The pivot to learning online: how have trainers met the challenge?
Since the pandemic struck, trainers and facilitators and their clients have all been working out how to continue to deliver high-quality, engaging learning activities. It’s not always been easy, nor does it feel natural but online learning has been the solution for many. Over a Zoom call, I met up with trainer, international conference speaker and author, Chris Atkinson to learn about his own experiences of moving learning online and to ask him how he sees the future of our profession.
Chris, when the pandemic hit, you were one the first people to move your training and facilitation online, and your company, Strategic Leadership was able to continue delivering their services to clients around the world. What were the challenges you encountered in taking things online?
Most trainers come into the business because they love people; they are quite social, they often come in through HR roles, so they have always been connected to people. Technology is not their first love. So, one challenge has been to encourage our team to develop a relationship with technology in general.
There was a lot of resistance in the early stages to just being online. Trainers were saying, “Well, let’s just wait; eventually when we get back face to face ….” Everyone was holding out. Gradually an acceptance emerged and trainers began to embrace the technology, and found ways to fulfil that need for connection. I wouldn’t say that people are converted to technology. I’m sure as we return to face-to-face delivery, I think people will still find it a great relief. So, I think the first challenge is we are not necessarily lovers of technology in terms of enjoying learning how to use software and platforms and gadgets and things like that. I don’t think that necessarily falls in the trainer facilitator world, but some people do like it and those people have really shown up during this period because this has played right into their strengths.
So, you would you say that some people have embraced it from the start?
Some people have really enjoyed the opportunity to learn. Online learning is not a new thing. It’s always been in the background. The pandemic just thrust it into the forefront of everyone’s mind. So, I think some people have enjoyed the fiddling, the creating and the trying out and testing new ways of doing stuff. That freshness or newness has been quite enjoyable for some people. For others, I think it’s intensely tiring because it is so unfamiliar. It isn’t necessarily natural for them. So, I don’t know whether it’s about embracing it or resisting it. I think some people enjoy the novel.
So, you have two hats; As the Managing Director of Strategic Leadership in the UK, you create, design and deliver programmes yourself, but you also lead a team of trainers that need to develop competence with using technology in order to deliver those programmes to clients, worldwide. Personally, how have you found the experience of moving online?
I’ve always quite liked technology as a trainer. I’d still rather be in the training room, face-to-face with people because, working online, I find it very hard to read the cues and signals that you need from a group to be able to use your intuition to guide you. But actually, in terms of training design, creating online events is really cool.
The scope of training design online is pretty broad because you can bring in different technologies; different ways of enabling conversations to happen. It has totally fired my creativity in design, even if I’m not the biggest advocate of delivering on an online platform. I actually really enjoy the process of seeing what’s out there and putting together training sessions in a completely different way than I have been doing for the previous 10 or 20 years, even.
How much of your time has been taken up with helping your team, and maybe clients too, in getting to grips with technology? It’s not something you would normally have had to do.
If you take Skype, for example, it’s just a standard conferencing platform. There isn’t really a lot to do – you dial in, you get a video and you chat and there’s a textbox. But the moment you move to Zoom or Adobe Connect or Webex or any of those platforms that have a few more bells and whistles attached to them, or even if you want to integrate other things like Mentimeter or Miro or any of those other guys, then there’s a whole host of other factors to learn about.
So how much time does that take to train our trainers? Well, more than I expected, and of course, it actually varies from person to person. That’s one of the problems. One of the challenges we found is you actually can’t induct an entire team of people into one piece of software, because you have to train people at the point of need. I can train you in how to use Miro now, but if you don’t use it for two months when you come back to log on even though you had the training, you won’t remember it right? So, the problem is I have almost had to deal with people one by one, which is a very inefficient way of doing it. So, over the last 12 months I have started to record briefing meetings about our key content and platforms which allows each of our trainers to access the information in their own time. This solution has actually proved to be much more effective.
For many people in our profession, we were in ‘react mode’ in April 2020, but what opportunities has moving to online/blended approaches opened up for you?
On the one hand there is all of the logistical part; it’s so much simpler to organise and set up a training session or a meeting in an online environment, and that’s simply from the practical sense of I don’t need to go anywhere to do it; no travel or hotels required. There’s also the fact that you can slice up time more precisely.
Secondly, because typically in traditional training you might have one day or half day chunks, then you’ve got to build travel time around it. With online delivery it becomes easier to get this in people’s diaries. It becomes easier to organise and make it happen, but that’s probably the less interesting part of your question, ‘What opportunities does it have to really engage people?’.
It comes back to something I was saying earlier, which is that there’s almost an infinite amount of tools available that you can blend into your training now. Whereas if I’m in a room, I suppose I get PowerPoint and a flip chart. Online, there’s just a huge array of different ways to facilitate. That’s a big opportunity to keep people engaged. The output produced through all of those tools is saveable and editable, and easier to work with.
So, something I’m noticing is when we worked face-to-face, in a training room, I would often photograph the flip charts and circulate those, but I’m 90% sure that people don’t use that information. They might save it in a hard drive somewhere for reference, but I really don’t think it was that valuable. But what I do know is because we’re creating things in a digital format now, people will download the slide deck we’ve been working on, or download the whiteboard that we are in. Or, if you’re using Miro, they might take their Miro board and carry on working outside of the session.
I feel like what we’re producing in the sessions is more transferable. It’s more relevant, it’s easier for participants to work with and that means that the transfer of learning back into the workplace is more effective. It also reduces duplication of work. You don’t have to type up any notes, for example; outputs are saved and stored at the point of creation.
Online delivery also offers the opportunity to work with greater numbers of participants at any one time. I know you have been running workshops with over 70 people, which is not something we typically do in a face-to-face event. What effect does group size have on what you can do online?
A lot of clients were working on the assumption that in an online session we’ve got capacity to handle more people, and that might offer potential to save cost. In our experience we have found sometimes the opposite is true. The quality of conversation online is much, much higher when the group size is smaller. So, to some extent, I think one of the economies that companies were hoping to make has turned out not to be the case.
That’s one aspect where smaller groups yield better conversations. The other aspect is if you do have larger groups, and as you say, I’ve created sessions for groups of 70 people, you need an appropriate set of facilitation tools to handle that group, and it’s a different set of tools for the smaller group. You wouldn’t do a whiteboard activity with 70 people. It would be absolutely chaotic.
Also, with larger groups you sometimes benefit from having a second facilitator so that somebody can be monitoring the chat while the trainer is doing the presenting. With 70 people there can be quite a lot of dialogue going on in the chat section and it’s really hard to be talking to those people while simultaneously delivering content to the whole group. There’s a whole second set of skills that are needed to match audience size with the appropriate facilitation tools and then make the judgement about what the right tools are.
So, I wrote my book in 2016 and that book now is having to be updated for the online environment. Part of what I want to establish in the new edition of ‘How to Engage and Inspire Audiences’ is this – if there are different rules or guidelines for working with people online, what are those guidelines?
Based on your experiences over the last year, what advice do you have for trainers and facilitators who are now having to work online for creating engagement?
I’ve spent 20 years telling people ‘Look at your audience’. In the online world, I’m going to be saying ‘Look at your webcam’. But for me, actually, as a presenter looking at this dot that I’m looking at now, this is slightly demoralising, in all honesty, because you know it’s very hard for me to feel connected to you.
I notice the difference in impact on me, for each of those views you take up. But what is most helpful for me as the student is not necessarily the best one for you in your role as trainer?
Exactly so. I have an external webcam on a tripod and I try, where possible, to drag the window with your face to directly behind the camera, so that I can be looking at you while seemingly looking into the camera. It takes some time to get used to; you have to practise it, but for me this is my profession, so it’s worth the time for me to get this right.
Beyond that, the faces might not even be there, partly because people might not even turn their videos on, and partly because when you share a presentation, a lot of the platforms will minimise your face and all the video feeds reduce to thumbnail size, which again is not very helpful. So, I think the 2nd edition of the book will be about trying to answer the question, ‘What are the new rules that apply?’ Which ones are turned on their heads and what do we do instead?
Beyond that I want to give guidance on the guiding principles for selecting one platform/application over another? When would you use a whiteboard? When would you use polling software? When would you use the chat? How do you facilitate using those tools in a seamless way?
There’s a lot going on here. As facilitator you are trying to work on a number of different things simultaneously, while making it a smooth experience for participants. It’s a totally new skill set. And we’re all having to learn a new set of skills pretty quickly.