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Designing Courses for the Virtual Classroom

Nowadays, the Virtual Classroom (VC) is more than an online chatroom with a whiteboard. Synchronous eLearning tools can accommodate streaming live or saved video lectures, voice-over-IP can be used for leading a class discussion, application demonstrations can be performed or application sharing allowed, audio or text-based Question and Answer sessions with subject matter experts can be conducted, live assessment or testing can be carried out, and even group work can be realized in the virtual environment.

Beyond the features of synchronous collaboration tools, there are other benefits as well. Consider that a nswers can be immediate, questions can be clarified, and decisions requiring multiple people and conversations can be made quickly because learners share the same time space, even though they don’t share the same physical space.

Because synchronous training tools are more specialized and have been designed for collaborative interactions, designing courses for the VC is much like designing for the traditional classroom. One may only need to alter slightly most of the usual vehicles of training such as lectures, demonstrations, small and large group discussions, question-and-answer sessions, group activities, and presentations.

Here are some tips specifically for designing courses for the VC:

  1. Define the class size according to the complexity of the subject matter or the level of interactivity. Courses that provide overview or awareness training can have a larger number of learners, but courses that teach actual skills should be smaller, as performance training generally requires more interactivity.
  2. Schedule sessions for 60-120 minutes maximum. Because learning technical skills and knowledge can be fatiguing, these types of course sessions should be limited to 60 minutes whenever possible. Remember that most people require breaks about every 50 minutes, so incorporate one if your session exceeds one hour.
  3. Warm up the participants by including an ice breaker that helps learners become comfortable with using one or more of the “classroom” features. For example use the polling or chat features to solicit personal information, such as where they live or what they do for a living, as a group introduction activity. Or play a quick game that requires participants to draw a picture using the whiteboard. These types of activities will alleviate any anxiety the learners might feel when they are called on to perform other training activities.
  4. Limit content by only including the “need to know”. Put the “nice to know” into self-study or supplemental training. Also create job aids or checklists wherever appropriate, so that learners don’t need to refer to the training presentation to perform the steps of any lengthy or sequential tasks. And limit text on-screen to a few bullets per page while incorporating as many pictures or diagrams as possible, to address the different learning styles.
  5. Call on students to contribute to discussions and assign tasks to individuals or small groups to keep the session moving on track and to keep the learners attention.
  6. Engage the learners using all the available tools or features. Be creative in the ways that learners can actively participate. And take advantage of the live medium to provide lots of feedback.
  7. Probe for understanding or proof of knowledge transfer by asking questions. And make time to solicit questions.
  8. Do assessments and testing during training. Generate metrics by having learners complete pre-testing and post-testing.
  9. Use a file transfer to send documents to learners, rather than collecting email addresses to disseminate the materials. *Although learners may wish to have the emails of other participants.
  10. Consider recording sessions and posting them for viewing after the session is over for anyone who may have missed the training, or those who want to refresh their memories. Also consider allowing everyone that made annotations or notes during the training, to share those documents with the class.