Converting to Virtual

I recently presented this content for the Instructional Design and eLearning meetup (Sydney, Melbourne, Zurich). After a few requests I thought I’d write it up …

We were already well down the road of virtual workshops when COVID hit. We’d been delivering virtual workshops for a while so were comfortable with the medium. COVID dragged virtual learning into the spotlight, and we were able to continue to develop the learning experiences we’d started and develop some new ones.

We converted a fully self-paced online course (Social Media Marketing Intensive) into a virtual experience (Social Media Marketing Intensive LIVE). We also converted three one-day face-to-face sessions into virtual experiences. The feedback on both has been really positive.

If you’re pushed for time and don’t want to read the whole blog, the 7 things below all come under one heading – be more human. There’s been a pile of people across COVID who’ve been saying this. In L&D we talk often about needing to do human centred design. I don’t get how we got to a point where our learning design isn’t human centred, but COVID has given us a HUGE opportunity to bring in some more human elements to what we design.

Before we get into the virtual conversion process, do your personas. We’ve all been to the conferences and done Arun Pradhan’s sessions on Design Thinking so we all know that we should be doing them. Sometimes we do them, but they’re pretty wooden and don’t have much impact. But, if we do them well, detailing not just demographics, but interests, behaviour, emotions, dreams, then they can have a big impact on our design – shaping delivery, language and learning activities.

1. Entering the space

With thanks to Vanessa Trower for sharing this idea, we open our virtual workshops 15 minutes before they’re due to start. Just like a face-to-face session, we help people to enter a relaxed, friendly space, there’s (course content related) playlists, and people chatting with the facilitator.

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As the sequence of sessions progresses, the questions become more personal, inviting self-disclosure, which builds trust. Questions are also tailored to what’s happening in the world, this example from when COVID travel restrictions were being lifted.

2. Use the tools

We use Zoom. We’ve tried a few others – Google meets, hangouts, Teams, Adobe Connect but we found Zoom the most stable, most glitch free, easily accessible and clear. We use all the functionality – breakout rooms, annotation, polls, whiteboard, chat – the activities we design make the most of the tools that are available.

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We also integrate Mentimeter into the mix. Its big advantage is the opportunity for anonymous responses. In this example, about a month into COVID, we asked how people were feeling. The bigger words were more used (they increase in size by usage) but by paying attention to the smaller words we could acknowledge that not everyone was in a good place and offer support beyond the sessions, and compassion.

I started my career in teaching. If you don’t pay attention to how the people in the room are feeling … you get eaten.

3. Create psychologically safe space

Many of these ideas work together to create this space. From entering the room, to helping people feel at ease as they learn new tools. As they say in education circles, ‘Maslow before Bloom’. Pay attention to people’s human needs before you can deal with learning taxonomies and objectives.

We even specifically called it out, detailing expectations and boundaries. The third idea in this slide about choosing your pronouns reminds me of a public speaking technique where you look at the person furthest away from you and everyone in between feels like you’re looking at them. This isn’t just lip-service or political correctness. By making it so that those who are often on the fringes feel safe, everyone feels safe.

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We introduced the whole team, not just the presenters, from the sales/enrolments guy who was their first point of contact (often by Zoom so they know his face), to the mentors and even the learning designer (me), as I drop into the discussions and twitter chats occasionally.

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And we drop in some funny stuff, at random points, because, well, it’s funny. And, as it so happens, he did … (not us sadly!).

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4. Get interactive

Our virtual workshops aren’t webinars. Everyone is required to have their cameras on and to be active participants in the chat and discussions. We built regular interaction into the sessions, because it’s better learning, and creates better engagement.

We used the annotation tools in zoom for people to rate themselves or calibrate their current skill or knowledge levels. The key in this was the facilitator making comments/reflections on what people were saying, inviting discussion as people interacted on the screen.

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In this example, people were about to learn how the Facebook Ads Manager works. They circled icons with the annotation tool and talked about why they had picked what they did.

Activities almost always led to posting an example (screenshot, link, rating etc) into the chat. Facilitators commented on, compared or combined results to generate further discussion.

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In this example, interestingly, averages scores were often in the negative!

5. Be social

Social learning is an important part of any learning experience. We build it into all our existing self-paced and face-to-face experiences, so it was a natural progression to build it into our virtual experiences.

We use the live chat in Zoom as well as a dedicated WhatsApp group for the Intensive (these were hugely successful, with constant stream of chat during and between the sessions, at any time, on any day, and they continue well beyond the conclusion of the courses).

Social Media College also has a private Facebook group (SMC Tribe) of current and past students who share content and expertise, respond to questions and feedback requests and support each other.

At the end of each session, there’s an action that participants have to do. They are paired up, and they share their results.

We also have dedicated course mentors who run regular one-to-many group mentoring sessions, or personalised one-on-one coaching sessions that you can book into as needed.

The emphasis in all of this is that by working together, by contributing, everyone has better learning outcomes (1+1=3).

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6. Spaced Learning

The research is clear, spaced learning is more effective (amongst a bunch of other relatively simple things like repetition, feedback, review, see Will Thalheimer’s ‘Decisive Dozen‘ .

The Intensive LIVE and workshops run over multiple virtual sessions. There’s work to do between sessions both as follow on (the action activities) and preparation (blogs to read, videos to watch, flipped classroom approach).

There’s a separate workbook (in MS Word but formatted to open seamlessly in Google docs) in which to take notes, respond to questions, engage in self-assessment (prior to and at the conclusion of the course), action planning and prioritisation.

7. Celebrate

Finally, we celebrate the conclusion of the courses. They’re a big learning commitment, and we’ve worked hard for people to connect and enjoy themselves. There’s often a sense of loss as they draw to a close (yes, even the short courses, but especially the Intensive LIVE) which we wanted to acknowledge, but also finish on a positive note.

We anticipate it in the second last session by inviting people to BYO their celebration drink of choice, then screenshot a ‘cheers’ and send it to the group. It’s a popular shot, often appearing in posts that participants make about completing the courses. That’s me, bottom right, doing my best Leonardo DiCaprio The Great Gatsby impression :)!

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What we learned

Be insanely flexible and realistic. Converting to virtual is not a walk in the park, it’s not simply about taking a PowerPoint and delivering it on Zoom. We underestimated how hard it is to engage people and keep them engaged. What I’ve described above is the tip of the iceberg for all the detail and nuance that have cumulatively had a huge impact on the learning experience and made this work.

We done hundreds of hours of live virtual and we’re still adapting, improving, getting it wrong and making it better. We often talk about it as ‘building the plane while we fly it’.(

It’s been a challenging journey, an incredible amount of work made possible by a lean-start-up culture, a willingness to experiment, rapid product evolution and a team who will pull out all the stops to make something good happen.

Here’s a short video the we put together about our virtual learning experiences. For us, this wasn’t a COVID driven exercise, but a natural extension of our online and face-to-face programs. COVID has given it a nice spotlight, but it will remain part of our offerings beyond this time. Many are talking about a ‘new normal’, sounds like business as usual to me!

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

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