By Debra Chrapaty, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Collaboration Software Group, Cisco Systems
Polishing your English-as-a-second-language skills in a non-English-speaking country can be a challenge. So how did Shaker M. Aldwikh, a project manager with an international telecommunications company based in Saudi Arabia, recently achieve a promotion in part thanks to his greatly improved English language skills?
“I took online classes with a native English teacher to help me speak more fluently in English. These classes helped me practice speaking face-to-face without having to leave my office,” explains Aldwikh.
What may seem like an oxymoron in the previous statement is what makes online training so exciting today—the ability to create an online learning environment every bit as engaging and conducive to learning as a traditional classroom.
Aldwikh’s teacher lives and teaches in Canada, more than 6,000 miles away from Saudi Arabia. “Our company conducts face-to-face online business and conversational English classes for students in more than 35 countries,” says Jillian Zavitz, programs manager and an instructor with TalktoCanada.com. “Teaching with videoconferencing technology lets us interact with students as if they were right in the same room with us.”
Founded in 2006, TalktoCanada.com has developed a highly effective way to train students—achieving a consistent 90 percent retention rate. While there are many reasons for this success, business partners Marc Anderson and Alysia Bartley are quick to point out: It’s primarily thanks to video.
Build Rapport Through Video
TalktoCanada.com uses Cisco WebEx technology to communicate face-to-face with clients during training sessions. Before diving right into the lesson of the day, instructors spend some time catching up with students, asking them how their day was, how the weather is in their neck of the woods, or even what they ate for dinner. Not only is this friendly chitchat a great way to practice conversational skills, it also allows the class to get to know each other on a personal level. Video builds trust and rapport, creating a more open and relaxed atmosphere. And when students are comfortable, they’re going to participate—and, in turn, retain—more.
The only downside to students being more comfortable is that they might get too chatty. For instructors teaching a class with four students, you can only imagine how confusing it might be trying to tell who said what with multiple video boxes open. TalktoCanada.com solves this problem with Cisco WebEx high-quality video. Like Cisco’s TelePresence solutions, WebEx has something called an active speaker function, which automatically zooms in on the person speaking, while other participants appear below. This makes it easy to focus on one person at a time.
Video is also an excellent tool for making sure students understand what is being taught. One of the biggest challenges of online training is that it’s hard to tell whether or not students are grasping certain concepts (or even paying attention, for that matter). But with face-to-face contact, instructors can see a puzzled look on someone’s face and know when they need to clarify or explain further.
Create Interactive Lesson Plans
Classroom engagement doesn’t stop with video, however; TalktoCanada.com blends several interactive elements into the training session, as well. Using annotation and desktop-sharing tools, instructors and students can view text together, highlight difficult words, and make notes in the margins—all in a collaborative way. Students also watch videos or play online ESL games together in real time through the WebEx interface. The goal is to bring diversity to the coursework by thinking outside the traditional textbook lesson plan.
Avoid Dead Air
Video and interactive features are great to have in an online class, but both instructors and students need to know how to use these tools to reap the benefits. It doesn’t matter how technically inclined you are, learning how to use a new technology can be intimidating for anyone. And according to Bartley, the last thing you want in an online session is dead air, which can happen when participants are still new to the training software.
That’s why TalktoCanada.com offers instructors and students practice lessons to get them comfortable in the training environment prior to the first official lesson. After that initial demonstration, it doesn’t take long for the technology to just disappear into the background.
Transforming How We Learn
As someone who works from a home office part of each week, I’ll be the first to tell you that video and collaboration technologies are dramatically changing the way we work and play. TalktoCanada.com is showing us how these tools are changing the way we teach and learn, too.
Technology can help us create learning environments that are even more dynamic, more stimulating, and more effective than ever before. The challenge is to throw away our traditional classroom thinking and open our minds to all the new possibilities for teaching and learning. Maybe it’s incorporating social media and shared learning, as the authors of the book, “The New Social Learning,” suggest. Maybe it’s online role-playing games that replicate a company’s business environment. Sometimes though, it’s just looking someone in the eye who’s thousands of miles away and saying, “You can do it.”
Debra Chrapaty is senior vice president and general manager of the Collaboration Software Group at Cisco Systems. For more information, visit http://www.cisco.com.