Best Practices, Tools, Techniques

In part one of this series, I illuminated a few of the challenges to instructors and students in the online learning environment and related a somewhat embarrassing story of my own experience teaching online for the first time. In part three, we’ll look at some additional technologies being used in the online classroom today and discuss some important considerations for their use. But here, in part two, I want to simply provide a list of tips, best practices, and techniques for delivery of training content in an online setting. I save the technology section for the final part because it is secondary to what we’re discussing here, in part two. No amount of technology will make you a better instructor. What matters most are your instructional and interpersonal skills and how you adapt them to an online environment…

Many of you that may have professional coaching will recognize much of what follows as just simple teaching techniques. So for you experienced presenters/instructors, this may be a reinforcement of what you already know. But if you are just beginning to deliver presentations or actual online classes, I strongly encourage you to study what you see here, seek the advice of experienced instructors, and above all, practice.

Now, let’s begin…

Set your goals – then create your content

When developing content for online delivery, determine what information is most critical – and what information is less critical. Then spend your development time accordingly. Knowing your audience is critical to knowing how much detail is required. Don’t spend 2 minutes on a critical topic followed by 20 minutes of information that is self explanatory. Do not plan for the same timing as a traditional classroom presentation either, but instead plan for no more than 45 minutes of lecture at a time. The remaining 15 minutes of each hour should be budgeted for breaks, Q&A, polls, or quizzes.

Set expectations

When announcing the event to potential students, make sure you clearly explain what topics are covered and what (if any) the prerequisites are for attending. Consider a list of questions to ask, or a short quiz to assess a student’s required knowledge. Of course this must be done tactfully. But don’t do the student or the instructor a disservice by putting a student in a class he or she is not ready for.
Once students are registered for an online class, make sure they know what is required of them. As the course date approaches, send them at least two email notifications detailing the course content and any requirements of their computer equipment. If there are requirements for bandwidth, software, or hardware (such as headphones and microphones), make sure you provide ample time for them to verify they meet these requirements and will be able to connect to the online environment. Consider creating a test environment for students to connect to for the purpose of verifying their equipment – such as audio input/output, video, browser plug-ins, etc. This should minimize the chances of having to waste time by troubleshooting student connections at the start of each course.

Know your tools

If you are the instructor, make sure you are familiar with the applications you’ll be using. Practice with another person and make sure you know how to use the full feature set of the applications employed during the session. For instance; know how to mute yourself and other participants, show or hide your screen, transfer keyboard and mouse control, etc.
Consider using more than one computer so that you can view notes on a ‘private screen’. You might also consider joining the online session from both computers so you can more seamlessly switch between presentations, demos, or white boards. Just transfer control between you primary and secondary computers.
It is absolutely critical that you do a dry run of the course and try to closely simulate the conditions of the actual class and network/ Internet bandwidth available to your audience.

Remove distractions

If the instructor is displaying his or her screen to the students, close any programs that can produce distractions, such as email notifications or instant messaging. Consider creating a clean uncluttered account profile on the instructor’s computer for use during presentations.

Know your audience

It’s traditional and expected that the beginning of a classroom session include introductions of some type. This is helpful for the students to get to know the instructor, the fellow students, and generally get a little more comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. It’s also a valuable opportunity for the instructor to assess the student’s expectations, possible learning style, and establish some level of rapport.
Surprisingly, this valuable opportunity is often neglected in an online setting. But it is even more important in a remote training session. If you are the courseware developer, don’t forget to include an introductions slide. If you are the instructor, this is your opportunity to set a very important precedent – that student participation is welcome and expected. If you don’t allow people this opportunity at the start of the class, they’ll be more likely to not participate later on. At a minimum, collect the following information (and write it down for reference):

  • What is your name? – The name they registered with is often different.
  • How would you like to be addressed? – Don’t assume it’s ok to call someone by their first name.
  • What is your job function? – Don’t assume everyone has a technical or non-technical role.
  • Do you have any specific expectations for the course? – This gives you the chance to tailor your presentation.
  • What time zone are you in? – Where appropriate, this may be helpful to know regarding lunch breaks.

Also take some time to explain the basic functions of the classroom interface, such as muting controls.

Move it along

Don’t bore the students. If using a slide deck, plan on spending less than one minute on each slide (on average). Some slides may take less time – some may take more. But don’t plan on delivery of more than 45 slides per hour of presentation time. If you find you have a slide that cannot be explained in less than a minute, reevaluate your delivery strategy, you may find that breaking the slide into multiple slides works better. In addition, try to avoid putting too much text on one slide. Nobody likes to look at a ‘wall of words’. Lastly, if you are the instructor, don’t allow yourself to lapse into a mentality of ‘getting through the slides’ and forget that it’s YOU doing the teaching – not the slide deck.

Keep it lively

One sure-fire way to put your students to sleep is to do only one thing – one way. Try to avoid only static slides, and add some animation where appropriate to catch the viewer’s eye and illustrate a particular point. It should go without saying – but don’t animate all of your slides. The goal here is to keep the student’s attention, not overwhelm them. Slide animation does not have to be too complex, just a simple blink or highlight is often enough.

Use a variety of tools

Don’t use only one medium. Power Point is a great tool (if used properly) – but it’s relied upon too heavily – too often. Consider using other mediums such as polls, quizzes, white-boarding, or videos. But make sure you know how to use these tools before attempting to do so. For instance; don’t attempt to show a full motion video via your own screen, but provide the students a link to download it and watch it locally for the best performance.

Never do anything for the first time in front of a live audience! Make sure you’ve practiced beforehand.

Make sure they hear you clearly

Voice over IP (VoIP) connections can be especially problematic. Using VoIP requires a reliable and stable internet connection. If using VoIP, strongly encourage the use of headphones, and not computer speakers. It is very unnerving to hear yourself (or others) via feedback. Headphones that incorporate a microphone should eliminate the audio feedback issue.
It is very common for one or more students to prefer a telephone for the audio; either because they do not have headphones, their network blocks VoIP traffic, or network performance issues. So always have a backup plan for audio. Providing a toll call number may present a problem as well, consider a toll free service.

Telegraph your actions

If you are the instructor, announce to your students what you are about to do before you do it. It’s not necessary to announce every new slide in a presentation, but if you’ll be switching to a white board or a live demo, announce it. This can help refocus students if their attention has wandered. If you were in an actual classroom and you picked up a pen and approached the white board, it’s obvious what you are about to do. In an online training session, you must compensate for the inability of the students to read your body language.

Make it interactive

Require some performance from the students. Encourage them to ‘raise their hands’ via their control panel if they have a question and need some further clarification of a topic. Create polls and quizzes and ask them to take a short quiz or vote in a poll. Just get them involved any way that you can. One method is to create a quiz or poll to get feedback for a particular slide, module, or topic and ask the student if it was clearly presented. This is one way to get that shy student who won’t speak up and ask a question to let you know you need to revisit a particular topic.

Make it fun

Don’t be afraid to joke a little and tell a polite joke here and there. The same techniques for ice-breakers in the classroom will generally work online as well. Consider including a humorous quote, image, or cartoon within your presentation if it bears any relevance to the topic. Don’t forget to credit the author or seek permission where necessary. Including the pleasantly unexpected within your presentation can keep the students energized and focused.

Make it profitable

If there is a budget for it, consider giving prizes to the students for some performance on their part. This almost always works wonders in an actual classroom and there no reason it can’t be employed in the virtual classroom as well. Gift certificates for online retailers work well and can be emailed to the students.

Ask questions – wait for answers

Of all the tips in this document, this may be the most important! So much is accomplished by dialogue – it’s absolutely critical to the learning process. As the instructor, don’t simply ask (of no one in particular) “Are there any questions?” Nine times out of ten, you’ll get nothing but an awkward silence. Asking a question in this manner is not helpful at all, and in many cases gives the impression you really don’t want questions, but want to move ahead in the courseware. How you phrase a question is as important as the question itself. You have to compel the student to respond and you have to do it in a non-threatening way. Most people are anxious about giving an incorrect answer, so make sure you don’t ‘corner them’ with yes/no answers unless you know what they’ll say. Consider the following techniques instead:

  • So John, did I explain that adequately, is there anything unclear?
  • Susan, given your job function, do you have a comments or suggestions regarding this slide?
  • Would anyone like to comment on this topic? John? Mary? David? (Calling out names)

Notice in the first example, the instructor takes the responsibility for the student’s answer. In the second example you are asking for a professional opinion. And in the third example, you are subtly letting the students know you haven’t forgotten about them and desire a dialogue with them. Notice that none of the examples above are direct questions regarding content, but catalysts for dialogue. If you can just get the students talking, a question will usually emerge that you can address.
Once you have asked a question of a particular person- wait for the answer. Remember that students in an online session may be unfamiliar with the user interface and it may take them some time to un-mute themselves, or maybe they have forgotten they are muted and they are speaking but you can’t hear them.

Never waste a answer

Whenever a question is asked of the instructor, the instructor should repeat the question for all to hear – before giving an answer. This allows all of the students to benefit from the answer – and not just the student who asked the question. It also gives the instructor an opportunity to make sure the question posed was interpreted correctly.
In a training session with proper dialogue, it’s not only the instructor that students learn from. They learn by dialogue with other students as well. Many questions are answered before they need to be asked if proper communication techniques are observed. So when a student has a relevant comment – that should be repeated for all to hear as well.

Please continue to part three of this article where we’ll look at some additional technologies being used in the online classroom today and discuss some important considerations for their use…