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Creating an Amazing Virtual Learning Experience

by Lori Gracey
virtual learning

By now, we should all be experts at doing things virtually, whether that is shopping or meting up with friends or attending conferences. But I think there’s still more we can learn about putting on a virtual event from a classroom lesson to a webinar for professional development to a huge convention. Here’s what I’ve learned over the past few months on creating amazing virtual learning events.

Planning the Virtual Event

The best virtual learning starts with great planning. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What type of event is this?
  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the value you’re offering the audience? (see below for ideas)
  • What is the message you want your audience to take away? 

Great events offer at least one of the following types of value to the participants. Defining what your intent is up front can be helpful.

  • Entertainment value – Don’t discount the value that plain old fun has.
  • Educational value – The majority of what we offer as educators.
  • Financial value – Ways to help attendees gain financially, perhaps through certifications.
  • Emotional/Spiritual value – Helping participants connect with themselves and grow in new ways.

The Technical Side of Virtual Learning

I’m not going to talk about the best programs for virtual learning. What I would like to share are some tips for making sure that the technicality of remoteness doesn’t interfere with the learning to be done.

  • Keep your background simple. Whether you are shooting from your living room or using a virtual background, make sure that what’s behind you is plain. You don’t want people to be distracted by the things around you. (And yes, those cool virtual backgrounds from Star Wars or Doctor Who or videos of the beach are really fun, but they also ensure that your audience is not fully focused on you or your content.)
  • Lighting is important. Put a light of any kind (table lamp, professional light, or even your child or spouse holding a flashlight) so that it is behind your camera and pointing at you. As this blog notes: “The number one thing to keep in mind when meeting over video: webcams automatically adjust to and record the brightest source of light. And if that light is behind you, you’re no longer the focus. Avoid being backlit by making sure you’re facing toward, not away from, a window or another light source.”
  • Raise your camera. The built-in camera on my laptop is at the very bottom of the screen right next to the keyboard. That means that, if I use it, there is no way to avoid it constantly shooting up my nose, which is not a pretty picture. So I purchased an inexpensive webcam that clips on to the top of my monitor and is aimed at my face.
  • Put useful information in with your name. Make sure that your name appears on the screen in a virtual setting. If you routinely work with students, then “Mrs. Gracey” would be fine. If you meet most with others from your campus who know you, then “Lori Gracey” is great. If your virtual events are with people who may not know who you are, then “Lori Gracey, TCEA” is probably more useful. Please don’t use cute names (I was actually in a professional meeting with a “Sweet Lips”) or generic family ones (“Doormans”) or strange abbreviations (“pookie952”) if you are sharing an account.
  • Practice, practice, practice. If this is your first time to present remotely, you should practice using the platform you will be presenting on at least once, and possibly twice. And even if you have presented online before, you should still take time to try out the system you’ll be using. Weird quirks can pop up at the most annoying of times, and it’s better if that happens during your practice session and not while the audience is watching you.
  • For a larger audience, have a moderator to help out. If there are going to be a lot of people (more than 30, in my opinion) attending your virtual event, then a moderator is a must. This is the person who handles the details during the event so that you can concentrate on presenting your content. A moderator would let people into the room, help them with using the chat or poll features, feed the presenter questions at agreed-upon times, and otherwise free up the presenter. If you have a really big crowd (more than 75, for instance), then it’s wonderful to have a facilitator as well as a moderator. A facilitator handles the more technical issues that may come up (problems with individual audio, not knowing how to download a file or the chat, posting previously agreed upon links for others to access, and such). Think of the moderator as the person who helps with the people and the facilitator as the person who helps with the stuff.

The Content

Once you get the technical aspects worked out, then content becomes king. Here are some tips to ensure that your content is what people remember when they leave your virtual event.

  • Chunk your content. No one wants to sit staring at a computer screen for an hour. Break what you are presenting into short, manageable pieces of no more than eight minutes each (the average attention span today). Once that piece is over, give the participants some type of activity to do, whether it requires typing or writing something down or finding an object in the room or chatting with other people. Then go on to the next chunk of content.
  • Don’t spend much time introducing yourself. Again, it’s your content that is the star of the show and not the presenter. If they already know you, then just get started after a “Hello! I’m excited to be with you today.” If they don’t know you, spend 20 seconds or less telling them who you are and then jump into the presentation. Telling people about your resume and skill set doesn’t convince them that you know what you’re talking about; talking about the content does. This also allows you to get in a little bit more learning for them, which is a bonus.
  • If you do an opening activity, keep it short. It’s great to start off the virtual learning event with a quick (emphasis on the word “quick” here) activity to get the attendees thinking or engaged. Host a short poll. Do a two-minute or less virtual scavenger hunt where the participants rush to find an object that matches some requirement you give them (“something blue and with sharp corners” or “something you would want with you on a deserted island”). Ask the first two or three people who come back with the object to tell why they chose it. Then jump into the content. You could also do a waterfall activity by asking everyone to type their response to a set question in the chat area, but not hit the return/enter key until you tell everyone to do so. That then provides a cascade of answers, which can really get their minds turning.
  • Prepare a slide deck and a handout. What you show on the screen during the virtual event, unless it’s a how-to session, should consist primarily of lots of graphics and very little text. Use images that get the main idea of each slide across. Make it pretty and interesting to look at. But also provide your attendees with a handout or link to a Google Doc or a Google Site that includes all of the details of your presentation. And provide that to them up front (and again at the end) so that they don’t have to worry about getting the content all during the session.
  • Include a “next steps” and/or reflection at the end. The reason people are at your session is that they want to learn something new to implement. So help them make that a reality by asking them to think about their next steps. What will you do next to make what you learned today a reality? What might be a stumbling block to doing that and how will you overcome it? What else do you need to learn about this topic? Having them reflect on what they learned and where they need to go next will ensure that the learning isn’t forgotten.
  • Have a closing ritual. If this is a group that you meet with regularly, whether students or adults, it can be beneficial to have an ending that is the same each time. This might be assignments, reminders, last-minute questions, or even a brief time to share their thoughts. Keep it short, but make sure they have closure as they leave the virtual event.

I hope that these tips will help you think through the process to achieving an amazing virtual learning experience for your participants. If you have other great tips on this topic, please share them in the comments below and let’s all learn together!

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