This week has been all in the virtual classroom for me. It’s a very different way of facilitating; the way we use the Webex system, there is no eye contact, no body language. There’s very little in fact to allow the facilitator to instantly gauge the participant’s engagement, apart from a little red exclamation mark appearing next to the name of whoever is looking at something else on their screen. Even that can mean they are in dual-screen mode.

The danger in surrendering to this absence of stimuli is it turns transactional and just becomes a webinar. My team prides itself on running fully facilitated and engaging workshops in the virtual classroom. But how do you bridge that engagement gap? Here are my basic tips:

1) Anticipate and act. You use your gut instinct. Like when a vision-impaired person develops an acuter sense of hearing and touch, time in the virtual classroom will heighten your awareness of other cues. The duration of participant silence, tone of their voice and use of the tools will inform you of where the engagement is at relative to other groups you have facilitated. You then have to make proactive decisions on the group’s behalf, such as to change the state.

2) Use your Producer. Where I work, the professional standard is two people to run each session. That is smart because you have the benefit of a full-time independent view of proceedings. Having a chat window open (messenger, lotus notes sametime, or similar) with short, sharp messages going between the Producer and yourself gives you confidence and perspective at critical times in the session. It also means there is someone to look after technical issues.

3) Have fun and use humour. This is generally counter-intuitive, because if all of the participants have their audio muted, you can’t tell if they are laughing, or indeed if you have offended someone. Gentle, safe humour (nothing political or prejudiced) will get you smiling. When you smile, your voice lilts more, and this is all important.

4) Involve every participant, all the time. Make it a rule at the start that everyone will be called on and will participate. This might seem pedagogical, even autocratic in approach, but it determines your expectations. Use the cues you have to call on the quietest people to pull them back into the discussion.

5) Use all the tools. Really mix it up in using polls, emoticons, sharing web content, scribing on the screen, breakout rooms for group activities, and the chat function. The most powerful to me is using chat to have a parallel conversation. It recognises more learning styles and gives an outlet to participants who already know the content. Ideally, the producer will drop web-links, open questions and activity instructions into chat. Participants can also keep a soft-copy of this conversation as post-session crib notes.

6) Give permission and space for participant questions, stories and comments. The bias of talking should be at least 50% from the participants. When you are working to a script (which is a necessary way to anchor timings and deliver outcomes within the hour or two that you have), strip out all unnecessary phrases. If you state a one sentence learning outcome, then ask ‘why/who/how/when/what’, this is ideal.

The virtual classroom is cost-effective, focused, fits a blended learning approach and makes the logistics of attending a workshop so much easier for the learner. There is also absolutely no reason why it can’t be as engaging as a face-to-face experience, and it is good fun to facilitate.

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