In theory, it should be simple—take existing instructor-led training programs and put them online. Set up a webcam or shoehorn the training into a webinar platform, and get all the benefits of in-person ILT without the costs of travel, facilities, and time away from the job.
It’s a great idea, and we’re seeing more and more learning organizations attempt this straight conversion to virtual instructor-led training from traditional ILT. But in reality, going virtual is a lot more complex, requiring careful thought about how to retain those components that really make in-person ILT shine, like participant-centered interactivity, interpersonal camaraderie, and hands-on practice.
ILT conversion to VILT can absolutely be a smart and successful move, but only if it’s done right.
It’s easy to see why virtual ILT is such a hot item in learning & development, whether as a standalone delivery method or as part of a blended learning strategy. As training budgets continue to tighten and workforces become increasingly dispersed, virtual training offers an attractive, cost-effective alternative to traditional ILT.
But cost savings is not the only reason companies convert to virtual ILT. It also offers the ability to have geographically dispersed people in the same training, and it allows for shorter and more frequent interactions with learners. Moreover, VILT makes sessions based on the skill levels of participants much more feasible— having periodic trainings with just a handful of people each is far more cost-effective in a virtual setting.
Before we discuss how to create VILT that is effective and engaging, let’s first define what VILT is not. Virtual ILT is not a webinar, wherein a presenter talks to the audience and shows slides. It's not a presentation, and we want to avoid the “sage on stage.” We do not want to be focused on the facilitator.
The best virtual trainings are participant-centered interactive learning experiences, featuring planned, hands-on activities and engagement to avoid long periods of staring at the screen and listening to a speaker. Hopefully, you wouldn't plan 90 minutes of lecture in an ILT; likewise, don't convert into an online lecture a course intended to build skills.
Selecting ILT Courses for Conversion
The first step in converting ILT to VILT is selecting appropriate training courses. Ideal candidates for conversion are courses that are not overly technical or complex, and they should be up-to-date. Extremely technical courses can be converted, but consider starting with a topic that is less complicated; build some successes with less complex courses, then tackle more complex ones.
Some other considerations when selecting an ILT for conversion:
- Is the content in a presentation, leader’s guide, participant guide, or producer notes? If you're building course materials, it is less of a conversion than an entirely new course design.
- In addition to the software or classroom materials needed in the ILT classroom, plan on what will be needed for virtual delivery of the course.
Define the Scope of the VILT
A successful ILT conversion is rarely an apples-to-apples transition—some tweaks must be made to optimize the course for the online environment, and that means scope and logistics need to be reevaluated and redefined. Like with any course development, first establish some learning objectives, defining what behaviors and skills you’re seeking to impart and exactly what optimal performance looks like.
Design the course with the delivery platform’s capabilities in mind, adjusting any hands-on practice and lab work within the limitations of the virtual training framework accordingly.
Include a list of other support pieces that will be needed to accommodate content that is not specifically in the VILT, such as job aids, eLearning, checklists, demos or simulations, on-the-job coaching, manager observations, etc. And determine how the VILT will integrate with the learning management system.
Finally, as with any training initiative, it’s important to establish a learning sustainability plan to make sure content stays relevant over time and that course updates happen as needed.
Training Facilitation Techniques for VILT
Just because a training facilitator is an all-star in the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean she will make a smooth transition to virtual training. As any stage actor will attest, performing in front of an audience and on screen are two very different experiences. Regardless of how many hours of classroom experience a trainer has, before diving into virtual ILT that trainer will need lessons on the delivery platform, the course content, and the practical differences compared to face-to-face training.
Facilitators face a number of challenges specific to the virtual environment, but perhaps none as significant as learner attention. Whether the learners are sitting together in a remote classroom or alone at their homes, VILT facilitators will be competing for attention with myriad distractions—side conversations, text messaging, email, instant messaging, the Internet, and heaven knows what else. Whereas in an in-person setting, courtesy and decorum go a long way toward regulating behavior and attentiveness, those social factors are often mitigated when the instructor is miles away.
It’s up to the facilitator to create an environment that engages participants and keeps them focused on the tasks and topics at hand. Here are six tactics for successful VILT facilitation.
- Establish some rules. Request 100% participation and ask for agreement from your participants. Just as in ILT, there will be distractions from other colleagues or devices. You want to minimize it and maximize involvement for the duration of the training.
- Master the technology. Know the ins and outs of your virtual classroom. You should be able to move seamlessly through the interface, ensuring that focus remains on the content. A several-minute pause while you figure out how something works will disrupt the rhythm of the training and could cause some folks to tune out.
- Have a copilot. As with any training scenario, something will inevitably go wrong. Having an assistant on hand can go a long way toward navigating trouble spots. It can be a producer who is visible, helping with troubleshooting and managing the chat. Or it can be someone quiet and in the background, troubleshooting if needed.
- Be extra encouraging. The virtual classroom will be incredibly dull if it’s treated like the passive environment of a live training session. Be more aggressive than usual in encouraging involvement and thanking people for participating. Prompt often, and address people by name, whenever possible.
- Voice matters. Remember, even if the VILT uses webcam video, you won’t be able to rely as much on body language and nonverbal cues as you would in a live setting. Pay close attention to your volume, tone, inflection, and speaking speed. Your enthusiasm will set the tone for the participants.
- Ask for feedback often. Frequently take the temperature of your learners, requesting that they confirm their comfort level with the content. Just as they can’t judge your body language as well, you may not be able to tell if the training is resonating or if they are having trouble. When you ask a question, allow ample time for responses, whether verbally or in chat.
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.