Virtually There: Developing the Competencies of Virtual Classroom Facilitators

Moving from the role of traditional trainer to virtual facilitator isn’t easy. It takes practice and training to ensure that facilitators are virtually competent.

“Virtually There” is a monthly column addressing the special challenges associated with designing, developing, and implementing virtual and blended learning.

Traditional classroom trainers have skills that make training sessions successful. Management of group dynamics, deliberate use of voice techniques to manage the message (including tone, pace, volume, etc.), and the ability to “read” the body language of a group or individual help to ensure that learning is taking place and program objectives are being met. A skilled trainer understands how to facilitate a conversation or activity, and make adjustments to course direction when necessary.

Because these professionals show such competence in the classroom, it often is assumed that their skills will easily transfer to the virtual environment with little training. This critical oversight can be the difference between a successful virtual classroom rollout and a failed initiative.

As you move your programs to the virtual classroom, start by making sure your instructional designers are virtually competent. Then, task your trainers with the following goal: facilitate virtual classroom learning experiences that meet or exceed the learning outcomes expected in a traditional face-to-face experience. It can be done, if you provide trainers the opportunities to become competent as virtual classroom facilitators. Provide training that ensures these individuals become competent in the following areas:

1. Digital Literacy: The ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.

In addition to more traditional facilitation skills, the virtual facilitator must demonstrate competence in a variety of digital skills. The definition of a classroom has expanded to potentially include all of the content available on the Internet.

This idea of technical literacy is gaining momentum, in particular because the trend of blended learning brings a lot of technologies and, along with them, the requirement to be able to use them effectively. It also means that there are likely to be training situations where a facilitator and a learner are at two different ends of the spectrum—it may be that the learner is familiar with technologies the facilitator has never seen, and vice versa. Unfortunately, when the facilitator is seen as being less digitally literate than the learner, there is the potential to lose credibility.

To be digitally literate, virtual facilitators must do much more than master the virtual classroom tool set. They must continuously investigate and learn new technologies and experiment with how they might be incorporated into a digital conversation.

The facilitator also must learn to be able to manage digital disasters. Technology will fail, and the facilitator must be ready to deal with whatever happens. If participants are experiencing problems, the first step is to minimize their anxiety. When facilitators are digitally fluent, they understand what the learner is experiencing and what they are seeing, and they are able to put them at ease by explaining that these things can and do happen and there is a resolution,.

2. Virtual Classroom Fluency: The ability to gauge the success of a virtual activity or conversation by reading digital cues and managing simultaneous conversations.

How do facilitators communicate in this new environment and keep learners engaged? The answer is to speak a new language—one that is totally dependent on voice and cues from the technology being used.

In the traditional classroom, facilitators know to watch for participants falling asleep, fidgeting, or not coming back from the break. But online, they need to seek out subtle signals that indicate the level of participant engagement and knowledge transfer. In the virtual classroom, cues may come from unexpected sources, and can be uncovered by paying attention to response time, response quality, side conversation, and learner’s mastery of the technology. (More on these concepts here.)

One of the great innovations in the virtual classroom is the ability for learners to communicate in multiple ways: voice, chat, whiteboard, video, and other feedback tools. To be truly fluent, the virtual facilitator must be able to manage these different communication streams, often at the same time. Each input must be as valuable as any other. For example, a question asked in the chat area or on the whiteboard must be addressed in the same way as a question asked aloud.

3. Cultural Intelligence: The ability to consider the audience and facilitate interactions that are inclusive and provide needed support for the culturally diverse global audience.

A virtual facilitator needs to anticipate the learners’ potential perspective and plan for how they might receive information and react to how content is delivered. A culturally intelligent facilitator considers language, gender, culture, and a multitude of other factors. This is a critical competency to master because many of the cues we depend on to assist with cross-cultural concerns in the traditional classroom (crossed arms when someone is insulted, for example) aren’t readable virtually.

Creating programs that work globally is not as simple as just putting that material into a virtual classroom. Just because something works “here” doesn’t mean it will work “over there.” Making this assumption can cause issues. For example, the facilitator may not connect with the audience in an effective way, learners may not like the virtual platform and prefer the traditional face-to-face classroom, or learners may have difficulty with the pace of the session. Culturally intelligent virtual facilitators investigate their potential audience and consider potential adaptations prior to teaching a class.

As global audiences expand, the competent virtual facilitator must develop a cultural intelligence competency. Facilitators needs to identify how their own culture interacts with other cultures and affects how they deliver content, recognize the influence culture plays in the virtual classroom, and adjust their existing facilitation skills to accommodate a global audience.

4. Time Management: The ability to manage a virtual event in such a way that participants are engaged, desired outcomes are met, and a strict timetable is adhered to.

Learners plan their days around their Outlook calendars. They are on to their next meeting whether or not the facilitator has finished speaking. Knowing this, facilitators often struggle with balancing activities, engagement, and content. After all, facilitating an activity takes much longer than reading a slide. But completing the slide deck without implementing the activities affects learning. As facilitators become more competent in managing technologies and managing activities, they need to learn to manage their time more effectively, as well.

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, we discussed 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 virtual facilitator will manage activities in such a way as to maximize engagement and knowledge transfer, and be prepared to identify opportunities to incorporate the tenants of adult learning theory.

For most of us, moving from the role of traditional trainer to virtual facilitator isn’t easy. It takes practice and training to ensure that facilitators are virtually competent.

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.