The Successful Virtual Classroom

How to Design and Facilitate Interactive and Engaging Live Online Learning

The Successful Virtual Classroom

Author: Darlene Christopher
Pub Date: October 2014
Print Edition: $39.95
Print ISBN: 9780814434284
Page Count: 224
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814434291

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Virtual learning, in the space of just a few years, has greatly enhanced its position as a learning solution among a growing number of organizations. Behind virtual learning's rise in such a short span of time is better, more reliable delivery technology and an increasing number of tech-savvy learners. In addition, the great economic meltdown that began in late 2007 forced companies to find cost-saving alternatives to traditional classroom training.

But whether this shift is driven by cost-cutting business imperatives or strategically nuanced decision-making encouraged by improved tech-nology options and a more accepting workforce, companies are choosing virtual learning solutions in greater numbers than ever. Still, for many training and learning professionals, virtual learning remains an uncertain option for a whole host of reasons. A few of them are fact, but most are fiction.

This book is designed to carefully pick apart the underlying assump-tions and misconceptions about virtual learning by providing a range of field-tested tools, tips, and techniques that ensure learner value and keep trainees engaged with a learning event even if the facilitator is in another state, region, or country.

Yes, virtual learning does still have some flaws and limitations, and these shortcomings are what critics point to as they dismiss virtual class-room training as a viable training solution. It's boring, these critics say, or virtual learning audiences don't pay attention and use the time to catch up on email. While these criticisms do reflect a small slice of reality on some level, my opinion of virtual learning is obviously a little more bal-anced.


In the case of virtual classroom training (and face-to-face classroom training for that matter), the magic is not found in the sophistication of the technology but in how well the physical and virtual tools are used to create and facilitate an engaging learning event. The same technology that's behind highly interactive, engaging, and interesting virtual learning experiences is what also creates ineffective and boring virtual training solutions that invite criticism.

You can suffer a "death by PowerPoint" experience virtually or in person. The only differentiator between a successful or unsuccessful training event is good design executed by a skilled facilitator. It's all about creating an ideal mix of appropriate technology, excellent design, and engaging facilitation. If this book has one main goal, it's to guide you to-ward always hitting that ideal learning mix.



First, virtual classroom training combines elements of traditional face-to-face training with elements of self-paced e-learning. As such, face-to-face and virtual classroom training both require facilitators. Like self-paced e-learning, a reliable Internet connection is needed to connect learners in different countries, regions, or time zones. Table 1-1 com-pares several components of three types of training delivery.

Many elements of face-to-face and virtual classroom learning also align. Figures 1-1 and 1-2 show typical face-to-face and virtual classroom setups respectively. Note how the group dynamics in the classroom set-ting--participant discussion led by a facilitator with support materials--are replicated in the virtual setting to achieve the same group dynamics.

The facilitator's role and responsibilities in a virtual classroom are similar to what you'd expect a facilitator to do in a physical classroom. They include basic tasks, such as:

Navigating through course slides and other materials

Facilitating and encouraging interaction among participants through questions and dialogue

Of course, the obvious difference is that the learners experience the virtual facilitator as a displayed static image or a live webcam video feed. Dynamic participant interaction is accomplished via text chats and verbal-ly through a voice over internet protocol (VoIP) or a teleconference asso-ciated with the session. Any notes or points of interest the facilitator wants to emphasize are jotted down on an electronic whiteboard that all the participants see simultaneously. If the facilitator poses a question, the "raised-hand" response serves as a graphic representation associated with the individual learner that appears on the screen. Facilitators have the option of querying all the learners simultaneously using polling tools built into the virtual learning software. Handouts, job aids, and other supplemental material are emailed or posted for participants to download.


In most cases, answering a few targeted questions about the specific training need, technology available, amount of content, basic participant demographics, and the virtual learning experience of the facilitation team should be enough to determine whether or not virtual classroom training is appropriate for a particular learning program. Here are a few questions you can use to begin this process.

Training Need

Does virtual classroom training offer a better solution (i.e., more effi-cient, cost effective, or scalable) for the business need or perfor-mance problem than traditional classroom training?

Does the organizational and learning culture support the use of virtual classroom training?


Is the company's virtual classroom tool stable, reliable, and supported by the information technology (IT) department?

What equipment is available, and is it the right equipment needed to deliver virtual classroom training (i.e., headsets for VoIP and wired Internet connections)?

Will the participants have access to appropriately equipped comput-ers, laptops, or tablets, as well as telephones or microphone-enabled headsets?


Is it possible to group the content into 60 to 90 minute segments?

Does the topic require participant collaboration, interaction, and dia-logue?

How much time and resources are needed to develop or repurpose face-to-face training for the virtual classroom environment or de-velop new material for the virtual classroom? Is it possible to do the work and meet the delivery deadline?


Is the environment conducive to virtual classroom training (i.e., private and free from distractions)?

Do participants have sufficient technical skills to participate?

Are the participants geographically dispersed?

Facilitation Team

Are the facilitators skilled in virtual classroom facilitation?

What virtual learning support staff can you call on to assist in the ses-sion?

Answering these questions provides some initial insight into the ap-propriateness of a designing a virtual learning solution. Developing ques-tions appropriate for your organizational situation will further refine the broad questions provided here and help you make a final decision about whether to offer a virtual training solution.

Here's additional helpful delivery mode decision-making support. According to the U.S. Distance Learning Association (USDLA), virtual classroom training works best to achieve higher cognitive levels when a synchronous learning environment supports a high level of dialogue and interaction. In other words, don't spend time in the virtual classroom dumping a torrent of information on learners. Instead, use the time to interact with learners to discuss, evaluate, and synthesize information.

Noted adult learning scholar Ruth Clark emphasizes that virtual classroom training is the right choice when learning objectives can be best achieved through:

Display, explanation, and discussion of relevant visuals

Interactions using virtual tools, such as polling, writing on whiteboard, and chatting

Collaborative work among small groups of participants


As noted earlier, companies are increasingly using virtual classroom training to deliver learning solutions. Additional financial and social bene-fits driving this increased use are discussed below.

Global Reach

More organizations than ever are using virtual learning to bring individu-als and teams together for learning events in an increasingly global busi-ness environment. Whether it's a global sales team connecting from of-fices in different countries or managers separated by multiple zones, the ability to easily connect people and train them in the same virtual class-room is one of the main benefits spurring the increased use of virtual learning. Even facilitators benefit from the technology's reach. Learning sessions may be conducted just as easily whether the facilitator is work-ing from home, office, or any other appropriately equipped location.

Time and Travel Savings

Clearly, virtual learning eliminates the costs associated with traditional classroom learning events, such as travel expenses (airline flights, car rentals, hotel rooms, and meal expenses). For example, if 20 employees need to fly domestically to attend a three-day learning event at a cost of $1,000 each for travel, hotel, and meals, an organization would save $20,000 by delivering the training virtually as a series of short sessions. Costs associated with workflow disruption and lost productivity are also eliminated, since participants join virtual classroom training from their workplaces or home offices. At the same time, virtual training is an effi-ciency "force multiplier" for facilitators, since they spend more time lead-ing training and less time traveling.

Environmentally Friendly

Since virtual classroom training eliminates the need for air and automo-bile travel, it's an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional class-room training in which participants and facilitators are geographically dis-persed and must travel to the same location. Airplane and automobile emissions are the biggest polluters related to workplace learning. In addi-tion, because training materials may be distributed electronically, virtual training saves paper and, by extension, trees that would be lost by print-ing materials. For organizations looking to demonstrate their commitment to "green" alternatives and their focus on reducing their carbon footprint, the virtual classroom is an efficiency and public relations win-win.

Chunked Content

According to research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, a distributed approach to learning, where training is delivered as a series of shorter events with time in between, increases learning transfer by 17 percent over a single event. Setting up a series of in-person events for such chunked delivery is often an impractical design option, especially if participants are physically dispersed. However, virtual classroom learning is perfectly suited for delivering a series of chunked learning events with time in between those events for learners to practice and internalize con-tent.

Security and Weather Disruptions

Virtual classrooms are also immune to disruptions because of changes in airline or train schedules or the closing of major road systems because of political instability, weather, or repairs. Examples of such disruptive events in 2010 include the Arab Spring civil uprisings or the Iceland vol-cano eruption that spewed engine-killing ash into the jet stream and re-stricted air travel for weeks.

Virtual training has many advantages over traditional classroom training, from the ability to connect participants globally to reduced travel and lower carbon emissions. Furthermore, the flexibility of the virtual classroom allows trainers to develop shorter segments of content, which helps to improve learning transfer.

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