Skills HR will need in 2021: Delivering classroom training online

Most face-to-face learning is being made digital thanks to Covid, but simply sending out a Zoom invite is far from enough

Most practised face-to-face trainers can spot if someone isn’t paying attention. Foot tapping, fidgeting and other tell-tale signs alert the facilitator to a dip in engagement, allowing them to react swiftly and re-engage the group. But how can you keep an eye on your attendees when you can’t see them? 

This is just one of the many skills virtual trainers have had to develop in the new world of virtual learning brought about by the Covid crisis, where you’re more likely to understand the idiosyncrasies of your learners through online chats and polls than via body language and facial expressions, and trainers have had to relearn their craft to make sure it’s fit for an online classroom. Jo Cook, director of virtual learning consultancy Lightbulb Moment, reports a big jump in the number of enquiries she has received for online training since the pandemic began. “So many emails are now along the lines of: ‘We started this conversation in 2017 but I would now like to take up your services,’” she says. “The whole world suddenly wants to go digital.” 

And of course, the increased demand for virtual facilitators is likely to fall squarely on the shoulders of L&D and HR. But where do you begin with upskilling your existing trainers to be competent and confident online educators?

Transferring face-to-face skills to a virtual setting may seem like an easy switch, but understanding the nuances between the two can be the difference between success and failure, says Stella Collins, co-founder and chief learning officer at Stellar Labs. “[In a virtual classroom] you haven’t got the same kinds of tools and resources to explain things to people, and that makes a big difference to the trainees and the trainers as well,” she explains.

“If they are an experienced face-to-face trainer, making the transition to a virtual classroom might be frustrating as they are not getting the same experience. You can always build on their [existing] experience, but you can’t just take a face-to-face course and turn it digital; they have to be designed differently.”

This was one challenge faced by Jill Loveridge, head of L&D at Surrey and Sussex Police, who had to suddenly take a predominantly face-to-face training programme and move most of it online. Naturally, some elements of police training, such as how to physically search or handcuff someone correctly, cannot be done in a virtual setting, but nonetheless Loveridge was faced with the “challenge”, as she describes it, of reskilling a team of 20 facilitators in virtual teaching. “The trainers here are used to face-to-face delivery,” she explains. “They were far more familiar with small, face-to-face training groups packed full of personal lived experiences and on-the-job examples.”

But Collins assures that, challenging as it may be, having existing experience in face-to-face training will make the process easier. “You need to have an understanding of how people learn and react and, if you’ve worked face to face, you’ve probably got a lot of that experience already,” she says. But, she adds, having no training experience whatsoever “might be better as you aren’t holding on to old habits”.

Making sure your trainers are proficient is only half the battle – the other main pitfall to online learning is often the technology. There are a multitude of platforms to choose from, and Michelle Parry-Slater, commercial learning content manager at the CIPD, says understanding a platform’s capabilities is the first step in training a new digital facilitator. “Not all tools were created equally,” she explains. “Some tools, like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, are video communication tools; they are not teaching tools, unlike Webex and Adobe Connect, which are. It’s not that you can’t use any or all of these tools for learning and development, but you need to know what they can and can’t do.” 

But while training people virtually is one issue, how do those who provide the training become well-versed in digital techniques? First, they need to be comfortable with the platform, and the best way to do that is by practising, says Collins, who advocates learning in context for maximum benefits. “Virtually training someone to be a virtual trainer is the right way to do it because the trainee is in context,” she says, adding that while before Covid she delivered virtual ‘train the trainer’ sessions as a blend between online and face to face, they are now solely online – and massively improved. “This means the experience for the trainee is very real, it gives them context and a fresh perspective on what it’s like to be a digital learner. It also gives them experience of handling the hiccups and challenges,” she says.

Loveridge took a similar tack with training her team, using a two-pronged approach of free online training programmes from digital education platform FutureLearn, and skills-focused sessions with an outsourced trainer. “The trainers in training did a lot of trial and error practice sessions with each other and gave constructive feedback,” says Loveridge. “If something didn’t go well, they were able to identify the problem, and now they’ve come up with a fairly robust list of dos and don’ts among themselves. They found solutions by talking about what went well and what didn’t, which has enabled them to improve.” 

This method of training in context is a sure-fire way to engender confidence in your trainers so they can focus more on the learners, says Cook. “The more time you can spend familiarising the trainees with how the features work, the more comfortable they’re going to feel. Then they can focus on the people and the facilitation, and less on the technology.” This, she says, forms a natural pathway to another new skill virtual trainers will need: teaching people you can’t see.

Trainers and facilitators who cut their teeth on face-to-face teaching will have a natural ability to read the room, but as the pandemic rages on and the need for online training becomes critical, this skill needs to be adapted. “Trainers can feel like they are just talking to a computer and are unable to read the body language and energy of the room,” explains Cook. “They’ll need to learn to adapt to gauge the energy and feedback in a virtual classroom.”

She says this skill has become vital in the pandemic because learners who would usually undertake their training in the office or have a dedicated room to work in are instead bombarded with distractions. From pets and children to their work emails, trainers will have to work far harder to grab the learner’s attention – especially if their webcams are not turned on. “We need to understand our craft really well so we can deconstruct what we do and then reconstruct it for life online,” Cook says. For example, a question that would usually be asked face to face can be turned into an interactive poll to start conversations in the chat box and give the trainer feedback. “You can interpret so much from your learners in that way,” she adds.

Parry-Slater also highlights that although asking questions is a good starting point, keeping your voice lively and making the slides visual rather than word heavy are imperative. “These are rookie errors and, if you’re not trained to facilitate online, you could potentially struggle with them. If you just put bullet point slides up on a dull background and talk through them in monotone, you’re not going to do a very good job,” she says.

When it comes to delivery, she adds, the biggest criticism from facilitators is that they cannot see their learners. “I totally and utterly refute that – you have to look out for people and I think this is where a lot of facilitators get it wrong,” Parry-Slater explains. “They’re so anxious about the technology, their delivery and the slides that they forget to do the most important part, which is to look out for the students in the classroom.” When it comes to whether to turn webcams on, she has a hard and fast rule: “If it adds to the learning turn it on, if it doesn’t, turn it off.” 

However, this is not the case for Loveridge, who is delivering essential training with a rigid set of regulations and expectations for learners. “We have quite strict rules about how our learners turn up to training,” she explains. “They must be in uniform, and their camera always has to be on.” And because of the importance of the training, keeping learners engaged is a two-person job. “We have one trainer delivering the lesson, and another monitoring learners’ body language and directly addressing individuals if they feel they are not focused or understanding the key points. It’s really important to make sure they are engaging with the programme,” she says.

As HR and L&D professionals bridge the gap between face-to-face and virtual delivery and foster new skills in their teams, Cook points out that there is no silver bullet, and that practice does indeed make perfect. “I can tell you all about the techniques and tips I use but, until you do it and experience it, you won’t learn a thing,” she says. “The tech will go wrong but it’s interesting to learn from those experiences. The way you learn to be a good virtual trainer is by doing it.”

Read the rest of our 'Skills HR will need in 2021' series: