Virtual Classrooms – here to stay?

Over more than a year, many of us have given or received training over video conference software such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex or other tools. Our experiences have been varied, raging from utter dislike to an admission that, actually it works quite well.

But what are the key aspects that make the difference between a good experience and a bad experience.? After talking to customers, trainers and others, we have boiled it down to a few simple factors:-

Motivation. Do the attendees actually want to be there? Are they interested? Fortunately for Project laneways, the nature of our work is such that all our customers are interested.

Is the right mix of technologies being used? While we have used Microsoft Teams, we feel that the user experience in Zoom is so much better. But we add in other virtual tools when we need to. For instance we use Trello for a planning exercise in our Agile Project Management courses and Miro for many of the exercises in the Rapid Agile Change Management course. Both are used in the Scrum Masters course. The key is to use tools that are simple, powerful and suited for the purpose.

Keeping the camera on. Classroom views. Whatever tools you use, it is important to maximise the feeling of an actual classroom. All cameras should be on and attendees encouraged to use views that maximise interaction between each other.

Is the facilitator/trainer practiced in the use of the tools? At Project Laneways we have spent many hours practicing with the technology both as facilitators and as customers, sampling the user experience. It’s actually quite fun but it is time consuming.

Chat functions /Likes /Electronic hand raising ? Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. At the beginning, the facilitator should discuss the recommended way of using these functions. This may come down to personal preferences. The author’s preference is to forego these tools and ask people just to waive their actual hands or just interrupt. Even so, the chat function is useful for things like links or phone numbers.

Preparation.  Long before there was video conferencing software and long before the pandemic, good facilitation required good preparation. This is just as true now as it was then. And trainers/facilitators should understand that what worked in the physical classroom may not work in a virtual classroom. Every moment needs to be reconsidered and, possible re-planned. Also, it is even more important to consciously work the room, calling on individual participants and reading their expressions.

Breakout rooms. Most web conferencing software allows for breakout rooms. Use them. They really encourage interaction between participants which is such a big factor in training.

Accept the compromises Yes a virtual classroom brings some compromises. The interaction between attendees is reduced (although see above comment on breakout rooms). It can be harder to concentrate and there is always the temptation participants to get distracted by their email (although also happened in the physical classroom). We have found that frequent small breaks can help to overcome this. Not everyone has a totally suitable set up at home, but most people can make it work.

Welcome the advantages. It’s easier for anyone to join the class. We have run classes with participants from Singapore, all of the Australian capital cities, many of the smaller towns, and also from New Zealand. All without the cost of travel and accommodation. participants are spending their time travelling to unfamiliar destinations. Virtual classrooms can also bring their own joy – one participant had a parrot on her shoulder for much of one of our classes. It can also mitigate issues such as school drop offs and pick ups.

In our view physical or virtual classroom decisions need to suit the situation. We can clearly see a place for physical classrooms for on site delivery in the participants usual workplace. Although this won’t work in all circumstances.  However, for many the advantages of virtual classrooms outweigh the disadvantages.

If there is one thing we have learned recently, its that things can change almost overnight. What’s next/ Virtual Reality classrooms? Sign me up!