If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a make a sound? We can debate this philosophical or scientific question forever. However the more important question (to me) is: If a virtual instructor is teaching, but there is little engagement, does learning occur? Just as scientists might argue that sound is a vibration interpreted only by the ear, learning experts will tell you that learning only happens when people care.
In the in-person classroom, where you have a captive audience, there are limited distractions for participants. While achieving engagement in the in-person class is never simple, achieving high engagement in the synchronous virtual classroom is exponentially more difficult. The reason ... there are an infinite amount of distractions in the virtual training world for participants. The technology allows participants to be anywhere and doing almost anything. Couple this with a bit of anonymity for the participants and you have a recipe for a waste of your training dollars.
It takes a special brand of instructor, aided by a thoughtful instructional design for virtual, to handle the engagement challenges of the synchronous virtual classroom. In our experience with training instructors for the virtual classroom and observing instructors in the virtual classroom, we've noticed a few roadblocks that prevent instructors from creating engagement. Over our many years of observation we have found that engagement suffers in a virtual class where the instructor is:
• Too focused on the technology: In my experience as a master virtual instructor I've found that participants in the virtual classroom are smarter about the virtual classroom than many instructors and instructional designers give them credit. In fact, when instructors constantly refer to the technology, it's actually a cause for disengagement. The instructor should be focused only on making a "social" connection with participants and NOT telling them how this classroom will be different from what they are used to in the in-person classroom. We believe that instructors and designers, with little expertise in the virtual classroom, are projecting their discomfort with virtual on the learner. If the instructor proceeds as if there is no technology divide, then the participants will follow suit. We believe in a “just in time” approach to help participants navigate the virtual classroom.
• Not adjusting their approach: Many instructors refrain from directed questioning (calling on participants by name) in the in-person classroom. While I thoroughly disagree with not using a directed approach to engagement in the in-person classroom, I believe that it is also a best practice for creating engagement and participant ownership in the virtual classroom (20 participants or less). In addition, behind the scenes, the instructor needs to consistently monitor engagement tools like chat because it is the voice of the participant. They need to treat a question in chat just as if someone verbally asked it. In the virtual classroom, a good instructor will immediately react to chat comments and blend them into normal discussion. In this environment, saying "please be patient as I get to your questions in chat" is a disengagement behavior because it doesn't honor a key vehicle of virtual participant communication.
• Focused only on content: You are probably thinking, isn't that what they are supposed to do? My answer is yes ... and they must focus equally on building participant engagement. If they fail to do all the behaviors required to get participant engagement, the content delivery will have failed as well. It’s like a tree falling in the forest. If the instructor is a talking head and doesn't attend to the participant's needs, the content is dead on arrival.
• Ignoring the social requirement: Humans love social contact. In the in-person classroom there is a social feeling and, as a result, some obligations and unsaid agreements between instructor and participants exist. The invisibility of participants in the synchronous virtual classroom hampers the development of these obligations and agreements. We know, from our experience, that if the instructor consistently demonstrates the behaviors required to create a social connection, these obligations and agreements can successfully be built. While this requires some “heavy lifting” on the part of the instructor, it can easily be accomplished.
These are just a few of the adjustments instructors must make to be successful in the synchronous virtual classroom. For more information, get our free brief at http://www.evokevirtual.com/socializing-the-virtual-classroom-brief or contact us about our Virtual Instructor Certificate program..