ATTENTION All Zoomers:
On Today’s Menu — Seven Simple Dos and Don’ts to Antidote the Fast-Food Learning Culture
In recent months, the incumbent shift for almost all learning to go online has been a somewhat mixed blessing, for both learners and educators alike.
Having spent the last 25 years as a learning junkie, with considerable experience on both sides of the learning equation, I have subjected myself to a vast array of educational offerings. I’ve travelled round the world to attend life-changing seminars, have hung on every word uttered by well-known experts, devoured the latest best-selling books and fully immersed myself in the enticing world of personal change. However, my experience of online learning has been consistently unremarkable.
My perception is that our appetite for online learning has quickly out-paced the creators’ ability to do it well and our appetites are waning. We’re now getting wise to the pattern of being enticed to attend free webinars with jazzy, attention grabbing titles only to find that underneath the pizazz, the presentation is dull and leads to the inevitable upselling. It’s all become somewhat formulaic and all-too-frequently disappointing.
Also, the availability of online meeting tools free of change has done for learning & development what smart phones have done for professional photographers. Now that so many people have access to the software, it is assumed that ‘anyone can do it’. Although technically this may be true, often the uninitiated don’t know what they don’t know and, due to the disconnected nature of their audience, may be oblivious to the fact that their webinars or live streams are not having the desired impact.
This article is intended to shed some light on what many online educators appear not to know or don’t know how. And, if you are preparing any kind of online class, this will provide some dos and don’ts to stimulate your thinking.
Let’s start by looking at a couple of common misperceptions.
Firstly, the tedious, energy-sapping, when-will-this-be-over webinars tend to be based on the flawed principle that one-way (expert to student) learning is effective.
One-way learning is what traditional education has depended on for decades. It is based on a fundamental assumption that just because an expert has said it, you get it — open wide, down the hatch, job done.
This approach assumes the brain is a sponge and has no room for the in-built idiosyncrasies of individual perception, personal creativity, different intelligences and learning styles. There is no feedback mechanism to check the learning has landed, and no opportunity to go over a topic again from a different angle.
In this kind of session, there are pleas from the learners to ‘send a copy of the presentation afterwards’ in the hope that with some reflection time or the reassurance of endless replays, at some point the penny will drop. If you’ve had this experience, you know the truth of the matter — the requested presentation rarely gets further than your inbox and is consigned to a life-time of gathering digital dust. By the time you need the information, you’ve either forgotten the webinar completely or at least forgotten where you saved the file.
Before considering an alternative, let’s look at a second common misperception, which is that bite-size learning is a good idea. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for it but I see this as the learning equivalent to chicken nuggets; it may blandly satisfy an immediate need but is ultimately unfulfilling.
When a little bite-sized piece of learning is slotted into an already jam-packed schedule, it gets lost amid the rest of the daily stimulation, ultimately to go the same way as yesterday’s newspaper and your most recent hotel room number. Even if you are a higher-than-normal achiever, you may actually get a few days into the perfect formula for a ‘Healthier and Happier You’, before making feasible excuses about why you didn’t manage to do step 5 today, why this isn’t quite right for you at the moment and why it makes more sense to wait for the next ‘Best Ever — Only Available ’til Midnight Tomorrow’ offer to come along.
If you’re one of the growing throng of Zoom educators, webinar hosts or live-streamers, how much attention do you put into the how of your presentation, versus the what? What are your thoughts and ideas about creating an impactful experience for your audience?
I have listed a few tips from my own experience. This is intended as a stimulus rather than a didactic list. It assumes that you have already clarified the objectives of the session, know your criteria for success from the participants’ perspective and have all the admin in place. This leaves the tips to focus on making the learning engaging and valuable.
1. Make it personal. Treat each delegate first as a human being, then as a learner. Use people’s names as much as possible in your session. Ask why they are there, write down their aims, take a note of any questions if you can’t answer them immediately and come back to them. It also makes a difference if you can give the appearance of looking people in the eye by talking directly to your camera at eye level rather than to the faces on the screen. This is counter-intuitive so takes a bit of practice.
2. Be a human first. Let people get to know about who you are as a person, outside of your expertise. Tell engaging and authentic stories. Be real not perfect.
3. Make it interactive. Be conscious of your role as a facilitator as well as a presenter. You are not just there to dispense information but to ensure people get value from giving you their attention. Get to know the range of functionality of your online learning platform. Practice with it and use as much of it as is useful. Encourage the delegates to participate actively so they can be as fully immersed in the experience as possible. If you don’t, chances are they’ll sit back and switch off. NB A co-facilitator can be invaluable to support with this.
4. Mix it up. It is notoriously difficult to keep people’s attention online as you have to compete with the multiple other distractions that you have no direct control of. So, if you don’t want participants drifting away to attend to email or feed the cat, have a mix of different sections, break-out discussions, polls, quizzes etc.
5. Create simple presentations. Keep any visual presentation colourful, using good quality pictures and a few key words. Otherwise, the brain is trying (usually unsuccessfully) to take in complex visual information at the same time as listening to the speaker. If you’re using Powerpoint or equivalent, educate yourself on the animation features; they can really liven up a presentation.
6. Encourage participants’ cameras. Not only does this help with making online sessions more personal, it also encourages people to pay attention rather than hide behind the anonymity of a blank screen.
7. Invite people by name to contribute. Although this is not common practice in face-to-face facilitation, specifically asking for individuals to respond helps to overcome the awkward silences online. Given it is harder to read body language and see those subtle signs that someone is about to talk, this can be a helpful tip. Another option is to introduce people to the ‘Reaction’ or ‘Hands-Up’ buttons, possibly having a play with them near the start of the session to make sure everyone knows how to participate.
1. Don’t assume that your expertise is all people want to hear. Many participants in an online workshop will want to air their own experiences, opinions and questions. Also, you don’t have to be an expert on a subject to facilitate an excellent learning session. Asking thought provoking questions is more impactful as a way of stimulating learning than just downloading your know-how.
2. Don’t expect the knowledge you share to stick. This is especially true if the learning has been one-way. Learning needs to be internalised, embodied, acted on before it really seeps in. Also, people need a compelling reason to invest the time needed to embody learning so don’t expect this to happen unless they are truly motivated to learn.
3. Don’t talk for more than 10 minutes without inviting participation. A few minutes discussion or interaction at regular intervals will help participants to digest what’s just been said and get thinking about the relevance and application in their world.
4. Don’t over-rely on the visuals. You don’t need to have people looking at the screen for the entirety of your session. It can be hugely impactful to give space for reflection, to write, to go outside to try out a task, to close their eyes and visualize etc. These kind of breaks from looking at the screen can help participants connect with themselves and begin to internalize the learning.
5. Don’t over-sell. Even if you’ve done a great job of presenting your session, it can be an instant turn off if you immediately start selling your next course or latest book etc. Your audience will quickly sniff out that it is your agenda that is driving the show, not theirs.
6. Don’t over-run. Your audience may give you a bit of grace for a few minutes beyond your intended finish time but a long over-run can be an imposition. Also, for those who have to leave exactly on time to accommodate another appointment, it can be annoying if they feel they may have missed out on some important closing nuggets.
7. Don’t say ‘Finish it in your own time’. It is better to cut a bit of content out of your session to ensure you cover a topic thoroughly than whizz through an agenda and expect people to pick up the pieces afterwards. Most will come away from the session feeling overwhelmed and/or confused and are unlikely to re-engage.
And finally, when circumstances allow us to get back to being together in person in our ongoing learning, let’s do it. Let’s not rely too heavily on the easy option offered by technology. There are some truly great teachers, trainers and facilitators who are wise, compassionate and authentic people bursting to reconnect with what they do best. They are as keen to get back to live learning as actors and performers are to get back on the stage.
If you’re serious about learning, why settle for chicken nuggets? Creating an environment where people are staring passively at a screen giving meagre snippets of their attention is likely to leave them with indigestion. Don’t they deserve to be nourished?
So, if you are delivering fast-food learning or an elaborate sales pitch, just be honest about it and honour the value of professionals who deliver real transformation.