When examining the many challenges that come with creating global virtual classrooms, the key is to understand the makeup, learning styles, and expectations of your audience.

At ASTD Techknowledge 2013 in San Jose, California, Inigo Sanchez-Cabezudo spoke with David Smith, managing director of InSync Training in Europe, about the challenges of creating global virtual classrooms.

Before trainers design a global virtual training session, what are the critical questions they should be asking?

Recent economic events have pushed us toward thinking about using these learning technologies … to deliver training. Often, it becomes the most obvious choice for us from an HR learning and development perspective because we can minimize costs. More importantly, we remove the time away from the office. So, virtual classrooms have become a huge trend. I think the biggest critical questions come from understanding who our actual audience is going to be.

One of the things that I’ve seen over the years is organizations where they’ve designed a training program and it’s been delivered to the native audience—an American organization has designed it for an American audience, used an American facilitator, and delivered in America. Then, because of the globalization of the business, that same program is delivered to audiences in Asia or Europe, but no adjustments to the program have been made.

Some of the critical questions that need to be asked include: How diverse is the audience? How will they actually view, for instance, American-designed material, or the American use of English? Will that be seen as getting "second best" because they’re getting an American program delivered to them?

From a virtual training perspective, there’s a need to think about how we work with facilitators and producers. The producer is the technical support in the program—does that person need to be multilingual?

That’s great if what we’re doing is having a United Kingdom facility that’s delivering to a Mandarin audience in English. I can have someone that’s multilingual in English and Mandarin, but what if we’ve actually got Cantonese and Mandarin, and people from Thailand in there where you get so many different mixes? Like everything else, before we even start putting a program out there, we have to understand who our audience is—how culturally diverse it is going to be.

We need to determine if the virtual classroom is the right modality to be using. When the economic crisis hit, a lot of organizations saw virtual classrooms as the savior. It was a way to still deliver training to their people while at the same time, cutting training costs. A lot of those organizations that initially went 100 percent virtual have pulled that back and are still doing some face-to-face training.

So I think very much it’s looking at the modality and saying, yes, it’s an efficient way for us to deliver the training to the audience, but is it the most effective?

What challenges should a designer expect to face when creating a global virtual training program?

English as a second language is probably the biggest one. A very close second is that you’re managing a program over a time zone. We’re sitting here right now in San Jose, which is eight hours behind the United Kingdom, or 16 hours behind Singapore.

One of the biggest challenges that happens is that programs have been advertised for a particular time zone. So the invite will go out to the global audience that the meeting is at 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, in the United States. But no one has taken into consideration that might be 8 p.m. in the United Kingdom. It might be midnight in the Middle East and even early morning in Asia.

I don’t think people are deliberately doing that. Everything that I think about in terms of cultural intelligence, it’s an awareness, it’s an understanding.

Not everyone works a Monday-through-Friday work week. In the United States and the United Kingdom, Sunday is a day of worship, but in the Middle East, that’s Saturday, and in some instances, it’s Friday. In places such as Saudi Arabia, Sunday through Thursday is the work week. So, again, imagine what happens when we schedule training on a Friday. It doesn’t work.

There also are challenges with technology. When we think about any of these virtual classroom platforms, they all work using bandwidth, or Internet connection and a telephone line. You’ve got to understand and appreciate the country that you’re delivering the training to. How advanced is it in terms of that technology?

Ultimately, in a lot of these platforms, the lowest common denominator pulls down the bandwidth. I might have a super-fast line here in the United States, but if I’m training an audience in Singapore and they’re using Wi-Fi, the session speed is going to be dictated by that bandwidth.

An interesting challenge that we’ve seen has come from telephone lines. We’ve delivered training to some audiences where there haven’t been enough phone lines for learners to join the conference. What they end up doing is congregating around a speaker phone, which is great because it means that they can still be part of the learning.

But the challenge is more from a facilitation perspective. If everyone joins the web conference on their own computer and on their own telephone line and you’ve got 16 participants, you’ve got 16 individuals you can interact with, and you’ve got 16 voices that you can hear.

But when you work with an audience and they’re all clustered around the speaker phone, those six individuals in that one room now have one voice or even worse, they’re now all logged on to one computer. You’ve suddenly got groupthink. You’ve got one person who can respond at a time. That really becomes a challenge.

Some of the more subtle challenges are creating content in different translations and pronouncing names correctly. An important challenge comes down to the student’s expectation of the actual learning itself and their role in that learning.

In Asia, for instance, you’ve got the Confucian teacher-pupil mentality, which is that the trainer or the teacher or the facilitator is all-seeing, all-knowing. They are the experts. I come to your session to learn from you.

If that’s the case, how does that sit with them when we want to do a collaborative learning exercise where we want them to help us do the learning? It fights against how they’ve been learning all their lives.

So we have to revisit the design of the session, but we also have to examine the facilitation.

How do we manage the multigenerational aspect of different learners from different generations, and people who may not be tech savvy in a virtual training?

That’s a great question because we’re now at the point where we have four generations in the workplace.

I’m 47. I remember having to program computers and having to do a lot more in IT technical elements in terms of setting up printers and logging into networks. The technologies nowadays are great because they are so simple to use, but at the same time we’re becoming more reliant on that being so easy.

I think the challenges come more from the communication side before we get to the virtual session itself. A lot of the conference platforms provide joining instructions. Some of those are better than others; some of them are very clear.

What we found to be quite successful is taking those joining instructions and pulling them out from the traditional invite that the platform generates. Be very direct and prescriptive by saying, here’s the information. The communication piece becomes very important.

It also comes back to making sure that we have the audience in the platform it understands and knows how to use. As facilitators, they need to know the platform inside, outside, back to front. They need to be very conversant on what’s happening with the actual technology. So I think the multigenerational challenges come more from a facilitator than the actual audience.