My first experience of delivering Web-based training was when working for WritersUA in the US in 2002. This was during the economic downturn, when many people were reluctant to fly because of concerns about terrorism following the attacks on 11th September of the previous year. My boss at the time, Joe Welinske, recognised that web-based training, although not necessarily as engaging and effective as face-to-face courses, might be a solution. We used PlaceWare, a Web conferencing service (this became Microsoft Office Live Meeting, which has now been replaced by Skype for Business), and it had many of the same features of today's virtual meeting applications such as Zoom and GoToMeeting. I remember particularly that it supported ‘poll slides’, which enabled me to pose a question, receive a response from audience members, and then immediately present the statistical results in the form of a chart. This gave the audience an important sense of two-way communication.
The fact is that this didn't really take off at the time in the way that we had hoped. Perhaps it was before its time in terms of market acceptance, price, available bandwidth, and the level of hardware that was generally available in the early part of the millennium. For example, you couldn't take it for granted that audience members would have access to a microphone, headset, or webcam.
Trend towards web-based training
Then, about 10 years ago, a trend started for the training that I provided (on user assistance tools and technologies) to move increasingly online. Companies wanted to reduce costs by avoiding expensive travel and minimising the amount of time that staff needed to take away from their day-to-day work to take training. Also, I think students themselves were beginning to recognise the convenience of taking classes from their company office, or even from home. Even before the start of the recent lockdown period, 80% of the training I presented was now being delivered via the Web.
During lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, almost everyone became accustomed to using some form of Web conferencing system, be it Zoom, Skype, Houseparty, Hangouts, GoToMeeting, WebEx, Jitsi Meet, or any of the other tools that became popular during that time. Many of these tools have been refined and upgraded to allow more engaging collaboration, with an increased emphasis on webcam and desktop sharing (including system audio). We now take it for granted that people will be familiar with these systems and the emerging social conventions and etiquette for using them.
Web-based versus classroom training
I have to admit that my feelings towards web-based training were initially ambivalent. I found that it required more careful and thorough preparation, and was tiring and stressful to present much more so than teaching a class of students face-to-face. It requires intense concentration for potentially long periods of time, and I have compared the experience to single-handedly presenting an extended radio broadcast even professional DJs tend to have a companion in the studio with which to exchange banter! I also missed seeing the students and being able to read their facial expressions and body language. Picking up on signs of boredom or lack of understanding became far more challenging.
However, I have now learnt to enjoy it, and have also been encouraged by the invariably positive response from students. Many are surprised by how well the online experience can work. Indeed, in some ways, Web-based training can offer advantages over classroom training. Because there is no need for travel or to book physical rooms, it is more flexible it can be spread over a more extended period of time instead of being crammed into two to five days, allowing more opportunity for consolidation and practice.
Another potential benefit of Web-based training is the flexibility it offers for interaction. It is human nature to want to engage actively rather than simply listen passively which accounts for the trend I have noticed over recent years towards phone-in programmes on the radio. It is also my experience that students understand better and remember more when they are actively involved in the learning experience. Fortunately, all the current crop of online meeting and web conference applications support audience contributions either by text (via a Chat window) or by voice (by phone or VoIP), meaning that personal communication preferences are catered for. Students who might not have dared to ask a question verbally within a physical classroom may feel perfectly comfortable submitting it via a Chat window within a web-based learning environment.
Here is a summary of some of the key advantages and disadvantages of web-based versus classroom training.
- No travel or physical classroom required
- Choice of audio- or text-based contributions from students
- Ability to hand mouse/keyboard control to students
- Ability to easily see students' screens (if allowed) using practice periods
- Clarity of visual presentation (no problems viewing screen from the back of a classroom)
- Missing the nuances of face-to-face communication
- Technical issues such as internet outages that are beyond your control
- Students can disengage from training and do other background tasks without the trainer being aware of it
- Students are potentially less focussed and motivated
- Less social interaction, networking, and relationship building is possible
- Sessions need to be shorter
Tips for presenting web-based training
As a result of my experience of presenting (mainly synchronous) web-based training over many years, I have developed several techniques and good practices that I now use regularly. Here are some of my top tips for success:
Make sure you have a decent microphone, a stable (ideally wired) internet connection, and a quiet and acoustically-treated environment (no hard surfaces that reflect sound). I have a duvet hung on the walls of the cabin in which I do my broadcasting. I use a decent USB condenser microphone with a cardioid pickup pattern, which means that it detects sound predominantly from a single direction, reducing the level of background noise. You should expect to spend in the range of £100- £150 for one of these. Some people prefer to use dynamic microphones, which have a closer range and are therefore even less sensitive to ambient noise.
Restrict the duration of your training sessions to no more than ninety minutes. If you need to go longer than that, make sure you include breaks (these are as necessary for your students as for you!).
Use webcams sparingly mainly for privacy reasons, but also because you usually want students to be focussing on what you are presenting (slides, or shared desktop). This particularly applies to students with sub-standard internet connections since webcams can use up valuable bandwidth and adversely affect the audio quality. Perhaps use webcams at pre-arranged points, such as during introductions, or scheduled discussions but respect students' decisions not to share their webcams. I don't usually use webcams at all in my training sessions.
If you are demonstrating software, don't set your screen resolution too high. Remember, your entire screen is being presented within a window on your users' screens, and their screens may be smaller than yours anyway.
Minimise the use of presentation slides these can provide a useful checklist for the presentation of important information, but students prefer demonstration and other more dynamic and visual ways of conveying information. Variety is the key.
Engage users right from the start. I recently attended an international webinar on the impact of COVID-19 on online learning, and the moderator made a point of welcoming each person from across the world as they joined by asking them questions about their local weather. This seemingly trivial interaction generated a conversation from the outset, and a high level of interaction continued within the Chat throughout the session. At the end, the feedback was extremely positive, even though the presentation from the main speaker had been rather dry.
Introduce the features of the conferencing application, emphasising the audio and Chat features. Give students practice using the Chat window, and encourage its use.
Request students to mute themselves when they are not contributing by voice (this is especially important) if necessary, use Mute All within your conferencing app (though constantly remind students that you welcome their interruptions). Mute All allows a degree of control by the presenter. It's especially useful in helping avoid people all trying to talk at once.
If the group is small enough (perhaps 10 or fewer) take time for students to introduce themselves and talk briefly about their backgrounds and objectives for the training. Consider asking them a series of focussed questions rather having them make an awkward and potentially rambling speech about themselves. Take your own private notes as they speak, which you can refer to during the training.
Refer by name to students and their situations during the training. For example, you might say "Chris, this will be particularly important to you as PDF is your primary output format".
With small groups of up to, say, a dozen students, try always to acknowledge questions and contributions as they come in. Always thank students for their questions students then feel that their contributions are valid and welcomed, and will continue to participate. If necessary, say that you will answer the question later during the relevant part of the training.
Put questions to your audience, and be prepared to wait for responses. Use Polls if they are available.
Involve students in the activities. For example: instead of demonstrating a software procedure yourself, give keyboard and mouse control to one of the students and talk them through the process. Give them lots of positive feedback.
Instead of presenting facts, consider drawing information from students based on what they already know or think they know, and record this shared knowledge on screen. I do this when I am teaching the differences between snippets and variables, and students seem to enjoy the collaboration process.
Minimise unnecessary mouse movement (something that I am occasionally guilty of). This can be distracting. Try to move the mouse cursor positively and purposefully, and take your hand away from the mouse when it is not required.
Be relaxed and use humour try not to sound as though you are reading from a script. This comes with practice.
Vary your tone, voice level, and proximity to the microphone. If I am making a key point, I sometimes get very close to the microphone and lower my voice as if I am imparting a secret.
Use arm movement and facial expression just as if you were teaching a class, even if you aren't sharing your webcam. This adds an energy and expression to your voice. Smiling also adds warmth.
Provide plenty of time for practice and make yourself available to help via a range of communication methods including text-based (IM or email), and voice (phone or VoIP). Be prepared to re-enter the Web conferencing room to share desktops, which can be helpful in troubleshooting and identifying misunderstandings.
Web-based learning offers a flexible supplement or alternative to classroom training. It is a particularly useful and attractive solution when travel is restricted, though the lack of students' physical presence presents significant challenges for the trainer. The key to success is audience participation and interaction, and there is a range of simple and effective tactics that you can use to increase engagement.