Prior to the covid pandemic we were scheduled to deliver our two day foundational product skills training course to a propositions team in a global bank. The course gives people and teams techniques, tools, ideas and approaches for developing new products, services and propositions. The training experience combines knowledge modules with lots of interactive team based exercises where participants apply the content.
In normal times we deliver the training face to face, As the pandemic progressed it became clear that it was not going to be possible to run the course in a physical environment anytime soon. Our client was keen to get the benefit of the training, so we agreed to deliver the course virtually, something we had not done before. But would a course that relies so heavily on team-based interactive activities transfer online? Would doing so effectively require rewriting it?
Let’s start with the obvious. You can not simply “lift and shift” a real world course into a virtual environment. There are a number of considerations which make some kind of adaptation a good idea. Firstly, how would we retain the high level of interactivity and energy you get from teams working together around a table or white board? Remote working and distributed teams are not new, but does a collaborative training experience really translate online? You can obviously deliver training online, but is it effective when interactive team based exercises are a central component?
The next challenge is time. What is an appropriate online schedule for a course normally delivered over two consecutive days face-to-face? Is it a good learning experience to have people on back-to-back Zoom sessions for two days? Probably not.
Typically we deliver the face-to-face version with 15-20 participants and two facilitators. Is it practical to facilitate a group of this size online and retain the interactivity and still give attention to individual participants?
Above all, our course is intended to help people think differently rather than blindly follow a process. Can the coaching and nudges that can catalyse the mental shifts be achieved in an online group setting?
Here are eleven things we learnt in creating and delivering the online version of this course.
1. Focus on the learning outcomes
Rather than starting with the online timetable or which digital tools we would use, we instead thought about how we could preserve the core learning outcomes in a virtual environment.We were not too concerned about delivering the knowledge content modules online. Having run numerous online presentations and seminars we could see how these would translate into a virtual setting. However, we found that the interactive team exercises needed to be revised.
We carefully looked at each one, going back to the core reasons for its inclusion, its specific learning outcomes, when the “ah ha” moments should happen and thinking about the optimum time for a single online session. This enabled us to reengineer the exercises for the virtual environment.
Knowing the structure and time for each individual exercise provided the building blocks for the online course. By doing this we found that the overall learning sequence could be retained from the physical version.
2. Turn the necessity for a different online schedule into an advantage
Given it is not ideal to deliver a course with back-to-back online sessions for two days we opted to use four half day sessions spread across 3 weeks. To counteract the potential loss of momentum by dividing the sessions up across different days, we challenged ourselves to think how the new cadance could be advantageous.
We used the time between the training sessions to introduce mini-homework projects and a weekly check-in with the group to discuss any reflections or questions on the previous session. There isn’t space to include these activities in a two day format.
The mini-homework provided additional opportunities for individual learning and to apply the tools, techniques and ideas. The check-ins were an opportunity for us to engage with the participants, and them with each other, after having absorbed the content for a few days.
In short, the online version enables us to include things that we can not do in the physical two day format. This shifts it from something that could have been inferior to something that has some different advantages.
3. The digital tools
We hosted the training on Zoom using the breakout rooms for the team based activities. We were able to sit in and observe each team working and make interventions. It was no surprise that Zoom worked well for this.
We considered Miro and Mural for the online collaboration space. We chose Mural because it felt more accessible than Miro for people who were not designers or working with creative tools regularly. (Perhaps Miro could create a UI mode for training and facilitation with only the key features visible and progressive disclosure to expose more functions when required).
This article is not a thinly veiled advert for Mural, but it did work fantastically well. All the participants were able to use the core features including, with some funny and also brilliant results, the drawing tools. Essentially, along with Zoom breakout rooms, Mural provided the platform by which we could retain the interactive elements of the course.
4. Informal and spontaneous conversations with individuals or groups are much, much harder online
We found the one-to-one informal and spontaneous conversations, which are commonplace when training in a physical environment, essentially disappeared online – be they initiated by a facilitator or by a participant. This was the biggest difference in delivering the course online compared to in a physical environment.
There are two primary scenarios for these informal conversations. In the physical environment, group and individual learning tends to continue in the breaks. People gather in clusters and often discuss aspects of what they have covered. Facilitators can participate in these conversations. Another thing that happens is people who have questions or comments they did not want to raise during a session can wander up to you for a chat. Both of these are common.
The challenge is that when you take a break online, you take a break from being online. I.e. you leave the environment. People need to get away from the screen, move around and so forth, so this is an essential part of online life. This negates the opportunity for the informal conversations that would be taking place during these times in a physical environment.
The second scenario for informal conversations is during the exercises themselves. In a physical environment it is easy for a facilitator to approach an individual or vice versa during an exercise. While you can send private chat messages, they are not the same as pulling someone to one side for a chat to check-in with them.
Now it’s perfectly possible to have personal conversations online. The reason is that they didn’t during our first online outing is a function of the practical realities of online breaks and the very real advantages of a physical environment in this area of the learning experience.
Being aware of these limitations will enable us to improve the online version whilst playing to its strengths.
5. Check-in with participants more than usual
Without the same visual clues for body language or being able to sense energy levels in the room, we found it even more important to actively check-in with participants on their learning journey. For these reasons, the significance of the space within the agenda for discussing content modules or reflecting on an exercise becomes even more important in an online setting.
6. You need more breaks than with face-to-face learning
In a physical environment we run some interactive team exercises for up to two hours. Online we found keeping sessions to a maximum of 90 minutes, and ideally one hour, worked well. Scheduling more comfort breaks, even if they are short, say 10 minutes, means you can cover less ground in an online training session than in a face-to-face one.
7. Planning and timekeeping needs to be even more meticulous
Effective training courses are by their nature highly organised affairs where timekeeping plays an important role. Common activities such as explaining an exercise or transitioning from delivering a screen share to setting up an interactive exercise with breakout rooms feel slower online. Plus, more breaks and checking-in with participants more regularly takes time. So it pays to be meticulous with your planning and time keeping up front.
And just like training in a physical environment, you will always have to make real-time judgements on whether to let an activity over run if the learning benefits are worth it. However, online training potentially offers less opportunity to make time back-up given the extra importance of breaks, check-ins and its less spontaneous nature.
This was our first online training course. No doubt practise will improve our online delivery. Our learning was to recognise where and why planning for online is different.
8. Teams still generate great ideas online
The interactive exercises on this course are intentionally not directly related to the participants place of work. The neutral context helps people break free of potential constraints and baggage such “we would never do that” or “that’s a stupid idea” that would be barriers to learning and creative exploration. (As part of the course we like to arrange an application workshop a week or so after the course where participants apply the training to their work.)
The purpose of the interactive exercises is to help participants learn but often some excellent ideas are generated along the way. We have found in a physical environment teams can generate anything from 3-5 ideas that could be start-ups outside their current domain. To our delight this was repeated with the online version too.
9. The core learning outcomes were the same
We started by thinking about how to retain the core learning outcomes in a virtual environment. We found in practice that they were. This was the most important outcome. Yes the online training experience is different from a face-to-face experience; it would be naive to think otherwise. However, people left the training equipped with the same sense of possibility and new skills. This includes, thinking differently, which was the element of the course that we thought would be the hardest to preserve.
10. Feedback fatigue still applies
Capturing feedback is part of our process. When delivering training face-to-face we have found it far more effective to gather feedback at the end of each training day before participants leave. Response rates to surveys sent afterwards tend to be lower and slower. As this was the first time we had run this online variant it was in a sense a pilot, so feedback became super important.
We gave a lot of attention to the survey design to interrogate the key aspects of the online experience. No one enjoys filling out feedback surveys, least of all busy people. So we designed them to be as lightweight as possible with ten or less, simple multiple choice questions that could be completed in a few minutes.
In hindsight, we went overboard. We wanted to know how each half day session went, as well as the homework, check-ins and the impact of the course overall. Response rates slowly decreased after the first two requests for feedback. Our sense is the frequency of requests was too high rather than the surveys being too long. But one thing is for sure, we are not going to send another survey to these participants asking for feedback on the feedback process.
So you can ask for too much feedback. Fortunately, all the participants completed the most important survey – the one that captures feedback on the course as a whole. Here 100% of participants said they would recommend the course to a colleague or a professional working in the same field. 83% said the courses exceeded their expectations.
11. There are options to scale this training online
As this was the first time we had run this course online we opted to make the group smaller than normal with seven participants. We wanted to see how the exercises, facilitation and learning experience worked in a virtual setting.
As you would expect, the knowledge content could easily be presented to 15-20 people and still retain great levels of discussion and debate. This kind of knowledge content could also be delivered as videos to a much larger number of participants on an asymmetric basis. However, we prefer a higher touch experience with the benefits of real-time delivery and interaction from a live trainer.
When delivering the training in a physical environment we typically divide the participants into three to four teams with a maximum of 5 people in each. The two facilitators then rotate their attention between the teams during the exercises. The decision which facilitator is working with which team on which exercise is not pre-planned but more spontaneous based on what’s happening in the room at the time. The facilitators discuss team and individual progress throughout the day to make any adjustments.
We found that in practise the interactive team exercises could be scaled online in a similar way by facilitators rotating between the breakout rooms on Zoom. However, achieving the same level of spontaneous decision making on who was working with which team would take a bit of practise. Orchestration conversations between the facilitators would just take place through private chat.
Having not delivered this course online before, we were surprised at the number of similarities rather than differences with our physical version. Is the experience for the participants and the facilitators the same? No. But crucially the online version is not an inferior course. It actually offers some advantages to the physical version, and vice versa. The major difference for us was the reduced opportunity for spontaneous side conversations online. Ultimately the core learning outcomes can be the same, the experience of getting there is primarily what differs.