Engaging Online Training: An Oxymoron?

This week, I sat through two days of a software training class that I attended virtually. The experience led me to question whether it’s possible to have an online training experience (whether synchronous or asynchronous) that’s as engaging as being in the classroom with a live instructor.

While my preference for creating online training material has grown over the last several years, my preference for attending these types of training hasn’t kept the same pace. When I was in first grade, my teacher sent a letter home to my parents complaining that I was daydreaming in class. I was a straight A student and knew the material, so what was the problem? I was bored. And when I’m bored, uninterested, or distracted, I have problems focusing my attention; that remains true for me today.

Personally, live instructors tend to hold my attention better than any other training method. I find being able to see facial expressions and interact with someone to be more engaging. Also, because I know someone is watching, I’m less likely to be tempted by other distractions, like checking email.

Because I work in the training field, I know it’s not possible to teach every class in person. Rising traveling costs and increasing demands on all our time make online and virtual training methods more appealing. So if we’re bound to use these methods in an increasingly online but busy society, how do we keep our learners engaged?

My Experience—What Went Wrong?

The class I attended this week was in preparation for a major project that’s upcoming at work, one that I’ll definitely be involved in and am eager to work on. I was excited to see the material that would be presented. So what went wrong? Why did I find myself tuning out and distracted by other programs on my computer?

First, I was at a disadvantage because I was the only virtual attendee; the class hadn’t been structured for my mode of attendance. I’m in the third trimester of pregnancy and didn’t feel comfortable traveling to the training site. Everyone else made the trip. The department sponsoring the training session was nice to accommodate my needs, but because virtual attendance wasn’t a priority from the beginning, certain aspects of the experience were lacking.

The biggest issue I had was with the audio quality. The instructor was using an online webinar software to share her screen, and that worked well; I could easily follow along with where she was in the software she was showing us. However, because everyone else attended in person, she didn’t use the software to share the audio. We used a speakerphone instead—and not a very good one. If I concentrated, I could understand the instructor well enough to keep up with the class. Sidebar conversations were difficult and sometimes impossible to hear. For me, maintaining the concentration required to follow along with the class was mentally exhausting. After a couple of hours, my attention was spent, and I found it incredibly difficult to refocus.

Grad School—What’s Working Well

I began to think about this training experience in contrast to my graduate school program at Kennesaw State University. When I first began a graduate program that’s only offered online, I was nervous for the same reasons I mentioned above. I wondered if I would learn as much as I would from a traditional classroom environment.

I’ve been 100% pleasantly surprised by my experience participating in online graduate studies over the last 2 and half years. If anything, I’ve been more engaged than I would be in a traditional environment. Toward the end of my undergrad education, I began to feel burned out and stopped attending class as regularly as I should have. Grad school hasn’t given me that option.

Intentional Design

My experience with graduate school proves that it’s possible for online learning to also be engaging. One thing that makes my program successful is that, unlike my work training course, each graduate class is designed with online delivery in mind. Courses don’t just rehash the same content from classroom instruction in a different medium. Everything, from the content to the format, is intentionally chosen for an online environment.

Most of my graduate classes have followed a similar structure. Each week, students read assigned materials then post and respond to each other in an online discussion board. Other major assignments, whether completed individually or in a group, are submitted via the online portal to the instructor for feedback. During my time in grad school, I’ve only had one synchronous meeting with a class; everything else has taken place in the online portal. While instructors have supplemented class materials with written or video lectures, the discussion board has been the major avenue of learning and communication among the class.

Discussion Board

Sample Online Graduate School Discussion Board

Flipping the Classroom

I think my graduate program has also been successful at maintaining my attention because it follows the model of the flipped classroom.

In traditional education environments, the teacher lectures while the students listen, then the students go home and practice on their own. If the students have questions or struggle with the material, the teacher isn’t there to help them understand. This system can leave big gaps in learning for students who struggle with the lecture format or materials. In the flipped classroom, the opposite happens. The students read or view the lecture materials at their own pace then come to the classroom to practice the skills. The teacher is present if the students need help. Teachers can see which students might need extra guidance or which points might need additional clarification.

The video below is a recording of a webinar I attended from Sarah Gilbert of meLearning Solutions in conjunction with ATD (Association for Talent Development) on the concept of flipped classrooms. It’s long but worthwhile if you have time.

Webinar from Sarah Gilbert on Flipped Classrooms

Gilbert, S. (2013, January 26). Flipped Classroom Webinar [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/V3teEiItC9o

Flipping Online

While the flipped model can work with any form of training delivery, I think it becomes more important as a tool for virtual or online training.

Online learning offers a wide variety tools for delivering flipped lecture materials to students. Learners aren’t limited to reading text; they can watch videos, explore websites, and complete online simulations. Any method that we can use to deliver online training content can be used successfully in a flipped setting. We can combine several forms of multimedia to create an online environment learners will find engaging.

Flipping the online classroom also builds in more accountability than a standard computer-based course. Knowing there will be an instructor-led session for follow-up will motivate learners to explore the material, rather than just clicking through to get to the end. Learners get to experience the best of both training worlds: free self-exploration of the content plus the help and experience of an instructor.

Ironically, I was attending this particular training session in preparation for a project in which I intend to use the flipped strategy. I’m hoping that flipping the content and putting it online will offer me all the benefits I’ve mentioned above, including spending less time in the classroom and seeing greater learner retention of the material.