March 21, 2019

Tips for creating an engaging virtual training

The world is a busy place. In the nonprofit sector, we are inundated with emails, social media posts, texts, polls, and webinar and calendar invitations. It often makes me want to say, “Enough already.”

I relish the opportunity for an in-person meeting or training for staff and volunteers. A break from the technology for a few hours where people talk face-to-face is refreshing. But lately, it feels more difficult to schedule in-person trainings. Barriers for our Cooperative Extension volunteers where I work in rural Maine often include barriers related to weather, distance, time, cost, childcare, and scheduling availability.

As a UMaine Cooperative Extension faculty member with responsibilities for statewide volunteer development, I work in partnership with federal, state, and local governments to bring research-based information from universities to local people in the community.

While I still see value in face-to-face trainings for our volunteers, there is a growing trend to offer online training through video conferencing.

Video conferencing is a useful communication method within our organization and other nonprofits, especially for one-on-one meetings and committee work. Webinars are what come to mind if someone says “web-based training” and have become more popular while aiming to offer synchronous experiences. But in my experience, they are often one-sided and don’t allow for quality interaction beyond the chat box feature. Using a synchronous video conferencing platform can allow for high-quality interactive training.

Intentional design and development are key to create a high-quality virtual training (Robideau & Vogel 2014). Below are some tips for how to be intentional when designing your next virtual training.

Audio quality

When offering an in-person training, the trainer can adjust the physical distance in the room to observe and hear what is going on while tuning out or reducing distractions. Take a few minutes at the start of the session to remind participants to mute their microphones/devices if they aren’t speaking. Background noise, quiet or soft voice levels and distance from recording devices contribute to the challenges of clearly hearing one another during a video conference.

Screen share

This feature allows users the ability to share one’s screen. It’s easy to share a draft document or slides from your desktop, capture ideas during a brainstorming session, or view a video clip for discussion and feedback. Use the screen share feature judiciously. Otherwise, it can feel more like a webinar with a Charlie Brown teacher voice droning on in the background.

Tech problem-solving

Video conferencing facilitators should be comfortable with new and unexpected discoveries technologies bring. The role is split between offering professional development and helping participants navigate technology glitches so that they can participate. Internet speeds are usually adequate for online discussion, but upload and live-streaming could be slow.

Online engaging formats

A webinar featuring a speaker with a slide deck often tempts participants to multi-task due to the lack of interaction between presenter and learner. In synchronous web-based learning environments, learning can be enhanced with intentional design that engages learners in real-time conversations designed to explore concepts. Use virtual breakout rooms, learning activities, and unscripted, spontaneous conversations to keep learners focused. Ensuring active learning happens by planning for it in your content and reserving adequate time for the activities. For instance, think about where it might make sense to add a poll question so the presentation portion doesn’t lose people’s attention.

Facilitating discussion

Encourage participants to engage in conversation. Offer opportunities for people to share ideas, check for understanding, and ask questions. Utilizing a feature such as virtual breakout rooms where participants can actually see each other helps to make virtual sessions feel more engaging. With this feature, the facilitator can assign people to virtual rooms for a small group discussion. By posting questions ahead of time in the chat box, people have more time to think about how they will respond.

Self-reflection

It is important to provide some quiet time for individual thought processing. One way to do this is to ask participants at the beginning of the session to have paper and a pen ready. Providing a writing prompt or question not only offers a different level of participation but allows for the individual ownership of their learning. How will they take what they learned and apply it? What next steps will they take? How are they thinking differently as a result of new knowledge or ideas gained? A timer to count down the final 60 seconds notifying people to wrap up their writing or journaling can be an unobtrusive way to signal you will change activities.

Agenda

One of the first things I do when I offer an in-person training is put the agenda on a flip chart somewhere in the room, as people like to know the plan. Keep that in mind for virtual trainings as well. Post the agenda in the chat box, share it on your screen or email it prior to the session. This is especially helpful in letting participants see that content delivery will be varied, keeping them alert and off their email.

So, can you create an engaging virtual training? Yes. Does it take time and preparation? Yes. You can offer valuable online training by mixing together presentation and activities to pare information into smaller, easy-to-absorb bites for the adult learner.

Jennifer Lobley
Jen Lobley has worked for UMaine Cooperative Extension for the past 19 years. As the statewide Extension Educator for Volunteer Development, she provides direct training to Extension volunteers, builds capacity of staff members in all Extension program areas to work with volunteers through workshops and consultations, and is a resource to outside agency volunteer managers.