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March 2020 has marked a sea change of how organisations and education have met, communicated, presented and taught/trained/facilitated. The lock down/ advice to stay at home, due to the risk of infection from Coronavirus, has meant live online platforms like Zoom, Adobe Connect, Teams, Skype and more have become the new normal – at least for now.

I’ve had many discussions about how these different working practices could continue once the Coronavirus horror is behind us. Would there be less travel, meaning the pollution that has been reducing around the world stays low and we all benefit? Would there be more work/life balance for people, regardless of kids or physical/mental health needs?

However there’s a distinct worry we’ll all just go back to normal. I was chatting with Anthony Williams and he commented:

“I just hope the virtual classroom doesn’t become the new ‘click next’ though!”

You can read more of Anthony's thoughts on this topic here

Corporations can save 50-70% when instructor-based training is replaced with e-learning and more than 6.7 million people take online courses. The trouble is that users say that they get bored, frustrated when they can’t use their device of choice, hate the wrong pace, find lists of procedures and regulations tedious and can’t relate personally to courses (source:

A lot of click-next, self-paced e-learning that’s locked away in a Learning Management System has, rightly, a poor reputation. A lot of it is highly engaging, accessible and relevant. And that’s how things are – there’s always those that do it well and those that don’t.

What angered me on a Sunday morning…

An article published yesterday on ars Technica had the headline “Real learning in a virtual classroom is difficult” – with a tagline of “who needs real learning anyway”? I want to debunk a lot of what was shared there, as I don’t want virtual classrooms and live online learning in general to be the new ‘click-next’ and the poor reputation it often suffers with.

Student numbers

Author Chris Lee states: “The problem is that teaching is an intimate activity: students give up a certain degree of control to the teacher and trust that person to help them master some new topic. It doesn't matter how big the class, that intimacy is unchanged for the teacher. Teaching is personal. Yes, from the student's perspective, a one-on-one lesson is more personal than a lecture delivered to 500 students.”

This is the biggest problem right here. A one-on-one lesson (presumably face to face is what the author is referring to) is completely different from a live online session with 500 students. They aren’t comparable. A one-on-one session face to face easily becomes a Zoom/Skype/telephone call with one person. That’s it, it’s easy.

If you have 500 students in your live online class you are running a webinar. You are lecturing or broadcasting to a large number of people, which can be great for reach, but you aren’t doing the same thing as the personal teaching of a smaller class. My blog Virtual classrooms in numbers highlights that I run my sessions with 10 people. That’s an utterly different experience to that of a webinar with 500!

Know your platform

The author laments the technology “when introduced at such short notice... well, you can imagine the chaos. For example, my daughter is getting virtual lessons via Google Meets, but the permissions for the meeting are never set correctly (I am not sure if Google Meets even has the flexibility). Kids are able to mute the teacher for everyone without the teacher noticing. They can choose their own nicknames—with predictable results—and kick each other out of the class. In other words, classroom management has a whole range of different problems that requires a different skill set and, most importantly, planning.”

The short notice is an issue. This month it felt like the whole world suddenly needed to go live online in a matter of days, and a lot of those people had been avoiding live online for a long time. I know for a lot of people it’s out of their comfort zone and we are in extraordinary times – but using a tool without understanding it is of course going to cause these kind of issues.

Organisations need, as best as they can under the circumstances, to be supporting their faculty and trainers in how to setup the system properly to avoid these challenges. Experiences like the one described, for those delivering and those attending, are going to make live online learning a negative situation for the future. That's not the fault of the technology. Quite bluntly it's the fault of the people not using it properly. We are in a context of massive and unprecedented change to our working lives. Yes we need to forgive ourselves and others, but we need to support them too. 

Use the tools

The author makes a point about connecting with others: “Teachers struggling with the lack of instant feedback. How do you know if the students have understood what you've just said? How do you even know they are still in the room? Short answer: the teacher often doesn't know.” Yup, if you are delivering in the same way you would in a face to face classroom you are going to have those problems. Listen to my podcast about Digital Body Language to understand that no feedback just isn't the case if you do live online well.

The author also comments: “Video technology, virtual whiteboards, and all the rest of it simply don't allow for a connection.” I disagree. Strongly. It’s precisely those tools within the platforms that help form that connection. But you have to know how it works, and if you are stumbling with your students muting you, you aren’t going to get to connections with virtual whiteboards.

If you know your teaching craft well, you can pivot those questions and activities into live online equivalents as you find the tool to help you connect with your group of 10 people in a virtual classroom. Of course, that’s different with 500 people – you aren’t ever going to connect with them in the same way, face to face or virtual.

Live online etiquette

This is the experience in the article from a US high-school English teacher: “To make the lesson really work, she has found that you need very strict behavior rules—all microphones are muted until requested. Most cameras are generally off to keep bandwidth under control. She sets the digital permissions for each meeting so that the potential for disruption is minimized. She has established an etiquette: questions go in the chat, only unmute when invited.” Yes, that’s exactly what she should do.

In a face to face classroom with the same high-school students the beginning of the year would have included some behaviour setting and time to settle into the norm of what that teacher expects. I’ve taught 16-year-olds in college myself and this is the same – you have to set the ‘permissions’ for your class to minimise the disruption.

I generally recommend keeping everyone on mute, even in my adult sessions, as it just means typing, coughing, tea-slurping and the like aren’t present and the line is kept as clear as possible. It can work in very small groups of four or five to be unmuted for discussions – but that’s different from perhaps 20-30 high-school students!

As for webcams – they are great for making visual connections between everyone and I love them for that, especially under the current circumstances where COVID-19 is limiting some of our social interaction. But those same circumstances mean that our personal broadband connections, and the whole network, is taking an absolute hammering! YouTube, for instance, has downgraded the visual quality of it’s videos to reduce the load on networks. So, for now, use the camera judiciously.

Human connection

The author states: “Virtual teaching is surprisingly energy-sapping.” Yes, it is.

This tweet and it’s reply highlights this:





But the key here from Liz Naylor is that she says: “keep them engaged throughout”. Yes, it is hard work when this is new – but so is anything you do differently and have to think more about. But it can be done.

The article author continues with: “In the [face-to-face] class, if you are doing your job right, there is a positive feedback. You give lots of energy, but you also receive a lot back from the students. In a virtual environment, it doesn't matter how much you give, you get nothing back.”

This incenses me.

You absolutely, totally and utterly can get feedback and energy for your virtual classroom attendees.

If that couldn’t be done, I wouldn’t be doing what I do – as I LOVE connecting with people, discussing, learning together, and the energy I get from a great virtual classroom session gets me absolutely buzzing.

I can well understand someone feeling at first the lack of feedback, when it’s all so new and rushed. But in reading the article it seems like the author has done a fair amount of research. Sadly, it seems he hasn’t researched into how to make those connections with people, use the tools he has in order to get feedback from students and still feed off of their energy.

He continues: “There is no positive take on this: removing the most enjoyable part of teaching makes it a horrible job.” For me the most enjoyable parts of teaching/facilitating are those ‘lightbulb moments’ of realisations from people – I named my company after just that feeling. And the thing that my company has focused entirely on since 2013 is live online classes – on getting those human connections, reacting to the energy in the session and seeing those ‘lightbulb moments’ live online.

But they way you do it is to learn the technology you have, set it up right, plan and design your delivering with the attendees in mind to engage them every single step of the way, then iterate your own practice. You can get there. You will get there. And this community is here to help you.

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  • Great piece Jo. One that should be brought to a wider audience. I agree with the entire thing. Virtual classroom can be great. Just like anything done by a professional that knows his/her trade. I'll go as far that, when done well, it can be better.

    No matter what delivery you have for your training solution. If it doesn't meet the people's need you'll fail. Most of my face-2-face experiences have been a rubbish experience for me. That does not mean classroom is bad by default. 

    It's too easy to say virtual classroom is bad or not as good as face-2-face if you're not comfortable and experienced doing virtual classroom. 

    I'd say if you're writing an opinion piece, find out the good and the bad. Don't just follow your own preference or bias.

  • This BPS article lists some different elements about helping people learn in remote and self-directed courses, which will help address this issue!

    How To Get The Most Out Of Virtual Learning
    By Emily Reynolds. Virtual learning seems likely to be the norm for the near future. Here’s our digest of psychologically-informed tips to get the mo…
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