Virtual Classroom Training Series – Part 2 March 2020
With a new upsurge of interest in Virtual Classroom Training, it seems a good time to look at how you go about choosing the right VCT platform for your organisation. You want a system that participants and trainers find easy to use, is reliable, but also one with a range of features that allow you to design interactive, engaging learning. In this article we look at some of the things you should consider when making your choice.
Question 1: Was the system designed for Virtual Classroom use? – This may sound obvious, but it is worth looking at the pedigree of the product you are considering. There is a big difference between on-line conferencing, webinars and VCT. A webinar is, primarily, a one-way flow of information from presenter to a remote audience. There may be an opportunity to ask questions or express opinions via polling, but there is generally very little interaction or self-directed learning. On-line video conferencing, on the other hand, allows everyone to have their say, but the range of teaching aids and tools is generally limited, as they might be in a face-to-face meeting.
Question 2: How interactive is the Whiteboard? As trainers, we know the value of the whiteboard in developing concepts or capturing class input. But we also appreciate the added value when learners are invited to contribute to the board themselves or when boards are used for groups to develop their own ideas. Whilst all VCT platforms will have a whiteboard, not all boards are equal! How easy it is to hand control of the board over to a learner. Can all participants write on the board simultaneously? (Sounds chaotic – but can be useful). What range of writing/drawing tools are there? Will the platform support touch screen devices or digital pen tablets? And, importantly, can you pre-prepare whiteboards using PowerPoint or other drawing tools to provide you with a framework on which to draw or write.
“Whilst all VCT platforms will have a whiteboard, not all boards are equal! How easy it is to hand control of the board over to a learner. Can all participants write on the board simultaneously? …. What range of writing/drawing tools are there? Will the platform support touch screen devices or digital pen tablets?”
Question 3: Does the platform support Breakout Rooms? I realise, from my discussions with other trainers, that using Breakout Rooms requires a degree of practice and a lot of planning. So much so that most trainers will own up to never having used them in a live class. But, believe me, they are an essential asset if you are going to get serious about participant engagement in virtual training. Being able to split your class into groups and direct them to a breakout room to complete a task is a sure way to ensure participation and increase engagement in the learning.
…And, if there are breakout rooms in the package, make sure:
- they are easy to prepare and manage
- that you can put a countdown timer in each room (so participants know how long they have for the task)
- and that you can broadcast messages to all rooms easily
Question 4: Can the platform successfully play your video? – If you are planning to use video in your training delivery, then you need to make sure the platform supports your preferred format, and that it will play on the different devices and/or browsers your learners might reasonably be using. There is nothing more embarrassing than attempting to play a video and all the participants see is a blank empty window or get no sound! – And there are many reasons why this might be the case.
Playing a video by sharing your screen, does not mean the sound on the video is transmitted over the platform – unless your speakers are close to your microphone. And then, you will get a massive loss of audio quality. If the VCT platform allows you (as it should) to upload video for sharing then it may convert the video to a compatible format, But, beware, some VCT platforms are still using Flash as a valid video format which may not even be supported by some devices. Videos should be displayed in an HTML5 compatible format and at the best resolution that can be reasonably supported based on bandwidth available and the device characteristics. Some VCT platforms can even dynamically adjust the resolution for each device.
Question 5: Can you design and switch the Virtual Room Layout? – In training, preparation is key. And preparing the classroom to make sure you have all the assets you need to hand, and the layout suits the activities you have planned, is an important task we are all familiar with. So why should the virtual classroom be any different? The five or six activities you have planned in your lesson may each benefit from a different virtual room layout. You might, for example, want to show a video but pause it and ask questions at various points. This means you want the chat window open alongside the video playback window. Moving to a short PowerPoint presentation which will involve very little interaction means you might want to minimise the chat window. After the presentation, you could then switch to a Whiteboard with input via the Chat window. The ability to pre-define different layouts and switch in one click should be high on your feature list. And to save preparation time, storing templates of frequently used layouts is more than a “nice to have”.
Question 6: What tools are there to increase engagement? – Creating interactive training that involves the learners is key. We have already mentioned Whiteboards and Breakout Rooms, but what other features are there that will help you maximise learner participation? Quick quizzes and polls can be effective, particularly if you add an element of competition. Even simple emoticons can also be used as a form of communication. But some platforms have even more tools that can take the level of engagement – to another level such as collaborative charts or virtual post-it’s. In some cases these tools are add-ins and it is worth looking to see if the platform has a developer’s toolkit allowing third-party companies to develop new features to further extend what is available.
The danger is rushing into a decision about your VCT implementation. There are already a multitude of YouTube videos extolling how newly popularised videoconferencing tools can be used to deliver virtual training. Be cautious! As with all software purchases, take time to research the market. Decide what features you need and evaluate the options carefully. Start setting some development guidelines and standards. VCT has an important role to play in the “new reality” learning and development sector. But get it wrong, and your learners will not be impressed with the outcome.