E-Learning's Greatest Hits
Authors: Shepherd C
Published year: 2003
Just in case you’re one of the 93% who has never participated in a virtual classroom and are keen to know what on earth they are, here’s a quick primer. Virtual classrooms are applications of web conferencing technology, which allows computer users to communicate in real-time over the Internet or an intranet. Web conferencing is typically more than a simple text-based chat room; it allows groups of users to communicate in voice or video and to share all kinds of resources, such as slides, documents, electronic whiteboards (to which all users can contribute simultaneously ), shared applications or even whole desktops, synchronised web surfing and much more. Virtual classrooms extend this technology to add the sorts of features that make real-time, virtual training a practical option, including polls , questions, surveys (virtual happy sheets), break-out sessions and record-keeping .
Virtual classrooms are offered by a number of major US providers, including Centra, WebEx, PlaceWare, InterWise, LearnLinc and, in the UK, NetTutor. You’ll also find virtual classroom modules built into many learning management systems. All provide the core functionality required to make a success of virtual training, although clearly there are many differences in the details and in the price your organisation will have to pay. The extent to which web conferencing has become mainstream, particularly since the events of 9/11 brought home the risks of air travel, has been borne out by the decision in May for Microsoft to acquire PlaceWare. Watch this space to see just how much web conferencing functionality ends up built-in to future versions of Windows.
Before looking at the skills needed by e- trainers (those that run virtual classrooms), it makes sense to reflect on what a good virtual classroom session would look like if you were to meet it. Anyone who has attended a number of sessions is likely to have already encountered the dreaded ‘death by PowerPoint’, this time the virtual variety. In case you haven’t, death by PowerPoint is almost as painful as its face-to-face counterpart , with the exception that the trainer doesn’t get to see the expressions of pain and the trainees can ameliorate the situation by reading their emails or playing Solitaire at the same time.
Steve Dineen, CEO of fuel, expresses the dangers: “More progressive learning organisations realise that virtual classrooms have the potential to combine the strengths of both self-study e-learning and classroom training. Unfortunately, in many cases what actually gets combined are the worst weaknesses of poorly-designed e-learning and instructor-led training. Many early attempts at virtual classrooms have consisted of trainers merely delivering slides on-line, which removes the positive aspects of classroom training, such as the instructor reading the body language of learners, realising who is understanding and who is not and which learners have let their attention wander. In addition many current virtual classroom sessions remove the best part of self-study e-learning, which is rich interactive content based around sound principles of educational psychology. On-line education can be so much more than PowerPoint and audio.”
A good virtual classroom session is like a good face-to-face session – interactive. Julie Linn, e-Learning Manager for the Training Foundation, has been adapting the Institute of IT Training’s successful ‘TAP’ (Certified Trainer Assessment Programme) methodology to the virtual classroom: “It’s important to engage your learners using the skills you’d use face-to-face, encouraging exploration and providing plenty of opportunities for practice. This is even more important in the virtual classroom, because you can lose your audience and not even know that they’ve gone. Trainers need to be creative to use the facilities provided by the software in ensuring maximum participation.”
Linn explains: “At first, trainers will feel like they are doing a classroom session blindfold. When you consider that 80% of the sensory information that the brain receives is visual, this can seem a major obstacle . We encourage e-trainers to use polls and chat features to find out as much as they can about their audience at the start of the session. By using plenty of interaction, supported by quality visuals – not just endless bullet points – the virtual classroom is likely to be a real success.”
Case study: Serversys
Serversys is the UK’s leading value added reseller for GoldMine Business Contact Manager, a customer relationship management solution. In 2002, Serversys started to employ WebEx web conferencing software as a way of providing customer support, taking advantage of the product’s extensive desktop sharing capabilities. Serversys soon realised that WebEx had the potential to be employed as a channel for virtual training, extending the range of training options available to customers.
Phil Catterall is Technical Director for Serversys: “A typical customer for GoldMine is a salesperson working from home. It can be both difficult and expensive to get salespeople in a room for training, so it’s obviously appealing when to be able to take the training direct to them in their homes . There are also learning advantages: after a whole day classroom session, many trainees are becoming brain dead; chunking up sessions and delivering them virtually means we maximise attention levels.”
Caterall admits there are limitations: “Some of our customers are not that computer literate, so we could not dispense with an initial classroom session. Where we see the greatest potential is for follow-up training on particular topics. This is additional revenue for us and enables us to productively use any spare trainer time.”
Training Consultant Phil Brown has found it relatively easy to adapt to virtual training: “The WebEx software has been seamlessly integrated into our website, even thought it is hosted separately. To use WebEx, customers only have to download a small ActiveX control before their first usage. The product is extremely secure, which is important because the main facility we exploit is desktop sharing.”
Serversys have developed a unique model of virtual training, working with small groups of just two or three. Brown explains: “The idea is to guide rather than demonstrate . With the lack of a visual presence, you have to be able to monitor the learner’s progress in other ways, ideally through practical exercises. Interestingly, we have done sessions where only one customer representative attends, usually the system administrator, but other users look in using a big screen projector.” As Brown would attest, we’re only just beginning to see the wide range of ways in which virtual classrooms can be employed.
E-Learning's Greatest Hits
Authors: Shepherd C
Published year: 2003