Virtually There: Developing the Competencies of Virtual Classroom Designers

Virtual instructional designers will need to participate as learners in the environment and be trained on how to use the technology to its best instructional advantage.

If you would like your virtual classes to meet, or even exceed, the quality you expect from traditional deliveries, you need to strategically think about how to prepare your team to be successful in the virtual classroom. Prior experience as a designer, facilitator, or learner in a traditional classroom does not guarantee success when moving to a virtual environment. Everyone involved in the learning process needs to acquire the skills they need to master the additional competencies required for the virtual learning environment.

Start with your designers. These are the professionals tasked with creating an impactful and replicable experience for all learners. Task them with the following goal: Create virtual classroom learning experiences that meet or exceed the learning outcomes expected in a traditional face-to-face experience.

Don’t assume that just because someone is experienced as an instructional designer, designing for the virtual environment will come easily. For most of the design team, the virtual environment is new. Instructional designers will need to participate as learners in the environment and be trained on how to use the technology to its best instructional advantage. The training should provide opportunities for the instructional designers to become competent in the following areas.

1. Analytical Instructional Design: The ability to determine which instructional objectives can be taught in a virtual environment.

The virtual classroom is not a one-size-fits-all teaching environment. Not all content should be taught in this format. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of content force fit; resulting in bad training.

The competent instructional designer will analyze the desired performance outcomes to make a decision about how to treat each individual objective. The trick is to identify the most appropriate assessment technique for performance objective and then determine the best way to deliver that assessment. “If you can test it online, you can teach it online.” This means if you can deliver a meaningful assessment of content in a live, online environment, then the content is probably appropriate for the virtual classroom. Blended Learning Instructional Design: A Modern Approach.)

2. Impactful Engagement Creation: The ability to engage learners with appropriate interaction and collaboration techniques.

The virtual classroom introduces variety of techniques that potentially can engage learners. But not all engagement is created equal, and not every type of activity is appropriate all the time.

The competent instructional designer will incorporate engagement every 3 to 5 minutes. Engagement techniques include interaction with the facilitator, other learners, and technology. These types of interactions keep interest alive and provide feedback to the facilitator about how the class is feeling. Interaction does not equate to learning, however.

To ensure that learning is taking place, the instructional designer will ensure that learners are also collaborating with one another. Collaborating occurs via such instructional techniques as role-plays, jigsaw discussions, and the creation of presentations. These longer engagement opportunities ensure that learners have the opportunity to practice skills and apply new knowledge in the learning environment.

3. Activity Creation: The ability to create a variety of instructional activities that utilize whiteboard, chat, application sharing, Web browsing, and breakout room activities

Activities create engagement by keeping learners involved in the instruction. In the virtual classroom, the activities are conducted via a set of tools. Designing for the virtual classroom doesn’t need to be difficult, but designers do need a working knowledge of the features and tools each virtual classroom platform provides.

Often, designers new to the virtual classroom will overlook potentially impactful engagement opportunities simply because they have not seen a particular tool used effectively. This reinforces the need for these professionals to be immersed as virtual learners in well-designed curricula so they are aware of potential activity designs. (For more on how to effectively utilize the tools in the virtual classroom, you can download: Virtual Classroom Tool Design Basics: A Virtual Engagement Primer.)

The competent instructional designer will thoroughly understand what tools are available in the virtual classroom platform, and what each tool potentially can do. For example, a whiteboard can be much more than a flip chart for the facilitator. It can be a shared workspace collecting and organizing contributions from all of the learners.

4. Accountability Design: The ability to hold learners accountable using a variety of assessment and debriefing techniques.

A valid concern of facilitators in the virtual classroom is: “How do I know my audience is learning without being able to utilize eye contact and body language?” The answer lies in having activities that result in meaningful data that can be interpreted by the facilitator.

The competent instructional designer will ensure that no activity is concluded without some type of assessment. This assessment may take the form of a graded quiz, a facilitated debrief in which key points are reinforced, or a simple poll. These assessments provide learner accountability—learners will pay attention to content when they know they are being assessed. By taking advantage of the variety of tools available, creative debriefs and assessments can be easily incorporated without taking too much time.

5. Application of Adult Learning Principles: The ability to analyze a blended learning design to ensure the principles of Adult Learning are upheld and program objectives are met.

In the February 2015 Virtually There column, I discussed the how Adult Learning Theory relates to virtual and blended learning. Ultimately, the learner is the arbiter of what’s important to him or her. Blended and virtual learning make it easy for the learner to make decisions about when to engage or disengage. It’s the job of the training professional to ensure that the adult learner is motivated to participate.

The competent instructional designer will design lessons to maximize engagement and knowledge transfer, provide vast opportunities to incorporate the tenants of adult learning theory. 

6. Instructional Materials Development: The ability to develop facilitator and learner materials that specifically support virtual delivery.

When content starting to be delivered in the virtual classroom, there was a tendency to eliminate facilitator and participant guides altogether, and rely on PowerPoint slides as the sole set of materials for both teaching and learning. This causes some quality problems. Without documented activity instructions and instructional prompts, facilitators tend to lecture more than is appropriate and minimize opportunities for learners to participate. Learners then tend to rely on slides for all of the content; without the ability to take notes in context and access to a deeper level of information, learners may not master the content as fully as they would with the participant guide designed to enhance the experience.

The competent instructional designer will create documentation that supports both the facilitator and the learner during virtual classroom events. The facilitator guide will contain timing cues, suggested scripting, activity instructions, and a variety of other components critical to ensure instructional success. And the learner should have set of materials that are useful not only during a life lesson, but can be referenced in the future when the learning needs to be reinforced. (For more information on what to include, you can review: Participant Guides In The Virtual Classroom.)

When it comes down to it, creating meaningful learning in the virtual classroom starts with designers who are capable of utilizing a specialized skill set to ensure that desired performance outcomes are achievable. Be sure that your design team develops the competencies they need for them to be successful.

A thought leader in the field of virtual classrooms, Jennifer Hofmann is the president of InSync Training, LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in the design and delivery of virtual and blended learning. Featured in Forbes Most Powerful Women issue (June 16, 2014) as a New England Women Business Leader, she has led InSync Training to the Inc. 5000 as the 10th Fastest Growing Education Company in the U.S. (2013). Hofmann is the author of The Synchronous Trainer’s Survival Guide: Facilitating Successful Live and Online Courses, Meetings and Events (Pfeiffer, 2003), Live and Online! Tips, Techniques, and Ready-To-Use Activities for the Virtual Classroom (Pfeiffer, 2004), and How To Design For The Live Online Classroom: Creating Great Interactive and Collaborative Training Using Web Conferencing (Brandon Hall, 2005). She has co-authored, with Dr. Nanette Miner, Tailored Learning: Designing the Blend That Fits (ASTD, 2009), a book focused on taking advantage of distributed technologies to create the best blended training solution possible. Her most current projects include a monthly Training magazine online series titled “Virtually There” and her newest book, Body Language in the Bandwidth – How Facilitators, Producers, Designers, and Learners Connect, Collaborate & Succeed in the Virtual Classroom (InSync Training, 2015). Follow Jennifer Hofmann at her blog, Body Language In The Bandwidth at or on Twitter @InSyncJennifer.