Posted On February 29, 2016

classroom with computer on desks

Wallow [wol-oh] verb. To move about with difficulty. 

There’s simply no escaping the fact that technology has changed the way people learn forever.

If you blinked you would’ve missed it. First, the internet and more recently mobile, augmented and virtual reality, micro learning and social media began shifting learning away from books and classrooms and into the online realm of on-demand, just-in-time, anywhere and at any time.

Along the way, a revolution is also underway in the way people teach.

Keeping pace with an ever-changing world

In my travels, I meet senior learning and development (L&D) leaders all the time and from all shapes and sizes of organisations. Across the board I see L&D departments struggling with how best to deploy new learning technologies — even with all the resources of large, savvy IT departments at their disposal.

So if entire L&D teams at well-known organisations find it tough to keep up with learning technology, spare a thought for facilitators.

I saw this in the late-1990s at several of Australia’s leading universities. With learning management systems (LMSs) and on-demand eLearning libraries then all the rage, many eminent professors weren’t impressed when told they had to transform how they prepared and delivered dissertations. They were wrenched from their comfort zones and dropped, sometimes unceremoniously, into the brave new online world.

And I still see it even today. Trainers who are highly experienced in chalk-and-talk classroom training are asked to don a pair of headphones, speak into a microphone, learn to navigate a variety of pop-up onscreen boxes, and adapt to the needs of ‘invisible’ learners at the other end of a computer connection.

Are some instructors reluctant? You bet.

“Many facilitators are most comfortable and have years of experience in leading face-to-face workshops,” explains digital and future learning strategist Cheryle Walker, “and to ask them to transfer their skills into an online environment is quite a leap, and not welcomed by many. Traditional L&D departments have also been resistant to adapt their ways.”

The rise and rise of distance learning

For the first time in thousands of years, a seismic change is altering how instructors ply their trade — or, at least since 1728. That was the first recorded instance of distance learning when a teacher named Caleb Philipps advertised in the Boston Gazette for students to learn shorthand through weekly lessons sent through the post, promising they’d be “as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston”.

From those humble beginnings, distance learning has flourished to the point that today (and for the foreseeable future) there is a pressing need for learning professionals to integrate technology into the very system of learning itself.

Crossing the chasm from a bricks-and-mortar teaching environment to a virtual classroom is a journey, and there’s no better example of how to make your way than MCI Solutions. With experience with Australia’s best-known organisations and hundreds of thousands of workplace learners over more than three decades, our facilitators know a thing or two about face-to-face adult education.

But, until recently, the virtual classroom was a strange place for them too.

We found that facilitators usually teach the way they were taught. So they often think that as I was not taught in this way when I was at uni, why I should teach differently.

“As educators we need to remember the Chinese proverb that you shouldn’t confine students to your own learning because many of them were born in another time.”

To be sure, the virtual classroom has been slow to arrive.

Named nearly 40 years ago by US software vendor Pathlore, the ability to deliver training to remote computer users dates back even further, to 1960. This is when the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) system at the University of Illinois first let students study and communicate with professors using online notes.

Like the rest of the world, today’s learning technology bears little resemblance to that of PLATO, or even that of the early Internet or LMSs. A great many (but not all) corporate trainers are finding themselves along on one heck of a ride. “I think we can sometimes forget that Australia is in fact a pioneer of distance and online learning,” says Cheryle.

“The Australian School of the Air was established in the outback during the 1940s to cater for school children across our country in remote communities. Over the years, it has utilised many innovative technologies to provide quality education to thousands of students. So distance learning is a practicality that Australians pioneered and embraced,” she says.

New skills needed for new ways of learning

Many L&D experts say the integration of information technology into the system of training is all about learning new skills. I partially agree with that. However, to me the other reason is their attitude.

What’s important is for facilitators to have a lifelong learning approach, to keep learning as they help others learn and develop their own skills.

This is especially true when it comes to technology. Not only is there always something new to learn, facilitators can learn from their students. Many of them are younger generation “digital natives” when, let’s face it, many facilitators are better described as “digital immigrants.”

“When I was asked to learn how to deliver courses using the virtual classroom, I was nervous. Very nervous,” admits MCI Solutions facilitator Cindy Da Silva, one trainer who is enjoying riding the virtual classroom tsunami.

“While the concept sounded fantastic, I had no firsthand experience and it was all foreign.”

Lots of behind-the-scenes training helped allay her fears — and here it’s important to note that not all internal technology teams are equal. Some L&D departments are blessed to have great technology people nearby who understand both technology and curriculum. This is critical because instructional technology staff, administrators and facilitators all need to be able to communicate with each other about needs and perspectives.

Cindy knew the material, in her case Microsoft Excel, inside out, and found the online training software we used, Cisco WebEx and Citrix’s GoToTraining, designed specifically for people like her. So when the big day came, with her IT team at her side and lots of moral support from fellow facilitators, Cindy flew solo on her maiden virtual training voyage.

“Even in that first session I found I could effectively use all of the software’s bells and whistles — interactive functionality like how participants could raise their hands when they had a question, how to personalise their chat boxes, and the different ways to post comments to everyone or only to me, the instructor,” she says.

On that point, it’s important to remember that people learn more from the social environment, which implies we learn more from each other, instead of students learning only from instructors. Chat functionality and, for example, break-out rooms, are important features of today’s virtual classroom technology.

The biggest challenge, Cindy says, was that she couldn’t see her learners.

“Not being able to see peoples’ faces or make eye contact was strange at first. I couldn’t read their body language or facial expressions, much less walk around to see their screens – all those things a facilitator can do in a classroom.” However, it only took four or five sessions, she says, before she was as comfortable delivering courses virtually as she is training face to face.

Virtual training has become big business for MCI Solutions. Cindy’s now delivered live online training to learners as far away as China and India where other challenges — like would they understand her Australian accent and be able to keep pace with her style of delivery — have been faced, and overcome.

Instructors are learners too

I asked Cindy what impact her virtual training experience may have had on her. Beyond learning a new skill, has it changed how she trains, say, back in the classroom?

“That’s a good question, and when I think about it, yes. I’ve learned a great deal about my delivery style because virtual training has made me more mindful of the speed and pace at which I talk. For example, I’m now very cognisant of how I need to avoid ums and ahs, and pause more effectively to give participants every chance to let me know where they’re at in understanding the material,” she says.

“And my pronunciation has been a real learning experience for me, especially when training with students who may not have English as their first language.”

But the biggest learning for Cindy, she says, is about not what’s said but what’s not said.

“More than 90 percent of communication is non-verbal, and most of this is made up of body language,” Cindy explains, “so in a virtual environment the facilitator is relying completely on what is normally only a small part of communication — their words. Virtual classroom technology and techniques have really made me appreciate all the non-verbal queues that take place both online and in the classroom.”

Mary-Frances Winters, a leading organisation development and diversity expert, has famously said, “Whatever you do for a living, never stop learning how to get better at doing it.” Cindy believes her new online training skills have helped her better articulate and simplify concepts, and made her a more effective instructor in both the real world and the digital environments.

“If a facilitator’s reading this who hasn’t yet experienced virtual classroom technology, I’d tell them to embrace it today. Technology is moving quickly and the concept of learning is changing. We need to be able to engage, inform and motivate a new and very different type of learner.”

Cindy is, however, the first to agree that learning technology is nothing without great instructors. “I think it’s pretty clear that training technology and learning software is a long way from ever replacing a good trainer or coach. And I certainly don’t think robots in the classroom are the future either!

“But it is true that the concepts of learning and teaching have changed drastically over the past decade or so. So have the needs of businesses in terms of attracting the right talent and keeping the best employees, wherever they are, as productive and engaged as possible. So in my view, upskilling for the new digital learning environment is really important and my advice is to grab it by the horns — or someone else will and you’ll quickly be left behind,” she says.

“And I think you’ll find it’s not as intimidating as you might think, or expect it to be,” adds Cindy.

“My experience is that with proper training, and once you jump in and embrace it, you soon forget about the technology and find yourself treating the session just as you would in a physical classroom.”

Cheryle Walker agrees. “Supporting trainers through their development into competent and engaging live online facilitators is wonderfully rewarding. The first step is to develop their skills in operating web conferencing software, and secondly to help them build confidence in their online presence. My own journey into these skills sets began 10 years ago, and I’m still learning and applying them.”

What’s more, being able to facilitate learning in online environments can open up exciting new opportunities for every learning professional, she says. “Confidence and competencies in the online realm involves specific skills sets that are now recognised all over the world.”

Blended remains the Swiss Army Knife of learning

None of this is intended to position virtual training as the be-all of corporate training though.

That tag might just belong to blended learning which as we know combines the power of face-to-face with the very best aspects of online delivery, including the virtual classroom. Examples of successful blended learning include our just-released nationally recognised qualifications — the Diploma and the Certificate IV in Leadership and Management. These exciting new courses leverage all that’s great about the virtual classroom together with proven face-to-face methods to meet the unique and demanding needs of today’s businesses and learners alike.

Ready for a surf?

If you’d like more information about upskilling to virtual training, contact us today. Our new suite of instructor-led online courses is designed to give every instructor the know-how and poise to design and run an interactive virtual class or live online coaching. Call us on 1300 768 550.