Most organizations have turned to various forms of online and virtual training because it is cost effective, it reaches a wide audience, and it serves many generations of learners. But we can’t forget that virtual training is not simply there to take the pressure off of the classroom staff. Virtual training, in all of its forms, must be engaging, just as if the content was being delivered in a classroom.
First, self-paced online content, such as courses and tutorials, must engage learners from multiple perspectives. For visual learners, graphics should be appropriate to the content and to the target audience. Just as in development for the classroom, graphics should not be placed for the sake of taking up space or creating color; they must say something and leave the learner with retained knowledge. For kinesthetic learners, though, there needs to be some interaction in online courses, such as a “click here for more information” or activities of other types. And for audio learners, the option of hearing a voice is always a good one. The same self-paced content can also be highly experiential, using guided tutorials, technical applications, and video case studies. In addition, remember that no learner wants to see too much “stuff” coming at them at once. With this in mind, keep text to 70-90 words per frame and remember that online content should be just as manageable as classroom content. The key with engaging the learner in this type of content is to provide a balance for learning styles without going overboard.
But the world of virtual training is much larger than it was even a few years ago, with the addition of social media, webinars, and other types of online collaboration. One of the challenges facing training management is how to keep these types of interventions as engaging as possible, while also keeping them true to their purpose of effectiveness and quick delivery.
In terms of webinars or webconferencing, there are many ways to keep the content engaging. First, if you are developing content with an application like Power Point, remember that the participant will be looking at a screen and probably nothing else. Keep text to a minimum and graphics appropriate. Be sure that online instructors don’t sound as if they are reading content. In addition, use the engagement tools you’ve been given in your webinar software package. Some applications allow you to poll, meaning you can ask questions along the way and have participants respond virtually. Most web applications allow for questions from the audience and many allow you to send documents to participants. All of these components allow you to create an engaging environment even though participants may be located over a wide geography.
Social media, such as discussion threads, blogs, and online collaboration are quite different than webinars or online courses, but can still be used to engage learners. If the intervention is not live, the best thing to do is to ensure that a moderator keeps track of discussion and that he or she interjects content, further questions, and small assignments along the way. Sometimes participants do this independently, but you want to make sure that the discussion is progressing. For live collaborations, moderators still need to be present, but you can use some of the same tools from webinars, such as polling and questions, to engage participants.
Regardless of the virtual delivery method, remember that there is both art and science to creating engaging interventions for the online or virtual learner. The virtual learner is more likely to be distracted by email, phone calls, or whatever he or she can do on a smart phone. For this reason, it is absolutely necessary to be aware of the keys to engagement that we’ve already discussed, namely applicability and relevance. The second a virtual learner feels that content is not relevant and applicable to his or her job or experience, you’ve most likely lost the learner. To avoid this, ensure that content remains true to the keys to engagement at all times.
Next, we will examine how to keep learners engaged through both primary and supplemental training materials.