Photo of someone in an online course

8 things to pay attention to with virtual facilitation and training

George Kunnath 25th November 2020

As more and more facilitation and development works move into the sphere of virtual training what have we learnt? I have noticed the conversations among associates and learning professional has moved on to what people have noticed about the difference between virtual facilitation and the real world. Here are a few observations you may find interesting:

The Human Spirit

Many may argue that humans are three-part beings – body, soul and spirit. Although virtual technology goes some way in transporting the imaged of our body and facial expressions, complimented with what we can pick up from voice and tone, it will never transport our soul and spirit. You don’t get a full sense of a person’s ‘aura’ for lack of another term. Not everything is translated through virtual communications, there is something of the human spirit that is left behind.

In a previous global organisation, I worked for, we started noticing a trend that most of our challenging new staff appointments, where staff that where recruited purely through a virtual process and had not had any physical human interaction with the organisation before the appointment. The people conducting these recruitments had done several similar recruitments, but they had to admit that there was just something amiss with purely virtual recruitment.

It’s important to be aware that in the virtual world you are limited to two senses, sight and sound. People who are born deaf or blind tend to develop their other senses to compensate for the missing sense. I suspect that in time our skills of active listening and observation will develop to make the most of our virtual interactions, compensating for what is missing.

The point to make is this, if something is truly important, the value of a real face to face meeting does not go away. This is where blended learning has an advantage, it allows for the face to face interaction that forges relationships and builds connections while complimenting additional learning in the virtual space.

We will never fully go back to the way things where we will never fully get away from the value of physical human interaction and we will never get away for the fact that virtual interaction has become a big part of our lives. Going forward we will need to find balance through the flexibility of options.

New technology can distract from dialogue

Another observation has been the introduction of new technology to help make the experience of learning more immersive. One of the observations noted is that there is a period of adoption, during which participants struggle to get used to the new technology. If the technology used in your facilitation is something commonly used such as MS teams or Zoom and the features are thus intuitive because most people are familiar with the different tool the facilitated sessions tend to go well. However, be careful of introducing any new piece of technology that outside familiar everyday technology. This requires a learning curve and the risk is that by introducing this new technology with the best of intentions, dialogue and conversation stops as the group of participants attention shifts from what they are supposed to be doing to learning and understanding how the new technology works.

If you’re introducing new technology into virtual facilitation, be it a new simulation, a fancy whiteboard, or game, the needs to be a period of introduction before the facilitation session. What may seem like an easy addition from the facilitators perspective may not be so from the participant perspective. Let people know beforehand about the technology you will be using. If you do introduce a new piece of technology or functionality, see how the participants can familiarise themselves with it through a fun like checking in activity at the beginning.

What is interesting is that people are picking up new technology at an amazing pace, so chances are that if you show participants the new functions, they get to play around with it during a fun exercise, for the rest of the programme they will only get better and more effective.

Simplicity is better than complexity

Every new feature introduced as a new element of complexity and something else that can go wrong during your virtual facilitation. If you don’t have the resources or time to thoroughly test every feature you intend to use in your facilitation, my advice would be not to use it. There is greater value in keeping things simple. Be clear about your learning outcomes and use the minimum amount of tech to achieve the outcome. As a facilitator don’t get distracted with the technology that you lose sight of the participants and what is happening with the group. The technology isn’t the learning, its an enabler to better learning. The moment it starts to become a distraction or frustration, simplify or abandon it.

Don’t assume the technology will be understood by all

With more and more global participants attending our virtual programmes, it is interesting to note that the levels of technological competency differ. It is also interesting to note that different regions have a preference for certain tools. You will have to develop a greater level of patience and empathy in your facilitation as you may have to provide additional support. Suddenly you have to be able to also provide tech support. One way to resolve this is to have a moderator or assistant working with you that can aid the person falling behind. They can do this on the side using the chat function or helping them offline. Having access to tech support nearby is important. Again being clear about the technology being used and links to online resources that can help a participant develop and practice some of these skills beforehand are beneficial.

Intuitive technology is best

You will always get the best results if the technology you use is intuitive, this usually means that you are looking for technology that uses symbols, icons and imagery that is commonly know and understood on most common systems whether Apple, Microsoft or Google Android. Most people will recognise and intuitively use these functions. Thus the rate at which they can adapt to using the new technology will be faster. However, if the product you are using in not immediately intuitive, it’s likely to be more challenging with a longer learning curve.

Immersive technology would be great but there will be a cost barrier

Immersive technology such as robotics, 3D virtual interaction, and the use of gaming is interesting and likely to redefine learning into the future. However, for now, the cost of developing the technology and deploying it means it remains a niche section of the market that can use it effectively. This will certainly change. Roffey Park is already using robotics like Cubi’s to enhance our virtual experience, and looking at hybrid learning models with half the participants physically present and the other half coming in virtually.

Look for the lowest common denominator

For now, we need to work with the lowest common denominator so as not to disadvantage anyone. This means using systems that will work well with minimum bandwidth, commonly and widely used systems such as Team or Zoom. Products that people can install onto their systems because they are free or part of the organisations IT tools. Tools that allow people to connect from any device and works on all platforms. Often as facilitators, you may have a preferred system, but security concerns may require you to use the client organisation’s prescribed system. The simple question we need to ask ourselves is what will work for the majority of participants with the least amount of distress?

Don’t try and simulate the physical in the virtual, develop for the virtual world using a blank sheet.

One of the flaws I see often is attempting to reproduce an exercise, simulation or activity that works well in the real setting in a virtual environment. Having been part of a few pilots, you begin to realise that this is not the right approach. When developing for the virtual world it may be best to start with a blank sheet of paper, think about your learning outcomes, and figuring out given the tools before you how can you best achieve them.