Three ways to help learners online

Someone asked about ways to help “virtual learners” — people learning through webinars and similar formats — get the most out of the experience.

I haven’t done many webinars, but I’ve facilitated other types of online learning going back to phone-only “teletraining.” For learners unused to webinars and similar non-classroom events, I see these questions:

  • What’s in it for me?
  • How does this thing work?
  • When do I start learning something?, yeah, yeahWhat’s in it for me?

My experience tells me that the average learner / participant / employee has virtually no interest in the underlying technology. The fact that it’s a webinar is about as important as the brand name of the computer that the facilitator uses.

(As evidence, look at your own reaction when an incoming message ends with “sent from my iPhone.”)

Thus a lot of talk about how to be in a webinar, no matter how well-intentioned, distracts from my hope that I’m going to learn something I think is useful.

Consider the much-maligned in-person lecture. If you find the content sufficiently compelling (like “how to negotiate a huge pay raise”), you’ll gladly put up with a dull presenter and those eternal PowerPoint bean people.

So my suggestion on this front would be to offer a brief, specific guide to how the webinar might work — say via a show-and-tell demo like this one for Evernote.  Specific.  And brief.

How does this thing work?

During the webinar, of course, participants aren’t going to recall everything they saw in such a demo. How do I raise my hand? Can I go back to some visual I saw earlier? Can I say something privately to the facilitator? To another participant?

(They will recall how to check their email, work a bit on the project that’s due tomorrow, and even check the news, so you don’t want to lose their attention too quickly.)

This kind of how-to support needs to be available during the webinar, in a form that the participant can use.

One idea is to make a short online job aid based on questions from actual participants (because you do pilot this thing with typical learners, right?). Then, instead of a lot of blather about how the webinar software makes things easy, helps you learn, and prevents dental cavities, the participant has something like:

  • How to change the size of the screen
  • How to ask a question
  • How to control the sound
  • How to send a private message to the facilitator

For heaven’s sake, don’t leave out the private-message guide; that’ll be the first thing they try.  Though probably not to the facilitator.

When do I start learning?

If this were classroom based, at least there'd be doughnuts.I think that many designers (like me) and many presenters (like me) have an almost irresistible urge to overexplain. We know a lot about the knowledge and skills in question, and we just love sharing what we know — in part because we enjoy the knowing, and we figure that others will, too.

It’s a natural error to make.

But just as learning is in the mind of the learner, so too is value. In the world of work, I believe that participants value things that look like they’ll make a difference in how they do their jobs.

The sooner you get to where people are doing things that look like useful work, the better.

In a classroom-training exercise, I once had to walk newcomers through a startlingly complicated process to set their computers up so they could access a report-generation system on a company mainframe. The pilot test helped me understand not only the pitfalls of the process, but also the high value of one particular online document.

That allowed me, in the revision, to frame it appropriately:

  1. Next I’m going to guide you through some complicated steps.
  2. It’ll take about 25 minutes to get through this stuff.
  3. When we’re done, you’ll be able to print a management invoice.

Previously, printing that invoice involved a telephone request to someone in another city. One participant literally jumped out of his seat and said, “God-DAMN! You’ve just saved me three hours a week!”

Now that’s a post-training evaluation: number of participants jumping out of seats.

CC-licensed images:
Woman at computer by Sarah M Stewart.
Woman with headset adapted from a photo by meddygarnet.

4 thoughts on “Three ways to help learners online

  1. Hi Dave, thanks for letting me know you have used my photo. I was facilitating an online meet-up between my midwifery students and a group of student in America on International Day of the Midwife 2008. I was the first time I had used an online meeting with my students so I was very focused on the job :)

    Your post is most fortuitous. I am currently facilitating an online course, and the assignment for the students is to facilitate an online event. I think this information will be very useful for them – thanks a lot.

  2. Sarah, I’m glad you found the post useful. I confess I’ve had a backlog of thank-yous to people like you, who’ve made their photos available under a Creative Commons license. This may be the first time one’s added a comment on the blog.

    As close as I can get to midwifery is my participant in three rounds of parent prep from the American Society for Psychoprophylaxis in Obstetrics, and the subsequent on-the-job application of those skills.

  3. You’re very good to be thanking everyone – I’m afraid I’m very slack and rarely get around to it. Having said that, I really appreciated hearing from you.

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