As someone who was primarily a classroom instructor, it was a very interesting switch to the virtual class environment. As a classroom instructor, you depend on participant feedback, body language, expressions and all that "human" interaction. For example, you have no doubts that the participant in physically "there" for a classroom session. In a virtual session, its like you're teaching where your students are on the other side of a wall from you.
Let's talk about what's "missing":
- Visual cues from the student - all the body language, facial expressions, signs of participation in an activity
- Visual cues from the facilitator - as above, body language, gestures, plus all the "on-scene" help in labs and activities
- General classroom synergy - no experience can adequately capture what happens when you bring a group of people together for some kind of learning activity.
We should also talk about some of the general advantages:
- Location independence - facilitator and students don't have to be co-located
- Private communication - students can communicate directly with the instructor to ask questions or make comments through a chat tool.
- Archived communication - as above, questions can be raised at any time via chat and saved for future reference
- Multiple media/method integration - a richness of presentation can be achieved with very little effort. Much of this work could be done on the fly or on-demand.
Some of the overall disadvantages can be debated ad infinitum, and I'd never say that synchronous facilitation is a panacea, but it is an effective tool at the facilitator's disposal.
What I do want to share here are some of my learning experiences with live sessions and some things that I have found to be important for my own ongoing use.
I am not necessarily a natural comedian, but I often use carefully-selected pieces of humour in my normal classroom delivery. For some reason, a lot of humour and sarcasm and wry observations are far less effective online. This effect is usually attributed to the lack of visual cues. Misinterpretation of comments becomes a risk factor to consider in delivery and planning.
Off-the-cuff delivery is a bit of a challenge while engaged in an online session, and I found that some of my normal rapid-fire delivery simply didn't 'reach' some of my earlier audiences. There were a lot of contributing factors here, not the least of which was the lack of visual cues, but it had more to do with technology limitations. A lack of bandwidth can really impact what the learner actually receives at their end. For a while I was at a bit of a loss as to what do do, but I looked to a common cousin of e-learning: Radio broadcasting. On-Air broadcasters tend to have a smooth, yet simple, delivery. I took a look at what I was trying to say, and I started to simplify it. I then hit on another idea: scripting. During some of my earlier exposure to e-learning, I was running repeated live sessions. In order to maintain consistency, I started to script my sessions. I built a simple script template where I could include the current step of my presentation, the portion of the script to be delivered at that point, as well as any demos or interactive tasks required. The real advantage of using a system like this was that I could very quickly train new instructors on how to delivery specific modules.
A polished, concise delivery really does make a difference. I alluded to some of those issues in the section above, but I figured that 'nailing down' my script would go a long way to a successful delivery. A colleague had a studio-quality 4-track recorder that he brought into our e-learning studio, and I would take the time to run through my presentations and play them back. I can't say enough about what I learned and gained from hearing my own delivery and being able to get closer and closer to "speaking less, but saying more"
One of my previous employers was getting serious about live e-learning delivery in the early days of the trend. Inspired by a US-based training vendor, they actually made dedicated space available, much like a small radio studio, so the sessions could be held in a quiet, controlled environment. Online facilitators have enough to worry about, and it made sense to minimize distractions and outside interference. The 5 computers in the studio were dedicated for delivery, co-facilitation, archiving, practice, and the like.
Integration and Consistency:
One of the major failings of the early efforts in live e-learning was failing to capitalize on that initial push. While our initial efforts were successful, we didn't capitalize on that success and integrate more online sessions with our core classroom offerings. One of my colleagues and I proposed a "talk show" format for a recurring online session (much like a regular radio talk show) in addition to future blended offerings, fiscal pressures at that employer saw them abandon the overall effort in favour of a focus on pre-packaged TBT offerings. Was that the right thing to do? The debate could go on endlessly. The end result was that we lost a valuable way to reach our customer base and keep them connected.
Again, this entry isn't exhaustive or complete...just a small sample. What are your thoughts? What have you experienced in "live" facilitation? What could people do better? What do you dislike about live facilitation as a learning vehicle?