8 Hours in a virtual learning space – How do we keep folks engaged? Some reflections and learnings.

Feedback from our 2 day virtual strategy learning programme

I kicked off the year this week with a 2 day virtual strategy learning programme covering the strategy mindsets and techniques needed by leaders in the 4th Industrial Revolution. The programme was 100% online and used our Cloud Conference room together with the full programme prepared on a Virtual Whiteboard.

I was amazed at how the participants could remain engaged throughout the process much like an in-room facilitation.

One year into this brave new world of synchronised virtual facilitation & learning, we have figured out some things, with much more to learn.

Here are some of my learnings: 

  1. The combination of a virtual whiteboard together with a virtual conference room that allows for the free movement of people between “tables” and groups helps a lot to keep engagement levels high.
  2. A virtual learning experience is different from a face to face session in the sense that it allows learning before the session (give view access to the whiteboards with the full learning process a week or so before the session), during the session and after the session (teams keep access to their boards and reflections after the learning days). Keep that in mind – virtual sessions cannot be scheduled “last minute”.
  3. Understand that the first hour and the first day of a learning or facilitation programme will be stressful and disorienting to participants who have not used the tools before. It’s just a reality and be prepared for a slow start and some folks checking out & proclaiming “I’m completely lost”.  This can be mitigated with pre-training in the tools, a pre-event check-in sesion and by starting with a blank “sandpit board” for people to just play around and find their feet. Session two & day two will bring a real sense of achievement and joy at becoming proficient in this new space. Stay calm, make it fun and constantly model a growth mindset.
  4. Keep the learning groups small and stable (same people for a day or the whole programme) – I have found that the sweet spot for a virtual learning group is around 4-5 people – much smaller than in face to face training – small groups and insisting that each person present feedback once a day works well for accountability and engagement.
  5. One of the nice features of a virtual whiteboard is that you can embed explainer videos, canvases and relevant articles into the whiteboard allowing some self paced group learning on the day.
  6. Work sessions need to be longer – in real life its possible to have 20 minute group discussions, in the virtual space 40 minutes to an hour works better  – in the beginning this seems long, but it really gives groups time to settle, think and get some work done.
  7. I used named and colour coded virtual sticky notes on the virtual whiteboard for each participant – that gives an amazing visual picture of how much each member has contributed.
  8. At the end of each day I used an interactive questionnaire to ask all participants to rate each other and give feedback on participation – this way of recognising contributors and highly engaged team members makes a huge difference.
  9. The preparation time for a virtual session is 3X-10X of a face to face session – we still need to find the right pricing model for this.
  10. Should the pandemic move into its endemic phase and face to face events resume – the virtual learning and facilitation space will have to up its game again! In some ways virtual platforms and approaches have had no real competition in the last two years & we have moved on the game a lot as virtual facilitators, but we may need to raise the bar again. This may come out of the VR/AR space like Virbela or via audio platforms like Orbital – but we need better tools and experiences to truly make the metaverse a compelling alternative to face-to-face.

It’s been an amazing journey and we keep learning – the summary learning for me so far is that synchronised virtual learning is truly different from face-to-face a self-evident but often ignored fact. Don’t just “move your training or facilitation online” – rethink it to create something completely different.

Upwards & onwards!