Trainers Reach for E-Skills

By Kathryn Tyler May 1, 2006
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HR Magazine, May 2006With some multitasking and technology prowess, trainers comfortable in classrooms can also operate in the growing e-learning world.

Wendy Kaufman runs her own executive training firm and has years of experience conducting workshops and seminars. So she wasn't expecting her entry into the expanding world of online training to be such a jolt.

The first time I did an online training [course], I was covered in sweat, Kaufman says. It was one of the hardest training classes Id ever done. I thought, This is crazy. I didn't even leave my home. It should be a piece of cake. But it is a whole different skill set. You have about 20 seconds before you can lose an entire audience.

Kaufman is president of Balancing Life’s Issues Inc., a firm in Ossining, N.Y., that offers training seminars with a work/life theme. She’s now a veteran in online training she conducts about one-third of her training courses over the web. But her introduction to the field illustrates the challenges that trainers who are used to conventional methods can face when they enter the virtual classroom.

There is, of course, the more familiar form of online training, called asynchronous e-learning, in which lectures are prerecorded and students can watch them at any time. There is no student/teacher interaction during the sessions. (For details on the use of MP3 technology in corporate training, see Just-in-Time Training.)

In synchronous online training, on the other hand, students log on to a web site at a designated time and view a live presentation, and the trainer interacts with trainees in real time. The two-way online communication may be with sound or text messages or images, or a combination of those elements, but there is no eye-to-eye contact.

The absence of such a connection is just one of the drawbacks that trainers who are used to conventional methods may perceive when they make the leap to the world of online training. They also may not be comfortable at first when they start working in a new-tech environment and in effect become trainees themselves students in an online world, cultivating the particular skills necessary to be effective at online training.

Yet, they may have little choice. Synchronous e-learning has gained a strong foothold in the training profession. The eLearning Guild, an association for e-learning professionals, issued a survey report in 2004Report on Trends in Organizational Practices of Synchronous e-Learning stating that 73 percent of surveyed companies that offer employee training online do so via synchronous e-learning, up from 60 percent two years earlier.

Most synchronous training sessions are centered on technical training and product knowledge. But almost one-third of companies say they use synchronous training for developing leadership skills, business skills and soft skills such as communication methods, performance management, stress management and time management.

Unless trainers can operate in both traditional and online settings, they may not stay current in their field and keep their careers on track, some experts say.

The Ways It Works

The various forms of synchronous training are derived from two primary formats. In one, the trainees see only PowerPoint slides or video while they hear the instructor talk. Learners can participate with the instructor and other students by calling in to a telephone conference number or using microphones and voice-over-Internet-protocol (or VOIP) technology. They can also type chat-text messages, which are displayed in a small window on all participants’ screens.

In the second format, the instructor is in front of one or more cameras, as in a television studio, and the students can watch him lecture or write on a white board as well as view PowerPoint slides and other materials. The trainees can use their microphones to speak to the class, provided the instructor allows their microphones to be open. They also can communicate via typewritten chat.

Charlie Speed, a project specialist at ConEdison, a utility company serving New York and some of its suburbs, has logged 1,000 hours as an online trainer since 1997. We broadcast eight-hour courses out of our training center in Queens, N.Y., to 66 PCs across our service territory, he says. We teach everything here from pole-climbing to gas and electric skills to basic computer skills and safety compliance.

Speeds situation is unlike most online trainers since he has his own television studio with direct connections to the company’s seven New York area locations. The students sit at regular PCs and have a few buttons with which to interact, call and send e-mail, he says. As he lectures to different cameras in the studio, he can show PowerPoint presentations, videos, still photographs or himself.

Everyone can hear everything I have to say, Speed explains. Every student can hear whatever other people have to say, as long as they have their stereo headset and microphone turned on.

Companies that, like ConEdison, have to take workers away from their regular duties in the field and have them go to designated offices to use computers may schedule a days worth of sessions to make the time as productive as possible. Most synchronous training classes for office workers with easy access to computers, however, run 60 to 90 minutes.

The Making Of A Synchronous Trainer

A good classroom trainer and a good synchronous trainer share many qualities, experts say, such as enthusiasm, the ability to engage learners, thorough knowledge of the subject and good communication skills.

But becoming a synchronous trainer also requires, among other things, a willingness to adapt to the new medium and the ability to multitask. In fact, trainers must multitask as never before, says Speed. Trainers in that environment must be able to speak well, listen intensely, show visuals, read and respond to chat messages, take and interpret polls of participants, and manage the virtual classroom all while making sure no period of silence lasts more than 15 seconds; some experts say five seconds is the limit.

Says Kaufman: What really makes online training so hard is the chat feature. Some people can't learn how to read and talk [at the same time]. It took me a year before I got it. I ask a student a question to buy me a minute while I read the chat.

A good candidate for becoming an online trainer, Speed says, is somebody who is not afraid of technology, loves talking to people and has a flair for entertaining. You have to have people who want to be online and are good on their feet.

Kaufman says: You have to love it and have fun with it. That comes out in your voice. She adds that she has had great trainers who couldn’t do synchronous training because they couldn’t handle the high degree of multitasking and the inability to see their students face to face. You have to be willing to take criticism because people are more likely to give it because it’s not to your face.

Being a good listener is also a pivotal skill, says Carole Phipps, director of learning and development for Knight-Ridder, a newspaper conglomerate headquartered in San Jose, Calif. Without the facial expression and body language, listening is critical, she says. You can't be distracted, thinking about the next point you want to make. Invite challenging questions from the group. Give people a couple of seconds to think about it. I have a five-second rule [for the amount of silence she allows] before I move on.

Some classroom trainers won’t be able to make the switch, however, says Jane Bozarth, e-learning coordinator at the North Carolina Office of State Personnel and author of E-Learning Solutions on a Shoestring: Help for the Chronically Underfunded Trainer (Pfeiffer, 2005). A lot of classroom trainers like the ego of the classroom presence, and they are reluctant to give that up, she says. They don’t like that they can't control [what participants are doing while listening to the online presentation]. Trainers who are used to captive audiences may have trouble making that adjustment.

Bozarth teaches synchronous online classes on performance management, communication skills, stress management, time management and train-the-trainer for the states 90,000 employees.

Technical Adjustments

To succeed with synchronous training, trainers must not shrink from technology; they must embrace it. As an instructor, its important to have a basic understanding of the technical surprises you may meet in your broadcast, says Speed. If a mike isn’t working very well and the instructor doesn't know what to do, the class comes to a screeching halt. Technical problems can occur on the participant side as well. He adds that you’re going to get technical questions, so you need to know how to answer them.

While most online instructors have producers who run the technical aspects of the class, Speed does it himself. Everything is within arms reach under my desk, he says. I've done most of my broadcasts solo. I came from a technical background.

Jennifer Hofmann, president of In Sync Training LLC, a training consultancy headquartered in Branford, Conn., says the use of a producer can enable the trainer to concentrate on keeping the class interactive. Some trainers new to the e-classroom, she notes, say they can't visualize themselves being able to multitask to this extent, so they plan on limiting participant use of the chat area, white board tools and other interactive features of the synchronous classroom.

The potential downside to limiting or forgoing the interactive features is that the trainer loses a substantial portion of the advantages of this training method. Moreover, and perhaps more important, the trainer has fewer tools for engaging the audience.

It’s true you’ve lost your eyes in synchronous training, Hofmann continues. I say, Replace them with a second set of hands. Use an assistant trainer a producer in your synchronous classroom to manage chats, take care of all technical problems, launch application sharing, set up breakout rooms and polling questions, and a variety of other tasks.

Let the trainer focus on interacting with the participants and the producer focus on everything else, says Hofmann, author of The Synchronous Trainers Survival Guide: Facilitating Successful Live and Online Courses, Meetings, and Events (Pfeiffer, 2003) and Live and Online!: Tips, Techniques and Ready-to-Use Activities for the Virtual Classroom (Pfeiffer, 2004). The pace of the class dramatically picks up, participant interactions increase and everyone gets to take advantage of all of the great new tools provided by the virtual classroom.

Bozarth agrees on the value of using a producer in synchronous training. If Bill in Nebraska is suddenly having trouble with his earphones, [the producer] can take him to another place or call him [offline] while I'm still doing my job. There’s always someone who didn't plug their mike into the right hole, and it can be very disruptive. It frees me up. There’s always someone there to help keep things flowing.

Learning How To Teach

Synchronous learning has been around for about 10 years, but courses for training online trainers are still few and far between. The first thing any trainer should do is contact their software vendor and become thoroughly trained on their particular virtual classroom platform, says Hofmann. A few organizations are beginning to offer some online courses around facilitation skills specific to the online classroom. Hofmanns Company, for example, offers a synchronous training certification course.

After learning how the technology works, you should deliver a synchronous class you can develop a synchronous module for a traditional classroom course and elicit feedback. Teach a small piece to augment the classroom experience, says Elliott Masie, CEO of the Masie Centers Learning Consortium, a technology think tank in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Then practice teaching the course to other facilitators, Hofmann says. Rehearsals are important before any delivery, but especially critical for new facilitators. Feedback should be collected and incorporated prior to going live.

Record your live synchronous session for review later, says Amy Finn, vice president of business development at Centra Software, now a division of learning-software provider Saba, headquartered in Redwood Shores, Calif. When my session is over, I can listen to myself and see my student’s responses, she says. I get a good sense of engagement.

I found out that I was using an expression [repeatedly], and I wasn't even aware that I was doing it. I never used it again. You can use this to improve your public speaking.

It’s also important, some experts say, to see synchronous learning as students see it. Its fascinating the number of people teaching online who have never taken an online program, says Masie. Take hundreds of hours of online programs great ones, mediocre ones, bad ones. You've got to develop taste.

Hofmann agrees: Understand the online-learner experience. It is very common for new online facilitators to not have experience as online learners. They should critically assess these programs from the learner perspective, and note what best practices they want to emulate and what mistakes they want to avoid.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Although synchronous online training will never have the intimacy of classroom training, it has other advantages, such as enabling trainers to achieve a global reach a level of influence much broader than they could achieve in a classroom.

Some trainers may hesitate to take on synchronous learning, whether out of attachment to the conventional classroom setting, because of doubts about their ability to deal with the technology and logistics, or for some other reason.

But if trainers harbor fears that the technology of synchronous learning will spell the end of their careers, Bozarth says their fears may be misplaced. Trainers will not be replaced by technology, she says. They will be replaced by the people who understand the technology. If you’re trying not to get involved in this, remember that somebody somewhere is.

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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