Delivering Training with Virtual Classrooms

What is a virtual classroom?

A virtual classroom is a digital teaching and learning environment in which participants can interact with learning resources and with one another like they can in a traditional classroom.

The keywords here are, of course, virtual and classroom. In a virtual setting, face-to-face activities such as presentations and discussions that are traditionally done in a physical classroom are simulated with web conferencing technology. Communications take place in real time just like in a physical classroom.

virtual-classroom-best-practices

How do virtual classrooms work?

As a technology, virtual classrooms are not as foreign a concept as you might think. They are often built on (or share many similar features with) web conferencing technologies that are used to run virtual meetings. Like web conferencing software, in a virtual classroom:

  • There can be one or more hosts, presenters, moderators, and participants
  • You can participate by video, audio or both
  • You can use text chats to communicate with other participants
  • The presenter can show their presentation or share their screen

To turn web conferencing into a virtual classroom, additional technologies like the following are often used:

  • Break-out rooms for group discussions/activities
  • A live whiteboard for real-time collaboration
  • Indication of participant status (which changes when participants raise their hands, temporarily leave the room, etc.)
  • Participation control (e.g. listen-only, one person speaking at a time)
  • Feedback tools, such as polls and surveys

Like any type of elearning, there is more to it than just the technology. It’s a different way of delivering training.

 What are the benefits of virtual classrooms?

Unlike face-to-face classes that require participants to be physically present, an online facilitator or learner can be virtually anywhere in the world. This opens up many learning opportunities for those who can’t travel to attend a training class in person. In addition, training becomes more affordable because there is no travel or accommodation cost.

An added bonus is the ability to record the class so that participants can review sessions afterwards. These recorded sessions can serve as refreshers or resources for future reference, or become on-demand content for those who did not attend this training in the first place.

How can you implement virtual classrooms?

There are many virtual classroom applications out there—most of them are commercial, some open source. If you are interested in adding a free virtual classroom solution to your WordPress/LearnDash site, we suggest reviewing Pamela Hogle’s article on five questions to ask when choosing a virtual classroom platform before you begin. At Uncanny Owl we don’t see virtual classrooms incorporated into sites very often, but we have seen it done with BigBlueButton, BrainCert, and WizIQ. It tends to be more common to rely on offsite services.

Once you have the technology, setting up a virtual classroom is often quite straightforward. Running a virtual classroom effectively to deliver training online, however, takes some skills and can involve more planning than traditional instructor-led training. We will highlight some best practice advice from industry experts in the next section.

What are some best practices for delivering training via virtual classrooms?

The first thing you need to realize about virtual training is that it’s different than face-to-face training—not better, not worse, just different. Cindy Huggett, a virtual training consultant, identifies three key differences between virtual and face-to-face training. Pamela Hogle elaborates on these three key differences and explains why it’s worth investing time preparing in these three areas if you are considering going virtual. Here is my take on the three key differences:

  1. Technology is the main platform in the virtual classroom. This doesn’t mean that technology should drive your training, but you’ll definitely feel the pain (and your training may fall apart) when technology fails. If you are comfortable with web conferencing technology, keep in mind your learners may not be. So start with a simple setup, do a test run, and be prepared to deal with unforeseen situations. Be flexible with your programming and always have a backup plan in case something doesn’t work.
  2. Different strategies are needed to engage virtual learners. Remember, as a facilitator you cannot see all the learners at once (and sometimes not at all). You need to keep your learners engaged, and regularly check in to make sure they are still with you.
  3. An online facilitator needs to simultaneously present, engage learners, and use the technology platform. You need to acknowledge that you can’t do everything yourself, and you need help managing the classroom. It’s not uncommon for an online facilitator to team up with a silent partner (often called the moderator) whose main role is to help manage participations in a virtual classroom.

To deliver effective virtual training, you’ll find that employing the following instructional strategies can go a long way:

  1. Use audiovisuals strategically to attract and prolong learners’ attention. Inevitably your training will include some presentation, most likely done with PowerPoint or something like it. Unlike in a classroom where you can walk around and switch to a whiteboard or demonstration very easily, you might have to bake a lot of content into your slideshow in a virtual classroom. Keep information in your slideshow in smaller chunks so your audience can follow along with slide changes and animations. Use tables, charts, diagrams to visualize ideas rather than bullet points.    
  2. Design interactive activities to engage learners. This isn’t a new concept and many facilitators already master it in the classroom, but now you need to find ways to do it effectively online. There isn’t a magic bullet on how to do this and your activities will vary depending on the subject of your training. The good news is that many activities you use in the classroom should still work online with some adaptation. Keep thinking about what the learners will see and hear, and how you want them to interact with you (or the materials) individually or in groups.
  3. Provide guided practice and feedback to participants. You may find that this is the most difficult to do online and you may be limited to the technology that’s available. If possible, take a blended approach. Provide quality feedback to individuals outside of class and provide general feedback in class to which most participants can relate. You can also utilize a breakout room if your virtual classroom platform has this functionality.

More best practices are included in some of the resources listed at the end of this article.

Are there drawbacks to using virtual classrooms?

Although virtual classrooms can reduce ongoing training costs and make learning more accessible students, they are not for everyone or for all types of training. For example, virtual classrooms wouldn’t be suitable for hands-on computer skills training. The instructor can’t easily see participants’ screens during practice, and it would be cumbersome to have each participant share their screen. There are also limitations as to how many participants can effectively share an online classroom space, especially if everyone is expected to use audio and video to communicate with others in class.

With planning and practice, however, virtual classrooms can be a powerful complement to your training programs.

Further Reading

Beck, Jacqueline. Best Practices: Deliver a Great Virtual Training Event! Learning Solutions Magazine. March 24, 2014.

Clark, Ruth. Four Steps to Effective Virtual Classroom Training. Learning Solutions Magazine, May 16, 2005.

Hogle, Pamela. Five Essential Skills for Virtual Classroom Facilitators. Learning Solutions Magazine. April 11, 2017.

Hogle, Pamela. Designing Engaging, Interactive eLearning for the Virtual Classroom. Learning Solutions Magazine. February 22, 2017.

Hogle, Pamela. Going Virtual: Tips for Moving Instructor-Led Training Online. Learning Solutions Magazine. February 1, 2017.

McKinnie, Randah. Best Practices for Delivering Virtual Classroom Training. Adobe.

Perego, Kim. Tailoring Virtual Training Delivery for Adult Learners. Learning Solutions Magazine. March 14, 2011.

Stone, Adam. Five Best Practices When Converting Classroom Content for the Virtual Classroom. Learning Solutions Magazine, February 15, 2017.

How Are We Doing?

It’s been about a year now since we started using a Help Desk platform for inquiries and support, and besides being an invaluable tool for managing all of our conversations, it’s given us real insight into how our clients feel about our performance. The Help Desk has allowed us to capture a lot more feedback and we thought it might be interesting to share some of the metrics and feedback we’ve collected with the public.

A year later, we’ve received 3,300 emails and conducted 1,100 conversations with 620 people. Whew! Without the Help Desk system I don’t know how we would have managed. Crunching the numbers, that’s about 12 incoming emails per working day about new projects, support requests, plugin questions and more.

What’s even more interesting is that across all of those thousands of emails, approximately 20% have left feedback about the interactions to let us know how we’re doing. That’s huge! And we’re so grateful for the extra time people have taken to give us that insight. Here’s what our numbers look like over the past year:

Uncanny Owl Satisfaction

Yes, there was one comment from a random person who wasn’t happy at all (after I pointed out that we weren’t the company he was looking for and telling him we couldn’t help). There’s always one; we can’t make everyone happy. But we do try, as evidenced by the Great ratings above!

Many of those people also took time to leave us comments about how we did (if only we had that kind of response rate for Toolkit reviews!). Here are just a few of the comments that were left for us:

Clearly there's a reason you're not taking new clients -- you're rockstars!
- Jennifer B
Ryan was great, very helpful and patient. Thanks again!
- Marco M
Great support and very much appreciated.
- Michael S
Thanks Ken for your great help!
- David G
Thank you for being so responsive and helpful.
- Larry T
Quick and complete!
- Valerie E
Fantastic support all the way from Twitter to here. Refreshing to get some tops customer service for a change, it's a rare commodity.
- Adel D
Prompt responses and addresses the issues correctly.
- Shyam C
Perfect clarity on how TinCanny limited xAPI/LRS functionality for the sake of simplicity
- David G
Ryan has been super helpful with answering my questions and ensuring that I have a solid plan in place for moving forward with my project. Looking forward to working with Uncanny in the future.
- Tricia S
The help I received from Ryan at Uncanny Owl is impressively quick and very kind and attentive to my needs/issues.
- David N
Ryan is fantastic! He is knowledgable, clear, precise, and really easy to work with as a human being. Good soul! I look forward to working with him more in the future.
- Stephany Y
Ryan, Thank you so much for taking a look at my site.
- Mark M
Great support; Ken really did a great job of fixing the issue, and in a very timely way. Thank you!
- NCS
Worked like a charm… Thanks Ken!
- Steve D
A perfect reply! Thanks
- Jon
Spot on support. Thank you, Ryan!
- William R
I continue to be impressed with Uncanny Owl. Very fast response.
- Brian P
Thanks for the very detailed answers!!!
- George
The support I have received has been phenomenal. Thank you very much!
- Abena E
That was super helpful!
- Kevin
A well crafted and thoughtfully considered response, full of useful advice. Thank you.
- Colin W
I’m so thankful for the support I’ve always found at Uncanny Owl. You guys are the best I’ve seen.
- Leah M
Seriously fantastic and prompt customer support. Literally looking for more ways to do business with your company.
- Heidi K

We’re pretty proud of how we perform and how we support our customers, and we really appreciate the time every person above took to leave us their thoughts on how we’re doing. The bar is set pretty high for our performance over the next year!

How to Choose a LearnDash Developer

As LearnDash developers with some visibility in the WordPress LMS community, we get a lot of requests to fix bad projects. It’s so easy for things to go wrong, and selecting the wrong partner can often mean the project is doomed before you even start. In this post we’ll explore the most important things to consider when choosing a developer for any WordPress elearning project. Our expertise is in LearnDash, but all of this applies equally to LifterLMS, Sensei, and any other WordPress LMS plugin that you’re building your platform around.

This post isn’t about selling our services; we’re already at capacity and have unfortunately had to stop accepting new clients several times recently. What we want to do with this blog post is raise awareness so that when you are looking for a partner to help build your LearnDash site you better understand how to choose an organization that is competent and will be able to deliver a robust platform that meets your needs.

If you’re starting out on your first LearnDash development project, here are some things to consider as you look for a partner:

Start with a conversation. We really find that emails don’t work well enough to ensure all parties are on the same page and to ask questions easily. It’s great if you can come to that conversation with clear goals and questions. The vendor should have questions too. Relationships are absolutely critical to successful projects and this is where they start. Take notes and be thorough. If you’re comparing vendors, make sure you have a consistent way to assess them and document everything immediately after the conversation. Also be prepared for several conversations; it’s rare that initial discovery and planning can be completed in a single session, unless it’s a very small project.

learndash discussion

Ask if you can see some of the company’s other projects. Do keep in mind that for LearnDash projects most of the development work tends to be behind registration or a paywall, so the access developers can provide is limited. Again, this is where a call (or preferably web conference) can be very helpful, as on a call the developers can actually sign into sites and show how things are set up or created. Experienced LearnDash experts should have easy access to a variety of representative samples. Ask for some walkthroughs and get more information about what specifically the developers did. Give consideration to what works and what doesn’t, and how similar previous projects might be to your own. Experience is extremely important when setting up intuitive, effective elearning platforms with WordPress.

learndash testimonialsCheck out community feedback. This can be really hard to find in the LearnDash space, but it’s still important to make an effort and solicit experiences about working with the vendor. Maybe there’s feedback on social media, plugin reviews for things they may have developed, the LearnDash support forums, even reaching out to previous customers. Also look for negative feedback, which can often be more telling than positive comments.

Don’t just look locally. There are very few WordPress agencies and developers that have a significant amount of LearnDash experience. We’ve seen a lot of projects where businesses chose someone they know who’s done other work for them (LearnDash is just one plugin, right?) but couldn’t transition to considerations like the signed-in experience, student workflow, making things work together, etc. To get the best partner, expand your search range, potentially even to other countries. We’re in Toronto but we have many clients in Australia; it’s not as hard as you might think to make projects like that work.

Get to know who you’ll be working with. Without question, the #1 reason we’ve taken over several projects from experienced LearnDash developers hasn’t been bad code quality or poor implementation—it’s been a communication breakdown. Communication issues are painfully common with these projects and site owners come to us because they have a site they don’t know how to use, isn’t what they expected or they’re tired of saying the same thing over and over.  Whoever is setting up your site is someone you’ll be working with for over at least several weeks, perhaps even several years. There has to be a rapport. There must be trust. And it has to be really easy to communicate and make sure everyone is always working towards the same goals and scope. You don’t want to be talking to 5 different people and for discussions to only happen by email with week-long gaps between them.

Try to assess technical competence and workflow. While communication issues abound, there are still a lot of developers out there that simply bite off more than they can handle with LearnDash and don’t really know what they’re doing. They might be great people that really want to help, but that doesn’t mean they should be building LearnDash sites. Just last month we took on a site where the developers had made changes to LearnDash core and even WordPress core—and that should never, ever happen.  The client, of course, wondered if it was normal for everything to break and have to be fixed on updates (it’s not). So ask LearnDash partners how they work and look out for red flags. How do they implement changes? How do they test updates? How do they work collaboratively? Who’s responsible for testing and validation? How does a project actually come together? If they have public plugins, what are the reviews like and what issues are people having? We have also seen individuals take on projects that were just too big for one person and then, when they’re overwhelmed, they’ve walked away. Try to get a sense of whether or not the developer or development team has the right skill set and/or the right people in place to handle everything that’s needed.

Ask about training and maintenance. Building a LearnDash site means a lot more than setting up a site and installing some random plugins—yet we see that happen a lot. Your goal also shouldn’t just be to have a site that seems functional at the end; it should be to have a LearnDash site that you understand how to use and leverage to improve your business. When we’re investigating a new site, we almost always have a conversation that goes like this: “Do you know why this is set up this way?” “No.” “Do you have any documentation that might explain it?” “No.” “Is there any way you could find out?” “No.” As a site owner, we understand how scary it can be for you when we ask those questions and you realize you don’t really understand your site. From the beginning you need to make every effort to ensure you’re working with a partner that won’t leave you in that situation. Training and communication throughout a project are absolutely essential. We average creating maybe 4 screencasts per project so that clients always have a point of reference for how things work and why. Find out what your partner’s process is to make sure you’ll be left in a place where you’re comfortable. Also confirm what’s typically required following projects in terms of maintenance and who will be taking care of that. For most projects we are able to hand things off in a way that clients can safely make updates themselves and we’re only needed for answering questions on an ongoing basis—not to keep things up and running.

Don’t be driven just by price. You will inevitably get what you pay for. We’ve taken on a few projects that we scoped out months or even years previously; the business decided to go with a different vendor that was a lot less expensive, and then they came back to us to fix them, often at a higher price than they would have paid if we’d just done the project originally. Budget is a huge consideration, of course, but it should be carefully balanced against other factors like the competence of the developer, your relationship with them, the developer’s experience in similar projects, etc.

Understand exactly what will happen during the project. If you start a project, then leave it in the developer’s hands for 2 months and suddenly get an email at the end saying it’s all done, you’re going to end up with a bad site. Take some time to understand what’s going to happen during the project and how collaboration will work. What do you need to provide? What are your responsibilities and what are the developer’s? What are the milestones? To meet the timelines, how do reviews work and how quickly do things need to be turned around from both parties? Are there any dependencies or bigger risks that everyone should be aware of? How will you and the developers keep each other updated and make sure things are progressing as expected?

The tips above should go a long way in helping you select and retain a vendor that’s the right fit for your LearnDash project. Sometimes, however, it’s still not enough, and due to unforeseen circumstances projects can still go off track. While this is just a quick list, here are some things you should be doing during the project to encourage positive outcomes:

Be involved. Some of our worst projects (and yes, we’ve had a few that disappointed both parties) were when clients just dropped communication. They got too busy or had other priorities, or just stopped caring about the site. We’ve had projects delayed 6-12 months because of client delays, and when that happens it inevitably leads to bad outcomes. Objectives get lost, people stop caring as much, the results just aren’t there. The best projects are when everyone is on the same page and working collaboratively at the same time. We’re adding features and testing while the client is adding content and providing feedback. We’re having discussions to address scope creep or new problems. Being active and engaged is one of the best ways to see good results.

Test continuously. Very recently we took over a project where testing on the site by the client didn’t begin until the day before launch. The site was extremely complex and, of course, everything was broken. That’s when the developer realized they were in over their heads and the client realized they were in an unimaginable amount of trouble. It’s an avoidable situation though. With WordPress LMS sites it’s not like everything is suddenly ready one day; pieces will be finished throughout the project that can be tested independently. Be involved and testing often not only helps identify issues early but it’s a chance to understand your site better and work collaboratively.

Maintain a good relationship. Yes, even if your developer is doing a terrible job and you’re miserable, try not to throw the entire relationship away if you’re in the middle of development. We’ve seen angry developers lock companies out of their sites. Like it or not, and the legal side can be messy when you’re working with partners in other states or countries, your developer can make things very difficult for you if they host and/or have admin access to your WordPress site. If you need to sever a relationship with a WordPress developer try to gain control of the site before things sour too much.

The goal of your LearnDash development project is to always end up with win/win situations for you and your developer. They are possible, and by following some of the guidance in this article we hope you’re able to partner with a great LearnDash development team for your WordPress LMS project.