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10 pieces of advice for creating engaging web lessons

Daily i talk with customers who support instructors in delivering training online. It’s been, and is, busy work making this happen. Questions have been about selecting platforms, how best to facilitate lessons and how to make use of the features of the platforms.

At the same time, digital learning is different and opportunities are far beyond simply changing location from the classroom to, for example Zoom. We now have opportunities to:

  • Let the participant run their learning at their own pace and on their own terms.
  • Increase the impact of learning by distributing activities over time.
  • Better integrate learning into work.
  • Create a social process for the learning.

In a couple of articles, I will share some of my advice for the journey from classrooms, via web lessons, “blended” learning to a digital and social learning in the flow of work.

In this article, I walk you through 10 pieces of advice for taking the first step, creating engaging and effective web lessons.

1. Realize that web lessons are different from the classroom

It is tempting to deliver the lessons “as is” on the web. I see many posts on LinkedIn with tips on how to perform the same exercises as in the classroom. A lot of focus on “looking at each other”, “putting up post-it”, “group discussions” and serial exercises where one person at a time, eg. is drawing or presenting their view.

There’s nothing wrong with these exercises, but they don’t take advantage of the fact that web lessons are partly different. There are a couple of challenges to begin with:

  • It’s more difficult to connect between Instructor and Students.
  • Many (physical) exercises cannot be performed.
  • A layer of technology and other distractions affects concentration and working memory.
  • It’s easier to multitask and do other things. Studies show that 80% of the participants multitask.

At the same time, many opportunities are created:

  • We have more opportunities to create a lot of interaction and to engage participants.
  • We have more opportunities to create transparent exercises where everyone sees each other’s answers and learns from each other.
  • We can more easily divide courses into short sessions that fit the calendar and figths the forgettting curve.
  • We can more easily create “blended learning” where lessons, self-study and assignments at work are mixed.

I think this insight is critical. It is only when we realize the differences that we can begin to take advantage of the opportunities with web lessons.

2. Make a plan for moving to web lessons

The realization that web lessons are different means that we have a lot to gain from adapting the course. In short, it’s about things like far more exercises, shorter presentations, more visualization, etc.

It is also about bigger questions. What content can be converted into self-study? How can exercises be distributed over time and perhaps performed directly at work? You need to think about what activities in the image below are web lessons, self study or built into eg. Intranet.

I am not saying that you should go all the way directly and create an effective “blended” solution. Maybe you don’t have time for that? However, the realization that you can now physically split up your “one-day event” and blend with other activities requires you to know answers to some questions.

  • What new behaviors should the course contribute to?
  • How motivated are the participants to a change? What motivates them?
  • How used are they with web lessons?
  • What does the work environment look like? Are they at home? Technical limitations?

No matter what your scope is, you need to start with the plan. To begin with, update the answers to the questions above.

You will inevitably need to spend time adapting your material. For example, if today you are talking around a slide for 10 minutes, you can count on the majority to start doing something else in your web lesson. The exercises that worked so well in the classroom may not be possible in a web lesson at all.

Implementation requires planning of the technical environment. You may need to use a different technical environment, e.g. replace Teams with Zoom. The table below shows the difference between Teams and Zoom. At the time of writing (April 2020), the vulnerabilities with Zoom are not yet fully resolved and you may need to look at platforms such as Webex, GotoMeeting, or Adobe Connect.

More things to plan are invitations and participants’ preparations, preparation of the web platform, practice, running the web lesson and evaluation.

The plan does not have to be comprehensive, but the important thing is to realize that it is more than the actual running of the course that is affected.

3. Get the participant to process information

The most common cause of unengaged participants is too much presentation and too little activity. Too many slides or an Instructor who talks freely and lengthy before the participant can process the information with an activity.

It doesn’t even work in the classroom. Working memory manages to process 5-9 new concepts and needs support to process and store information in the long-term memory. In web lessons, working memory is also limited by the fact that participants need to manage a technical environment. The lure of (without being noticed) multitasking is significant.

A rule of thumb is that you need an activity every 3-5 minutes. Preferably reverse the order and start with activity to create focus and stimulate existing knowledge and then present.

So you need to put a lot more energy into creating activity than in the classroom. Web platforms provide many features to do just that:

  • Chat
  • Icons for feedback
  • Questions/poll
  • White board/ Annotate
  • Screen sharing
  • Break-out rooms

Chat and feedback are the interactions used the most. They are for brief answers, reflection and focus. such as “How do you use reflection in everyday life?”. They are also the participants’ channels for attention and asking questions.

The poll function is most often used to ask for opinions or get participants to reflect on content that has been (or should be) presented. such as “Which of the following are examples of Fixed Mindset?”.

White-board and annotation can create additional interactions, e.g. to ask the participants to point out details on an image, to describe a flow, to match concepts with descriptions, etc.

Group rooms, or break-out rooms, are used to let participants get to know each other, share experiences, solve problems, etc.

In my e-Workout “Strengthen your ability to lead web lessons” we practice using the features and I give many examples of exercises.

4. Manage working memory

The pictures below are 10 years old and you may see the problem with them. We’re going to have big problems decoding the text, especially as the instructor talks at the same time.

In web lessons, you’re more dependent on presenting slides. The screen is the only channel to communicate the content. At the same time, the participant has more technology to handle and there are more disruptions. Working memory becomes more limited and less is transfered to the long-term memory.

Viewing facts and text-packed images doesn’t work. Instead, use the images to visualize processes, visualize context, trigger emotions, etc. Correctly used images enhance learning with 40%.

This means that you need to review your slides:

  • Use photos and illustrations instead of text.
  • Simplify and clear out text and lines.
  • Support participants’ attention with annotations and animation.
  • Use a few supporting words only as text.

So what do you do with all the text and facts you wanted to convey? Make a PDF that students read before or after the lesson. Put the text on the intranet and let the participant practice finding during the web lesson.

5. Make sure you have great audio and video

According to studies, a big reason why participants in web lessons lose engagement is poor images but also poor sound.

You want to create the best contact and relationship as possible with the students. Then you also want the picture and sound to work as well as possible.

My experience is that the built-in webcam is not enough. With an external camera, you can create a much better experience. There are many tips on great webcams. I myself use a Logitech C920 that delivers HD resolution and can handle poorer lighting conditions.

The light is important. You want light on your face to be seen. Sit opposite a window, or have light sources on both sides of your face.

Also, keep in mind that the background may distract. You don’t want a cluttered background, e.g. an office landscape where employees are running around. A personal and arranged home environment can work. In both Zoom and Teams, you can also add your own backgrounds.

If possible, the sound is even more important than the image. A poor sound with echo or that stutters wears out the participant and decreases learning. Invest in an external microphone. I use a Blue Yeti, but cheaper directional microphones also work. (More advice on audio and video on my e-workout.)

Look at the webcam and not at the image on the screen. This can happen because you search participants’ eyes that are further down the screen. My tip is to put a picture of eg. your sweetheart on top of the camera, then your eyes are drawn there.

6. Prepare, prepare, prepare

The foundation of creating a safe and well-executed web lesson is to be well prepared. Insecure behavior and technical problems help create unengaged participants who start doing other things.

A web lesson is shorter than a course day. The content of a traditional classroom day is delivered in half the time in web lessons. One recipe for this to work is that you practice.

  • Practice using the features of the platform until you feel confident.
  • Running a web lesson is about “multitasking”. You are to talk, think about where you are watching, have a glance at the chat, switch to poll, all at the same time. Practice makes perfect.
  • You might not be used to how your voice and speaking tempo factor in web lessons. A tip is to record a lesson or section and then listen to it. Even better if you can let someone else listen and then give feedback.
  • Develop a detailed schedule for your lessons and practice until you see that you can keep to the schedule.

Prepare your technical environment. Keep in mind that a fixed connection is more stable than wifi, where connection can be disturbed. To be on the safe side, have a backup connection. A 4G mobile is good enough for that purpose.

I always have 2 screens to both be able to see presentations, zoom/teams window with chat and my script. On webinars, I also have scripts pasted on the wall behind my screen. Other tips include preparing the web environment itself, arranging the background, lighting and testing image and sound.

7. Create relationships and expectations early

According to one study, the most common reasons why participants lose interest during web lessons are:

  1. Boring pictures.
  2. Too little activity with participants.
  3. Poor facilitation.
  4. Hard to hear other participants.
  5. Unclear purpose and agenda.

The two issues at the top I have touched on before. The third is about you as a facilitator. According to the webinar benchmark report, 40 of the participants leave webinars due to an unengaged facilitator.

Although you have many great activities and engaging content, as instructor you’ll influence through:

  • The energy and confidence you show.
  • The extent to which you see and involve participants.
  • How you handle technology, questions, breaks, etc.

Set your expectations in the invitation. Ask the participant to prepare by reading self-study material and reflecting on important questions. Be clear that the lesson will be interactive, that you will discuss the questions that the participant reflects on.

Within the first few minutes of the web lesson, you start with an interaction that connects to the questions. This sets the expectation that it will be an interactive lesson.

Build rapport with students early. I usually open lessons and webinar 15-30 minutes before the scheduled start time. Partly because those who are unsure about the technology can test and partly to chat with the participants and build rapport.

Then, when the lesson begins, I begin by telling something personal. I have the video on to enhance the personal feeling. If there aren’t too many people present, I’ll also ask participants to turn on the video and give their view on the challenges related to the subject of the lesson.

In larger groups, it is better to use the chat. Participants quickly zone out in long exercises when one by one are going to talk.

In my e-Workout you will get a full checklist on how to start the web lesson with instructions for using tools, house keeping, why the lesson is important, etc.

8. See and involve the participants

In web lessons, we need to work extra hard to maintain the energy level and to involve the participants. As a facilitator, I try to be personal and use an inclusive language. It is, for example, easy to just read the content of the chat. Always add participants’ names, use “I” and “you” and give appreciation and praise to posts, questions, and ideas. It is not obvious that the participants dare or want to participate. You need to reinforce and create a climate of trust.

I try to be open, talk about mistakes I made, contribute with humor, smile and be lively. I also encourage participants to come up with other perspectives, their own examples or questions.

What I noticed creates the most commitment is to use break-out rooms early on. For example, you can start with a short session where participants get to know each other and talk about their challenges. Then I use the break-out rooms periodically to discuss major questions and scenarios.

Seeing participants also includes keeping an eye on the chat if participants have a question or raise their hand. Some tools also let you see if students are doing something else. Then it’s time for an activity.

9. Encouraging questions early

I’ve learned the hard way to deal with questions. My webinar used to be high speed with a lot of content. Then I ended with “do you have any questions”? It used to be pretty quiet.

This doesn’t work in web lessons. We need to work actively to create engagement and participation.

The climate for asking questions needs to be set early. I myself can use images that are half-finished and ask the participants to complete the image to get the discussion started. Keep in mind that participants often have a lot to contribute, so ask them for real advice. If everything is “absolutely clear”, there wont be so many questions. It is also important to really show appreciation to those who ask questions.

To get questions started, it’s a good idea to have warm-up questions that you ask the participants yourself.

For me, questions can also be what makes time fly. I can get involved in the discussion. Have a detailed lessons schedule nearby and constantly follow up your time keeping. Park complicated questions and bring them up at the end of the lesson.

10. The end is just the beginning

It is important that you set aside time for ending the session and that you follow the schedule. With web lessons, participants usually go to another meeting and leave when the time is up. I usually make sure to have 15 minutes for finishing up.

The ending includes summing up the lesson, final questions and the participants’ own lessons learnt. Ideally, you have a set-up where participants now will try out what they have learned in the work. Take time to introduce assignments, possibly extras, what support they can get from you and how follow-up takes place.

In the e-Workout we go through more what to consider. Stop for individual questions, save chat and recording, evaluate and send out follow-up emails.

Next step

That was some advice on how you as an instructor can act to create engaging web lessons. Also, learn more about how you can scale up the use of web lessons and support instructors in your organization.

No matter how good you are, the fact remains that one-time learning events have little effect on performance at work. Few apply and we quickly forget what we learned.

The next step is to move more material out of the web lessons, put more responsibility on the participants and leave the web lessons to drive the learning process forward. More on that in the next article.

Author: Johan Skoglöf
Johan är visionär och senior konsult med missionen att hjälpa företag att skapa framtidens lärande organisation. Med över 25 år i branschen och kunder som Ericsson, Volvo, Scania, SEB, Handelsbanken, HM och ICA har Johan en bred erfarenhet i hur lärande organisationer skapas.

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