virtual training has important, inherent differences from traditional classroom facilitation. You may be tempted to take your existing pool of facilitators and just give them virtual materials to instruct; this is a bad idea, as it takes special skills and training to make this switch. When selecting and preparing global virtual facilitators, consider both their individual skills as well as best practices relating to preparation.
There are some important qualities when choosing facilitators, foremost being adaptability. Sometimes a course plan needs to change on the fly, and technical issues can create a situation where an interaction needs to be altered. Having the ability to adjust and be flexible is important.
Global VILT facilitators need to be keenly sensitive to the audience and how the material is being received. While this is important for any facilitator at any time, it is exacerbated when you are getting only minimal visual (and sometimes verbal) cues, and also where there are cultural differences. Some people may have good ideas to contribute, but they will not “fight for the mic.” Be attentive to this so you can reach all learners and so you know when to pause. Being sensitive to one's own cultural self-awareness is also important, being cautious about the use of humor or sarcasm. The ability to multitask is also an important trait for a facilitator in virtual training.
In global virtual facilitation, presentation skills, technical and platform skills, and the ability to manage a global audience are all important. A train-the-trainer course should address these skills, in addition to the course content. That said, it’s recommended not to combine them all into a single course— it’s way too much at one time. Teach facilitators the platform, then teach them the finer points of virtual facilitation, and then practice using the tool they have been trained on. Then teach them the content and let them practice using the methods and tool. It's scaffolding, with each step building on the last. The sequence can be different, but teaching all at once can be overwhelming and ineffective.
Additionally, provide facilitators with time and platform availability to practice before conducting a course live. Being able to schedule a run-through or rehearsal will go a long way toward the VILT running smoothly, particularly when using a new platform. If at all possible, use a conservative timeline for rolling out the virtual curriculum, in order to give facilitators time to be comfortable and effective.
Consider Using a Producer
It’s a VILT best practice to have a technical producer, in addition to a facilitator, and this is particularly important when the audience is global. Technology varies across countries and regions, so glitches are practically inevitable. The producer can handle any issues in the background while the facilitator continues connecting with the group.
Producer roles vary by organization, but in general, the producer manages the chat and does any needed technical troubleshooting while the facilitator is running the slides and presenting. The producer opens the meeting, explains the technical interaction features, and introduces the facilitator. The producer creates polls and manages them, while the facilitator introduces the polls and comments on results. Both the facilitator and producer should undergo global audience sensitivity training.
A producer is a lifesaver for VILT facilitators who are presenting new content or on a new platform. Without a tech assistant, the pressure to both present and troubleshoot can place undue stress on the facilitators and interfere with accomplishing learning objectives. In this situation, the cultural differences or needs of the audience will inevitably take a back seat.
Design with Cultural Differences in Mind
The biggest difference between traditional classroom ILT and a virtual environment is interaction. Know the platform’s capability, but don’t use a technical feature just because it is available. Choose interaction based on need, and incorporate backup plans in case the facilitator isn't getting desired levels of feedback or participation. Although calling on learners directly works well with some cultures, folks from other cultures may find such interaction scary, causing them to withdraw.
Plan to set an engaging tone for the training session. Consider opening with a virtual world map and having each person mark on the map where they are located. Or, ask each person what it’s like outside where they are (dark, sunny, hot, etc.).
How the audience connects with the virtual synchronous (live) session may vary, but most platforms accommodate either telephone or voice-over-IP (VoIP). Have audiences test this prior to training by setting up a quick 15-minute session for people to attend, and also give them the option and instructions to test on their own. While VoIP works for many, bandwidth needs to be taken into account based on your target geography. Time spent on this early can prevent issues and the wasting of precious classroom time later on.
Keep in mind that language skills can vary dramatically within global organizations. When learners are not native speakers, it is good practice to put more written content in handouts or on slides and to give them access to it in advance of the session. Learners can look up words they don’t know and get more out of the session. Some facilitators may be reluctant to distribute content in advance, but it is a chance to improve knowledge retention.
Visually appealing slides are an important component of virtual learning, and effective slides have fewer things to concentrate on. Changing the slides, even if it is just slight changes like adding a new graphic or a word for emphasis, helps retain interest. Use graphics that portray the message visually; if learners struggle with a term or concept, the image should help clarify. Be cautious of using culturally specific images, like regional sports or hobbies.
Be cognizant of varying time zones, as well as days of the week. A workweek for the United States and many Western countries is Monday through Friday, but for some parts of the world it may start with Saturday or Sunday. And time zone differences can mean that a Friday session in one part of the world actually takes place on Saturday somewhere else. Keep a global calendar of holidays, workdays, and time zones to use when scheduling meetings and virtual training sessions; TimeAndDate.com is a good tool. And don’t let Daylight Savings Time mess up your plans.
Sometimes companies take existing content, slides, and materials and try to repurpose them for global virtual sessions, without conducting a proper conversion design. When this happens, the facilitator often takes the hit for a class that is unsuccessful. The curriculum should be reviewed for both virtual training and for the cultural/global perspective. When the curriculum is right and the facilitators are properly prepared, the chances are good for successfully accomplishing learning objectives of the course across borders.
Renie McClay is a learning project manager with Caveo Learning. Before joining Caveo in 2014, Renie held a variety of learning leader roles for companies including Kraft, Gerber, and Pactiv Corp. She has a master's in global talent development from DePaul University and is a Certified Professional in Learning & Performance (CPLP). An adjunct professor at Concordia University and Roosevelt University, she is a renowned expert on global training and sales training. McClay has authored or contributed to 10 books, including The Essential Guide to Training Global Audiences and Fortify Your Sales Force.