Last reviewed 30 September 2020

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many organisations have taken to using conferencing technology to deliver traditional instructor-led courses as virtual ones. Judith Christian-Carter looks at what is possible when using virtual instructor-led training (VILT).

One aspect of virtual learning is VILT. While it may not be a good idea to use an already proven ineffective approach to learning in a different medium, doing so, even in the current climate, could also be considered to be inexcusable. However, given the fact that this is happening, then it is a matter of looking to see how VILT could be made to work.

As traditional instructor-led training, delivered face-to-face in a classroom, has already been shown to be ineffective as far as learning outcomes are concerned, to convert traditional instructor-led courses to virtual ones is really asking for trouble. Not only do all the deficiencies of traditional instructor-led training remain, but they are often exacerbated due to the nature of the virtual conferencing technology being used, for example:

  • attendees are all in different locations and environments, so for 20 attendees there is likely to be 20 different environments, not all of which will be conducive to instructor-led training

  • people will become distracted at different times and in different ways and, no matter how skilled, the instructor will find it difficult to see who has “switched off”

  • there is often a lack of social presence, ie a feeling of connectedness, among and between the instructor and learners; however, everyone will still be expected to learn at the instructor's pace

  • gaining the instructor's attention to ask a question or to check on their understanding of a concept are even more difficult at a distance.

This means that many of the techniques used by instructors in a face-to-face (F2F) environment are often found to be ineffective in a VILT environment. So what needs to be done to provide optimal virtual classroom learning experiences?

Solid foundations

One critical but often overlooked aspect of a VILT experience is social presence, which is the feeling of connectedness among and between the instructor and learners. Social presence can be created by using a conversational tone, friendliness, smiling (including just via tone of voice), providing quick responses, using small group discussions, introductions, activities that encourage collaboration, and opportunities for sharing and self-disclosure.

Likewise, instructor presence, which has been described as a “combination of instructional design, facilitation of discourse and direct instruction” (Noseworthy & Boswell, 2016), plays a large role in the effectiveness of VILT. Not only do pre-course communications set the tone, but also the instructor's decisions about writing style, word choice and types of information that are shared, all contribute to the instructor's online presence and the degree to which they are seen as human. The support they offer, and their approachability and availability, all contribute to their presence during the course of a VILT experience, as does the speed with which they acknowledge comments or reactions, respond to requests for help, return assignments, and so on.

Learning and thinking happen in the moment and are interdependent with context, people and culture. Furthermore, performance depends on applying knowledge in different situations and not just through acquiring conceptual information. Therefore, the instructor in a virtual classroom setting must monitor and attend to mood, shifts in interest and level of interaction among participants, some of which, as a direct result of the technology, may not be as visible as they are in a F2F environment.

By using instructional strategies known to improve learning outcomes regardless of the delivery medium, such as realistic practice, space repetition of key learning points and feedback, will all help deliver a learning experience that achieves the desired results.

Realistic practice

Many Learning and Development (L&D) professionals know that for a learning experience to be a positive one, it is critical to provide learners with tasks and decision-making opportunities that are relevant, authentic and meaningful. In VILT, it is essential to make sure that realistic practice is built-in wherever possible. For example:

  • using realistic role plays, including bringing in people from outside to assume specific roles

  • exercises that create realistic documentation, completing forms or follow a process

  • allowing participants to take control of the screen to demonstrate and practice using specific software features

  • using the breakout function so small groups can work on realistic tasks together or writing their own scenarios for difficult conservations with employees/customers

  • showing a short video clip of a difficult interaction and asking participants what they would say next, how people are likely to respond, etc

  • participants using time spent outside the virtual classroom to read material, complete assignments, practice on machines they are learning to repair, software they are learning to use, and so on.

Spaced learning

Realistic practice is essential for positive learning experiences but so is spaced learning. Spaced learning is achieved by spacing practice across time, and research has shown that this produces better learning outcomes than offering it as a part of a mass single experience. A key aspect of spaced learning is repetition, such as:

  • paraphrasing (changing the wording slightly)

  • using stories, examples, demonstrations, illustrations, metaphors to provide both context and example

  • through testing, practice, exercises, simulations and case studies

  • encouraging discussions, debate, argumentation, dialogue, collaboration and other forms of collective/group learning.

Feedback

There are numerous research studies, undertaken over the last two decades, that have shown just how valuable feedback is to the long-term retention of learning. It has also been shown that feedback is particularly effective when it is given in response to incorrect answers or behaviour. Feedback can take many different forms and can also be provided outside a VILT classroom session.

Feedback is not a distinct, separate action though, as it ties into both realistic practice and spaced learning. When used carefully and is integrated into a learning experience, feedback can contribute to building presence and a sense of community:

“Feedback practices were identified multiple times in relation to online teaching success. Specific teaching competencies include communicating expectations for learner performance, grading that is visible to learners, providing prompt feedback, giving feedback that is helpful and enhances learning, and providing clear, detailed feedback on assignments. Helpful feedback builds the instructor-learner relationship through positive interactions. Feedback is a critical aspect of online educator practice because it promotes the learning experience.” (Liebold & Schwarz, 2015)

Familiar but different

For many L&D professionals when faced with delivering either F2F traditional instructor-led classroom training or VILT, the suggestions provided in this article will be only too familiar. However, for some, there may very well be some new ideas and insights, as, clearly, just showing slides and talking for hours on end will not result in an optimal VILT experience. In short, that experience has to be different.

“As we evolve our practice from emergency remote teaching to what may well be our new way of working, designers, subject matter experts, and facilitators face many new challenges — and opportunities. Paying attention to instructional strategies we know are effective, and supporting those with strong facilitation and support, will help our move. The goal: making the virtual classroom experience not just ‘as good as’ but finding ways to make it ‘better than’ the old standard of the live event.” (Jane Bozarth, 2020)