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Top 10 tips to engage learners in virtual classroom

Virtual classroom classe virtuelle online training zoom aa

Needless to say, the pandemic has changed the way we work. Learning and Development is no exception. In the Spring of 2020, very quickly, it was necessary to propose training in virtual classes. Most of us agree that there is nothing better than face-to-face sessions but online training offer other advantages: more flexibility, no travel expenses, a split into short sessions that are easier to fit into calendars or the possibility of bringing together employees from different sites or even countries.

However, as our time is precious, it is essential to observe a few rules that help us to get the most out of these sessions.

Check out my top 10 tips to increase participants engagement in a virtual session.

Avoid copy/paste of existing modules

The first mistake is to take the content delivered face-to-face and use it as is in the virtual classroom. This is called the "zoomification" of training: the same PowerPoint presentations are simply displayed and commented. As teaching methods and tools are different, your content will also have to be adapted: structure, progression, exercises, interactions with the group... Keep your slides clear and add activities.

Avoid "death by PowerPoint"

You may have attended training or webinars where the facilitator simply read slides. What did you remember? Probably not much. According to McKinsey, after 3 months, we retained only 10% of the explanations we heard (see below). Theoretical content can be sent before the session as pre-work, or after as follow-up material. This way you can reduce the duration of the session and create room for other more engaging activities.

Use different supports and media

This point is closely related to the previous one. You just cannot rely only on the good old PowerPoint deck. It is necessary to use videos and polls, to leave time for group discussions and personal reflection. This way you change the pace of your sessions and increase participants’ attention. A tool that I really appreciate is Mentimeter ( is a similar alternative). It's very simple to use and participants love it. You prepare your questions for the group in advance (open-ended questions, quiz, polls...). Participants connect via their internet browser and respond. The results are anonymous and appear on the screen in real time. The whole group can see the answers and you can comment or engage a discussion. This is useful to replace a slide with a list of points to address (see example below with the qualities of a leader).

Use breakout rooms

According to a recent study by DDI (a global leadership consulting firm), 84 % of people have developed beneficial relationships with peers with whom they have attended a training (Source: DDI's Global Leadership Forecast 2021).

About three-quarters of the feedback I receive after my training is that group discussions have been beneficial. This is the big advantage of virtual classroom training. You simple divide participants into groups and send them to breakout rooms in which they can chat without hearing what is being said in others. All software on the market offer this possibility with more or less the same options. The facilitator can move from one room to another to make sure everything is fine. You give your instructions to the groups, you set the time, and when you bring everyone back to the main room, you ask each group to summarize their discussion. It is even more insightful when participants are from different backgrounds. Make sure you set the right timing. From my experience, I could notice that a 20-minute discussion is better than twice 10-minute discussions. If it is too short, it will be frustrating for participants. Anything below 10 minutes does not provide enough time.

Use the annotation tool or whiteboard

I really like Zoom because it allows you and participants to annotate a slide that you have displayed. This is useful for placing a mark on a chart or a continuum, or for writing answers to a question you asked. You can then organize the answers and make a screenshot that you can share with the group afterwards. Don't forget to ask contributors to explain a little more about what they wrote. You can also have the group use the whiteboard to write ideas and sort them out after the discussion.

Show empathy

Put yourself in participants' shoes, especially if they are struggling with technology. This may be their first session in a virtual classroom. Some people are not comfortable with that. Empathize and send all the information before the session: prework, participant booklets (some will want to print it to take notes), practical information like schedules and breaks... Regarding the technology, source of a lot of stress, prepare documents and useful links (ex: Zoom help page) who will be available to solve any technical problems. This will reassure participants and prevent you from wasting too much time at the beginning of the session. Very often it will be possible to login via an internet browser rather than installing the application. Keep in mind that not all features will then be available (annotation tools, answers to polls, file sharing in chat...). It is always a good idea to ask participants to install the application.

Use webcams

Turn on the webcams! A recent survey conducted by Zoom indicates that 82 % of users had greater confidence in the person who speaks when their webcam was turned on. Let participants know before the session that they will have to turn on theirs so they are not caught off guard, even though hearing "I can't turn on my webcam because I'm still in my pajamas" is a great ice-breaker. I know for some people it's uncomfortable. It was my case not very long ago however, I got used to it and now I find it a shame not to use it. Once again, empathize. Explain to participants that you understand that this can make them uncomfortable while insisting that they will enjoy the session much more. Do not impose anything, especially if their connection is not very stable. You must take into account that having the webcam on constantly and paying attention to your own actions is one of the factors of the appearance of virtual fatigue. As a trainer, my webcam is always on, but I now propose that, if they wish, participants can turn it off and only turn it on when they are talking. This seems to me to be a good compromise.

Give participants work to do

As the McKinsey study above shows, we remember much more by doing. Therefore, you need to prepare activities that will give to participants the opportunities to practice the techniques and skills discussed and thus to reinforce the learning. It can be role-playing or group discussions on a new concept that they will then have to re-explain to the rest of the group. Peer coaching also works very well. An observer is chosen and gives his opinion after the practice, then the roles are exchanged.

This type of exercises allows active participation and helps memorizing the content.

Have a break

Think about breaks, do not underestimate fatigue in virtual classroom. 10 minutes after 1h15-1h30 is most often enough. Contrary to what you might think, attending training in front of your computer is more tiring than face to face.

Enroll a producer

If you are not really comfortable with technology, ask a colleague to assist you as a producer. He or she will take care of preparing the breakout rooms, the videos... and will help those who experience technical issues. This will allow you to focus 100% on the participants and the training delivery. Do not forget to prepare the session ahead to clarify the roles.

Many people are biased about training in virtual classrooms because they fear a monologue that will not bring them anything and will waste their time. These tips, which I apply on a daily basis, will allow you to make your session more fun and engaging. Learners will get the most out of it and you will have a much better time.

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