Managing virtual classrooms requires a different approach to
your learners, but by integrating some simple yet innovative tools,
its easy to get started.
I hate e-learning, cried a top Silicon Valley chief learning
officer. Her shocking remark opened a Sloan Foundation workshop at
Stanford University in the Spring of 2011. Attended by some of the
industrys most prominent learning executives, most echoed
disenchantment with ubiquitous plug-and-play modules used by many
Fortune 500 companies.
Today, innovative learning leaders are moving away rapidly from
delivering isolating self-learning modules, turning instead to
engaged, peer-to-peer electronic-mediated environmentsvirtual
Why it works?
Mirroring and extending face-to-face instruction, virtual
classrooms give employees the chance to participate in live or
asynchronous discussions with facilitators and co-workers,
interacting in creative, knowledge-building ways.
While self-learning modules depend entirely on employees absorbing
text and graphical elements on their own, personnel in virtual
learning environments are engaged with instructors and peers in
real-time or through discussion threads. The key is active
communication, building motivation and involvement, rather than
merely absorbing facts or processes by rote.
Without adding a new line item in your budget and without entering
negotiations with vendors, very likely, you can set up a virtual
classroom at your company today, exploiting currently installed
commercial software or freely available open-source applications.
If your company provides you and your co-workers with a learning
management system (LMS), you probably have all the technical
resources youll need. LMSs usually house discussion forums where
instructors and employees can easily post text messages (similar to
exchanges on a listserv). And if you have access to chat rooms and
webinar tools, youre ready to run a virtual classroom at your
Even without an LMS, you can run a stripped-down virtual classroom,
just with email and teleconferencing. Or, if you're looking for
more robust collaboration tools, search the web to download free
groupware such as Drupal. Scaling-up with more sophisticated
technologiesoffered by many companies as part of a learning
suiteyou can introduce podcasts, video streaming, simulations, and,
at the high end, the extraordinary experience of teleprescence.
Most interactive tools give you and your learners the ability to
archive lectures, presentations, and even text discussions.
Digitally captured, lessons can be revisited by those who may not
have absorbed key points at first. Archiving also permits learners
to check in afterwards to view recorded presentations they may have
missed while away on assignment.
Its best to turn to your IT or training department to help you
select the right communication tools. Of course some of these,
email and teleconferencing for example, are commonly used, part of
every workers routine practice, and naturally, do not require
training. Others, with which you may be less familiar (chat,
discussion forums, blogs, webinars, wikis, and social networks) may
require some help to get you up and running.
If youre the instructor, the first thing youll want to do is post a
welcome message; for example: Hi. My name is Jane Smith, and Im
your instructor. At the start, its best to let everyone know what
the course is about, how you plan to run it, how much participation
you expect, and how often and when the class will meet in real
time, either by teleconference, Skype, or webcasting.
When they log in, learners should immediately access a brief
description of your course; topics and lessons divided into modules
by day or week; and your expectations for participation in
discussions, postings, homework, group and individual assignments,
and tests, among other tasks.
Since most virtual classes never actually meet face-to-face, its
helpful to post useful clues about who you are (your photo and your
brief profile, especially). Its wise to encourage participants to
post their photos and bios, too. It may seem counterintuitive, but
learners in virtual classrooms say that they often grow closer to
their peers online than in physical space, especially in corporate
settings where everyone rushes off to the next assignment or to
make a deadline. Weve all experienced the peculiar feeling of
sitting next to a co-worker for an entire course and at the end not
knowing anything about her, not even her name.
If you run it right, you can reduce, and even eliminate, what
virtual-team experts Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard Reilly call
virtual distance, which is a consequence of a number of potentially
alienating factorswide geographic separation and different cultural
norms without a common standard of behavior. In Uniting the Virtual
Workplace (Wiley, 2008), they say that building close relationships
among workers at a distance is the single most important task.
Online, the most effective way of mitigating virtual distance is to
stimulate peer-to-peer interaction. Assuming the role of
facilitator in a text-based forum, you initiate discussion by
posing a question about the topic being covered. If its on target,
your question will generate a trickle of responses at first,
followed by others who may chime in commenting on earlier posts,
some disagreeing with previous conclusions.
Virtual discussions can start with just a seed and grow into a
giant discussion tree, branching and twigging in many directions.
Your job, as a guide on the siderather than a sage on the stageis
to enter occasionally when you see things straying or when you
detect false claims or errors of fact. Otherwise, its best to let
participants learn from one another, expressing a wide range of
opinion. At the close, say, at the end of the day or at the
conclusion of a weeklong session, youll wrap things up succinctly,
pointing out essential takeaways.
Virtual classes take employees seriously, placing them at the
center of learning, rather than at the periphery. Workers in
virtual classrooms will be prepared for some of the most
challenging experiences in modern corporate life. Apart from the
content they need to know, as their jobs become more complex and
demanding, they will learn how to engage with others using
sophisticated communication technologies, and most critically, they
will learn to act effectively in teams everywhere your company does