11 tips to successful online training

By Susanne van Lieshout – MDF Nairobi

At MDF Training and Consultancy, we have been offering blended learning for some years. We host our learning platform  in Moodle. On this platform, our trainees access our materials, watch videos, play games, complete exercises and get feedback. Self-paced, in their own time. We always followed up with face-to-face training with participants joining from all over the world. Now that it is no longer possible, we are providing full online training courses. We blend our self-paced learning with short web meetings, where we train our trainees ‘camera-to-camera’. In fact, not so different from face-to-face learning. 

Here are eleven often asked questions about online learning training, with practical answers and tips for trainers.

1. Can you interact with trainees just like in a training room?

During our web meetings, we deliver our training almost as usual. We show MDF training slides, facilitate discussions, give short exercises, hold brainstorms, answer questions and do energisers. Just like in the training room. One key difference: web sessions have to be shorter. We recommend 1 to 1 ½ hours maximum to keep people’s attention and a maximum of two sessions in one day.

2. Are discussions possible?

Yes, quite so. During our online sessions, discussions and open questions were flowing fluently. True, answers were fewer and there were long silences, as the participants were unsure who would answer. Luckily, the online chat box offers a solution; people can choose to either speak or write. That is a distinct advantage. It also means that you always have to be with two facilitators, one designated to summarise and reply to chats as the other facilitates the session. If that is not possible, make one of the trainees a co-host, to manage the chatbox.

3. Do we need a strong Internet connection?

In our recent proposal writing course, our participants joined from their homes in seven different countries. From South Africa to South Sudan. Some had challenges with connectivity, sound, camera. Our tip: do a web meeting test the day before your training starts. We had a 10-minute check-in, where we explained technicalities and shared tips: how to turn on the camera, make a virtual background, or use the chatbox.  Once training starts, it is essential that trainers are not distracted by trainees’ technical problems.  Sessions are too short for that. Our advice: record web sessions to accommodate for connectivity issues. We posted the recording links on our learning platform. Super easy, all you have to do is remember to hit the start and stop button.

4. Is group work possible?

Like in our face-to-face training we had prepared individual, pairs and group exercises. We made group divisions before starting, but that did not always work out. Not all trainees were able to join each webinar because of Internet issues. We had two types of group work: joint assignments, for example, three people write one concept note, and feedback exercises: trainees give peer feedback to each other (don’t forget to establish feedback rules!). We were not able to control the exact ways in which our trainees collaborated; however, this did not matter. We learned three things: 1) give ample time for group work, half or full day at least for a joint writing assignment, 2) be very clear on objectives and deadliness and, 3) let trainees find their way to best coordinate through Skype, email, Google docs, etc.

5. Would you recommend testing the understanding of subject matter during online sessions?

There is not much time, online sessions are short. We explain contents, highlight key messages and clarify our learning points. The beauty of online learning is that we can assess learning after each live web session. We gave participants short assignments on our learning platform testing their knowledge and skills with quizzes, drag and drops, virtual brainstorms, online research assignments, and writing workouts.

6. How do you ensure participants are active when you cannot physically see them?

While we’d love to see our trainees on camera continuously, we could not see many of them. Like in any training, some people are more attentive and outspoken than others. Here we’d say that normal training rules apply: be engaging with relevant content, attractive and engaging presentations, and convey short and to the point messages.

Remember that in a classroom, people see ‘the whole package’, in a webinar only the face. Trainers have to be crystal clear, speak slowly, get up close, and look straight into the camera, like making eye contact. Furthermore, track the progress of participants and follow up on participants who do not hand over assignments. This is easier with smaller groups.

7. How do you engage all people in online learning activities?

The flow of training is essential. Most trainees are not able to dedicate the full day to training activities. But we have to build in enough moments for everyone to connect again, ideally two per day. One issue we noticed was also mentioned by our trainees: some trainees didn’t do all exercises, while others worked all night to finalize. While we believe in individual responsibility, we realize that our clients (often trainee’s employers) expect full commitment, which is also better for group spirit.

Our online platform allows everyone to see who uploaded. Each can also read our feedback. This is an essential part of online learning: learn from peers and experts, accessible to all, in their own time. Through the platform, we can trace and stimulate those who haven’t delivered. We can also make certificates depending on all exercises completed.

8. How many participants can join one training?

A distinct advantage of web meetings is its potential to reach many people simultaneously, in the hundreds, even through webinars. But like any training, we don’t believe in mass lecturing ‘university-style’ but in having smaller groups that we can engage with effectively and provide feedback. Our rule of thumb: maximum of 20 in one online web session to keep it manageable.

9. How to choose the best web meeting platform?

There are many kinds of software for hosting online meetings, with open two-way communication, and webinars with controlled or one-way communication. Take a good amount of time to explore, do free trials, and watch tutorials. Compare and check out options for recording on cloud and computer, sharing of recordings, chatbox functions, screen sharing, polling or other in-built Q&A options, whiteboard features, video-sharing, and two-way communication. Security and privacy setting are equally important. Our experience: if it costs nothing, you usually get nothing (but advertisements).

10. Can online learning platforms or web meetings be accessed from mobile devices and tablets?

Yes, trainees can use phones. But sessions are way easier to follow on laptops, desktops or projection on screens or walls. Just like in a training room. As a host or trainer, you can have multiple devices. Most software allows using a laptop to share your screen, while at the same time manage the chatbox on your phone or tablet (be mindful of privacy). This is optional, not mandatory.

11. Finally, is online training as effective as face-to-face instruction?

We certainly believe so, especially for tailor-made training. Online learning platforms easily allow tailoring of slides or exercises to client needs. The combination of self-paced, where participants do exercises in their own time, with trainer-paced, web meetings hosted by trainers, is very effective. The advantages are plenty:

  • Flexibility – we can choose to offer  4-day consecutive training, 2 days in 2 weeks, 6 half days, etc.
  • Peer learning and sharing – it’s easy to access each other’s uploaded work and see trainer feedback.
  • More time for (group) exercise – design the self-paced parts as you wish.
  • Instant assessing of trainee’s application of knowledge and skills – through exercises that follow up on, or in preparation of, the web-meetings.
  • Online action planning & training evaluation – it’s convenient to share online forms.

Smart trainers are those who make the most use of online learning benefits, in challenging times.

Want to know more? On our Online Learning and Facilitation page, you can find more information on how we can help to set up or custom-design an online meeting or training for your organization. You can also contact Susanne van Lieshout, Director at our Kenya office, for further consultation.

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