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running your first online learning session…… and why there’s ‘virtually’ nothing to worry about!

Working in the world of learning and development has always been challenging, in a really good way. The challenge to ‘be different’, to ‘be real’, to ‘be creative’, to ‘be the next best thing’ - all great things that help us push the boundaries of happiness for organisations and their people.

And so 2020 brings us all a new challenge - how to deliver a virtual ‘learning at home, sitting in your favourite chair, worrying if your house looks tidy, warts and all on show’ experience.

And we love this challenge!

Whilst ‘virtual learning’ is not a new concept by any means, it comes as no great surprise that there has been a global explosion in the need to design virtual workshops, programmes and skill bites to cater for the sudden demand of ‘learning from home’. With that demand comes a lot of pressure to deliver something awesome, which may cause anxiety and worry, especially if you have never done it before.

There are lots of very useful articles, blogs, videos etc. out there at the moment, offering tips and hints at running an engaging, fun, virtual learning experience and I suggest if it’s your first time, then many of them are worth a read - they certainly helped refresh me when we were recently set a challenge by our wonderful and forward thinking client, Puma Energy. They asked us to adapt the Global Welcome Programme we had previously designed, so that it could be delivered virtually… and then train up their 22 global facilitators to deliver it.

It made me think about the first time I delivered my first learning session online. I’m not going to lie, when I think back to that time, I was a little nervous! I’m a face-to-face kinda guy! But I needn’t have worried, as the feedback was great and it all went pretty smoothly. So I thought I would share with you my experience this week. Just hours after clicking ‘end meeting’, here are my insights and thoughts which may help any first timers who are about to pop their virtual facilitation cherry. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it will offer reassurance that there is ‘virtually’ nothing to worry about…

  1. Technology - what platform do I use?

I am not a technophobe. I love technology and… I also find it incredibly frustrating when it doesn’t do what I want it to do. So, my first tip is - use a platform that you have researched and have used on more than one occasion so that you are familiar with how it works. Oh, and that it is technically reliable! I know that sounds obvious, but we have been trying out several platforms over the last few weeks and the one thing I have learnt is that some are definitely more stable and easier to use than others - from both a facilitator and a learners point of view! We used Zoom (probably the most used word in the last 6 weeks after ‘unprecedented’ and a family favourite when it comes to our weekly quiz night!) It has enough simple functionality (more on that later!) to engage and make the experience interactive without getting too complicated for the facilitator or the learners. Oh, and it has a record function to film it - this is great for analysing yourself afterwards (nothing like a bit of self feedback to improve!) and acts as a built-in follow up tool for participants to use to refresh on key messages.

2. Preparation

As well as making sure you do the usual prep that any great facilitator would do before running a workshop, make sure your learners are well ‘prepped’ too. Send out a welcome invite with clear instructions of how to log-in, how to download any software if needed, send any ‘materials’ that they may need during the experience and to help reassure anyone that might be worried, a nice thing to do is to set up a ‘fake’ meeting so that they can go through the process of logging in beforehand and take the stress away from any ‘on the day’ log-in worries.

3. A Warm Welcome (Slide)

I opened up the room 15 minutes before the actual start time for all those ‘early birds’. Waiting for them was a friendly smile (me!), a welcome slide with some ‘things to do’ and some soothing music to set the right tone.

As people entered the room, the ‘things to do’ gave them a focus without feeling awkward… and gave me some valuable information about who we had in the room and how they were feeling. It helped break the ice between everybody and got the conversation starting quickly and naturally between us all.

4. Building rapport

As facilitators, we all know the importance of building rapport with our participants, in order to break down barriers, and create a warm, open environment for them to learn. I read in one article how difficult this is when running virtual sessions. It’s different, yes, but I wouldn’t say any more difficult. For me, the same rules apply as they would if you were meeting them personally.

Use the opening minutes to have everyone on ‘Gallery view’ (so you can see everyone at the same time) and use the information you have (from the welcome slide chat box exercise and what you can see visually) to break the ice. Thank people who are on crazy time zones for attending in their pyjamas when they would normally be sleeping (some were attending really late at night/in the early hours of the morning!), comment on their lovely homes, welcome any new faces, welcome back anyone you have met before - just do what you would do if you were meeting them face to face!

5. Interactivity

Before setting up the virtual Train the Facilitator, we had amended a 3-hour version of the Welcome Programme so that it would maximise interactivity, engagement and fun throughout and yet kept it really simple! One very useful tool was to adapt their learning booklet so that it became an editable PDF - meaning that participants could have it on their desktop to complete activities and make notes as we went through the programme.

The platform we agreed to use with the client (Zoom) played a part in how we adapted the programme, based on the functionality available. It worked brilliantly! Whilst screen sharing the presentation, we used slides to ask key questions, people would virtually clap if they enjoyed something or raise their virtual hand if they wanted say something in the moment. The chat box was great for participants to ask questions, take part in quizzes, respond to films (eg. in one word, how did that make you feel…?) And at the end of each chapter we stopped screen share to have a ‘face to face’ discussion on any big learns… simple, yes! Effective? Definitely!

And finally…

6. Trust yourself… and have lots of fun!

Like I mentioned, my first foray into running a virtual Train the Trainer caused a little anxiety and a million ‘What if? questions in my mind… but what I quickly realised is, it’s not scary at all!

These days, I’m really enjoying the virtual experience. I’ve noticed that people share more (including an insight into their homes, family, day to day living), they are being less formal in a way that makes them open up more, and as a result of working in this up close and personal way… it’s making learning really fun!

So, keep doing what you always do - deliver with authenticity, passion, energy - and I am sure your participants will have a world class learning experience from the comfort of their own home… and the comfort of yours!

And a huge thank you Puma Energy for our great experience together and good luck engaging your new team members all over the world with your passion, love and energy.

Andy Fisher



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