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9 Lessons Learned When Converting In-person Training to Virtual Training at USAID

May 20, 2020
Jen Page

Like many of you, in March 2020 with the onset of the COVID19 pandemic it became clear that business as normal was not going to continue. For my team at PPL/LER & LEARN that meant the planned delivery of the classroom course Better Development Through Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) at the end of April was not going to be possible. But would it be possible to move it to an online course in six weeks? 

Fast forward seven weeks - we did it! I can’t tell you that we got everything right or that it was easy, but participant feedback indicates it was a valuable learning experience. And our facilitation team learned a lot too. Given the “new normal,”  we know that we will do a lot more virtual online training. So here 9 lessons learned if you are considering moving your workplace training to the virtual classroom. 

  1. Start small. We immediately realized we could not replicate the 5-day classroom experience online. Instead we focused on a subset of content already piloted for a 2-day version of the course.
  2. Keep online sessions short. We used a blended approach with a mix of live virtual sessions and independent homework to fully achieve the learning goals. No one wants to stare at a screen all day. We designed the virtual course to extend over 5 days with 2.5 hour virtual live sessions (including a 15 minute break) and assigned about 1-1.5 hours of pre-work for each session.
  3. Use “live” sessions for active engagement, not passive listening. Our classroom course was designed this way, so we doubled-down on that approach for the virtual classroom. We thought about what could be changed to pre-work assignments - watch, read, or reflect exercises - that would enable active engagement.
  4. Instructional strategies are the same as the classroom, but you have to rethink them! Our instructional strategies included team teach, case studies, scavenger hunt, plenary and breakout group discussions, and action planning. Some things work better (online scavenger hunt) while others did not translate so well (paper worksheets don’t easily translate to online needs).
  5. Keep the number of participants small to start. We initially planned for 25 virtual participants (same as the in-person course), but when 80 people signed up for the course, we doubled the number of participants to 50. It was challenging to manage 7-9 separate breakout groups. We had to bring in additional facilitators to help manage participants and breakout sessions.
  6. We are all learning the technology together! We were really transparent with the class that we were still learning the technology ourselves. This created a safe space for participants to ask for help, and hopefully set the tone that there are “no dumb questions.”
  7. Build in time for participants to learn technology and build those skills during the course. We planned an optional 1 hour “tech check” session on the first day that nearly everyone attended. This also allowed the facilitation team to test their technology (and create back up plans for emerging issues). It was also a chance for participants to practice key skills (splitting your screen, collaborating in Google docs/slides, etc), needed in future sessions. Prior to each online session, we offered the opportunity to join 30 minutes early for “coffee & tech check” and did a fun activity (review quiz show, online scavenger hunt, etc). This time was well spent, since we saw a wide range of tech savviness among participants.
  8. Technology matters - but with advanced planning you can make most platforms work. While we had access to AIDConnect, our team chose Google Meet  for two reasons. First, our facilitation team was familiar with it already. And we wanted participants to know that this was not a typical “listen only” virtual event. Some of the strategies we used:
  • Google Slides for real-time collaboration in place of a white board or flipchart.
  • Google Docs proved better than printed worksheets for collaboration during group work and knowledge sharing between groups.
  • Break out rooms can be simulated, by asking participants to close the plenary meeting and join a new small group meeting for a designated time period. Then close the break out and rejoin the plenary meeting. This required extra time for preparation (careful written instructions, customized links in each breakout group’s Google Docs), more classroom time (verbal instruction, demonstration, and practice), more people offering support during delivery (all 5 facilitators and 2 technology supporters). We assigned facilitators to pop in and out of breakout groups to check who was missing and use individual Gchat to “find” the missing.
  • Chat management was different for Google Meet. Since participants could only see the chats shared after they joined, we had chat facilitators re-post key information for those that joined late or lost connection and were forced to rejoin.
  • Facilitator Gchat group for a separate facilitator only communication channel. Sometimes the facilitators still needed to verbally ask for help or prompt one another. We felt this worked better than “dead air” and kept it authentic. 
  • Record sessions. For the inevitable bandwidth issue, the recording alleviates stress for those who missed parts of the session.
  • Use video as much as possible. All of our facilitators used video and we demonstrated how to change the screen layout to see more participants. While bandwidth prevented some from using video, we demonstrated the low bandwidth options to encourage it!
  • Co-facilitate with one primary facilitator supported by a second facilitator focused on technology. Some facilitators preferred to manage their own chat, while others preferred to have someone else share the screen and advance slides. (This started as a necessity given the technology, but Google released new screen share functionality (the ‘tab’ share option) the week before our delivery that enabled one to present and see the chat at the same time. Some facilitators still liked that approach.)
  • Plan with your facilitators in mind. Our 5-person facilitation team had already delivered the content many times and all of them were comfortable co-facilitating together. The team was also willing to embrace online facilitation and new technology. This allowed us to have 3-4 lead facilitators each day and keep participant interest through simple variety. It also lightened the load on each facilitator and offered flexibility. Those less comfortable with technology had another facilitator share responsibilities for advancing slides, managing chat, and sharing links to key resources. 
  • This article reflects the experience of our full facilitation team:

    • Chelsea Jaccard-Kaufman
    • Monica Matts
    • Lane Pollack
    • Reena Nadler
    • Jen Page
    • Sarah Schmidt
    • John Dorrett

    About the Author: Jen Page supported the development of this course and other CLA-related courses in her role as Capacity Development Manager for the LEARN contract in support of the PPL/LER team. Jen is an instructional designer and is now supporting USAID/E3/Local Sustainability in the role of Training Coordinator.