Without icebreakers and in-person networking to fall back on, how do you make participants feel comfortable enough to contribute and fully engage in a virtual classroom or workshop? This article, based on a recent webinar hosted by Director of Strategic Design, Andrew Joly, and Principal Consultant, Geoff Bloom, in partnership with Training Magazine, outlines five ways to get started.
Virtual workshops provide a great opportunity to engage with your learners in a live online setting. A step up from less interactive live-online delivery methods like webinars and lectures, these workshops should be structured to generate engagement, maintain interest, and encourage collaboration throughout.
Building Trust and Engagement
The way we design virtual workshops is closely aligned with the Gilly Salmon model of learning engagement. Each of the five stages builds on the last in a way that builds trust and enables fully-engaged participation from the learners.
Building trust is crucial to sustaining learning engagement, especially in a remote or virtual setting. In a workshop environment, your job is to facilitate interaction and engagement, so opening up, sharing your experiences, and perhaps some mistakes you have learned from can be a great way to break down barriers and begin to build trust with and between your learners. Your learners will be significantly more engaged and willing to participate in the material if you remove a focus on the top-down structure typically seen in lectures and webinars.
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The 5 Stages of Building Trust and Engagement
Before we dive into the five key stages of building trust and engagement, the first and most crucial consideration is the access your learners have to the technology you’re using. For many, this may be the first time they’re using these tools, so it’s important to ensure they can effectively navigate the tools and play or contribute effectively in the session.
The first stage is to build connections between participants. This is particularly valuable for socializing learners from different teams, departments, or organizations. In-person workshops often offer breakout sessions, group activities, and icebreakers. Virtual workshops are no different.
Virtual icebreakers have a slightly different purpose. In a virtual learning environment, these activities seek to break down barriers between participants, and often offer a replacement to the pre-session small talk that takes place over a coffee in the foyer or during set up. You may be surprised to see how open participants are to forming these connections, especially as we’ve been apart for so long.
The icebreaker, in addition to the normal getting-to-know-you activity, enables the facilitator to see who is present, active, and able to use the technology to contribute either verbally or visually.
This leads us nicely into stage two... Sharing is an important part of trust-building. As the facilitator, you can begin by sharing your own experiences and lead by example. In some knowledge-sharing sessions that we ran with senior L&D leaders, we would ask everyone to share something they learned during lockdown that had nothing to do with work, and we would always answer first, leading the way for other contributions.
You can repeat this sort of exercise in smaller groups if your workshop doesn’t allow for individual contribution in a total group setting—for example, if you’re working with more than 10-15 people in a session.
This initial sharing of experiences makes participants feel more comfortable sharing and contributing later in the session. It also helps to build empathy and understanding for the other learners involved. Ultimately, the goal here is to encourage learners to become confident to share their opinions safely with each other and in the group setting.
Of course, much of the sharing can take place in a shared workspace such as a whiteboard. To get this sort of activity moving it’s important to start simple. For example, ask people to type three words that represent their current challenge or to share a website that they regularly refer to.
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Collaborative and social learning have been buzzwords in L&D for a while now.
But in a virtual setting, where we are all working and communicating at a distance, collaboration has never been more important to the learning experience. However, the introduction of various technologies to this experience can make it feel intimidating. Once we have established a connection between learners and built trust between participants, it’s time to introduce more varied and sophisticated collaboration.
Collaborating on tasks, challenges, and problem-solving is a great way to strengthen connections between the learners and really engage them in the learning process. This can be achieved through group breakout sessions, through shared documents (Teams and Office 365, Google Suite, etc), or virtual whiteboards (Mural, Miro, and embedded whiteboards in tools like Zoom or Teams). Or simply through tasks to be completed in pairs. Whatever the activities are, make sure the shared objectives are clear and everyone involved has the means to contribute.
With this type of collaboration comes innovation.
Particularly useful in workshops designed around business impact, getting people’s heads together is a great way to see things differently. Done right, one of the best things about running virtual workshops could be the amount that you can learn from your learners.
In order to facilitate and foster this type of innovation with a group that may have only recently come together, the real essence of learning design comes into play. It’s important to set up activities in advance. And when you do, you should focus on activities that can collect and collate ideas, provide the mechanisms for problem-solving, and enable learners to share their lightbulb moments. These activities should bring together the best elements of in-person and virtual workshops.
As with some of the other steps, whiteboards can have a useful part to play, but pre-designing and pre-populating activities can really enable and elevate the creative process.
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The ultimate goal of any form of workplace learning is sustained behavior change. Once the connection, sharing, collaboration, and innovation are complete in a group setting, your learners should feel more comfortable and confident in these newer forms of learning.
One of the great things about virtual classrooms, even more so than live workshops, is the ability to revisit and refresh. For example, the sessions are easily recorded and transcribed, making review very easy for both the facilitators and the participants.
Tools like whiteboards can also be left open after the session. Chats and discussions can be continued, allowing for a cohort to become an ongoing ‘community of practice’. This helps to effectively transition the learning environment to a shared workspace.
The way this model of virtual workshop design works should result in learners becoming more actively engaged in the sessions and more open to collaboration. This can also have great advantages to their work life, especially if they’re still primarily communicating with colleagues online or at distance.
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Designing sessions taking these five forms of engagement into account also encourages the building of soft skills like problem-solving, time management, creativity, and critical thinking alongside collaboration and the main learning or business objectives driving the training. There’s a lot to be taken from these sessions, and using this model to increase trust and engagement should result in the changes you seek.