The recent mandatory ubiquitous use of the Internet for professional development and meetings held by associations has advanced the cause of online learning tenfold. Even as face-to-face events return, online learning has forever moved to the next level with the use of programs like Zoom. The benefit of this experience means most people have had an education in the use of webcams, and microphones, framing oneself on camera and participating in a virtual learning event. Most people are now comfortable with terms like synchronous (real-time live) and asynchronous learning (not live-on but on-demand). However, trainers, speakers, course directors, and virtual facilitators still need to improve their craft.

Enter Diana L. Howles, who has authored the ATD-published book, Next Level Virtual Training, Advance your facilitation. This book is unlike any other written about how to instruct others online. It deserves five stars and should be utilized by association education directors, now. The book is comprehensive, well organized, and offers a next-level Virtual Trainer Capability Model to assist anyone who finds themselves in a position to speak to learners in a virtual setting. I ordered this book from Amazon, and I could not be more excited about its contributions to the craft of eLearning design and the production of events.

So let me review “Howles virtual facilitator bible” while I reflect on how to apply the learnings found in her 350 pages in my consulting practice.

I am working with a team of people to design and produce a virtual 12-week workshop for a national association that will be kicked off live via Zoom and contains both recorded presentations, self-assessments, readings, and interactive exercises. Stackable badges will be provided to attendees that represent specific achievements.

First and foremost, I am working hard at not using the word blended Learning. Blended learning is just too contextual. It means different things to different people. Is it the “flipped classroom” where we meet face to face but do the majority of knowledge comprehension work online during our own time? Is it a combination of virtual zoom sessions presented live, mixed with assignments done asynchronously? Is it a combination of live online sessions and recorded presentations (where “live” is not distinguishable)?

 In the association community (think ASAE) a blended event is when they provide face-to-face sessions and live virtual sessions during the same day. Blended learning as a term just means too many things. All classrooms should incorporate a variety of ways to learn and practice comprehension of new knowledge. I digress, back to Diana’s book and how it is organized.

So how do we claim to be competent at the skills of developing and teaching a virtual 12-week workshop, much less a few hours of online training (webinar)? What author Howles set out to do is develop “a comprehensive development path toward full competence in essential areas of expertise.” Her “Virtual Trainer Capability Model” addresses eight of the most important areas of expertise that virtual presenters need to be successful. Brilliant and I recommend this book to both association meeting staff and education departments! Here is the Howles Model that defines the skill set needed to design, develop, and facilitate an online educational program:

  1. Experience design
  2. Environment shaping
  3. Online facilitation 
  4. Facilitator presence
  5. Technical fluency
  6. Dynamic engagement
  7. Agile troubleshooting
  8. Evaluating impact

We are going to start designing the 12-week workshop by listing the various virtual activities our team could produce. But what is the design process we should follow?

The book covers the various influences on the design process and details the four dimensions of learning. Sure, traditional methods such as learning objectives should be considered (I like referring to Bloom’s taxonomy) but the author’s focus is on learner-centered design through learner personas and experience mapping.

My key takeaway from the discussion of “Experience Design” is the importance of involving multiple stakeholders, including learners to brainstorm and test ideas. Our 10,000-person medical association that is creating the 12-week workshop is forming a committee of members (both advanced and novice learners) and nominating a Course Director to lead the design process. Will we have time to ideate and test activity types? Perhaps not, due to only three months provided before “go-live”.

Nevertheless, the experience map example Howles provides on page 43 will serve as an excellent framework for helping the committee put it all together. 

Diana Howles does not elaborate on actual “shape-shifting” but she does discuss the many considerations designers need to keep in mind to create a healthy learning environment. There are just too many tips to shaping the environment to mention all here. I am going to suggest these to our working committee:

      • Build a community to foster social learning
      • Lay out the welcome mat (email a welcome video!)
      • Incentivize and reward active participation (tokens anyone?)
      • Include introductions when using chat, breakouts, and whiteboard activities

The recent pandemic has given many of us a few lessons in using a virtual platform. Howles reminds us, through a story of the early days of adapting to the telephone, that new technologies need a facilitator who is aware of the pitfalls of what may seem like a black hole.

I enjoyed her suggestions to talk through dead periods (when technology may not cooperate) for example, “Just one moment please, while I open the whiteboard for us. You’ll see it shortly.” It is equally important to expertly use silence to encourage learner reflection and participation. I’ve also been a big promoter of using a “producer” to work behind the scenes to help organize the event (think chats, polls, and other technical assistance) and occasionally collaborate as a co-facilitator. For our medical association client, we will provide a producer for each live session and record as many activities in advance of a “live” session as possible.

Act like you are putting on a stage play, rehearse, and record. You can decide later whether or not to use the recorded session.

In March of 2020 when we started meeting with team members via Zoom (most of the time), I became somewhat obsessed with each participant’s room environment, lighting, and the framing of each participant. We are just now reinforcing the importance of the clothes we wear online.

In her chapter covering the competency called “facilitator presence”, Diana Howles does an expert job providing lessons on a camera-ready performance. They called me a “room rater” and I am ok with that coaching role. You are a star, perform like one, and don’t forget to use your voice and hand gestures to maintain the learner’s attention

Wikipedia defines Habituation as a form of non-associative learning in which an innate (non-reinforced) response to a stimulus decreases after repeated or prolonged presentations of that stimulus.  

Howles explains:

“For example, virtual learners might disengage because of monotone delivery, long introductions, static slides, and never-ending lecturettes.”  

To avoid boring learners or overloading them Howles recommends to facilitators be sure to use movement, variety, and change to keep learners attentive.  

Some of the design elements we are considering for our 12-week workshop is to keep the live kick-off session to no more than 4 hours. Using multiple speakers to introduce the key topics of the workshop. We are also considering the creation of a “course manifesto” which could be turned into multiple videos explaining:

      • What the learner can expect each week from the course design
      • What the course director (key instructor) expects of the learner
      • Technical overview of learner engagement during break-out sessions, chat, and question asking
      • Facilitating online presence by switching back from slides to all faces front and center
      • Tips for presenters
      • Incorporating a completion recognition badge

Agile Troubleshooting is Howle’s seventh competency.

Here on page 248, Howles promotes that you create a matrix of common technical issues and how to prevent and address them (as murphy’s law will prevail). Here are a few of her best tips: Overprepare and be ready with multiple solutions, take a refreshing break to solve the problem, be ready to give learners an assignment, and (my favorite take-home point), partner with a producer to manage the event.

 A tenant of “continuous improvement” is to evaluate, iterate and innovate. As I think about our plan to evaluate the quality of our 12-week workshop I, according to Howles need to consider “in the design phase, what knowledge and performance objectives are identified at the outset”. Are we going to go beyond the “simile sheet” (level one evaluation)? Consider a pre-test and post-test differential? Finally, sometimes evaluation can get at whether we have changed learner attitude or motivation.  

I have already given away too much of Diana L. Howles Next Level Virtual Training book, but I enjoyed the exercise of reflecting on how I could put her ideas into practice.

This morning I saw on LinkedIn that ATD is walking the talk and putting on a multi-day workshop covering the concepts in this book. Bravo!

Photo of a white male with glasses
Jon Aleckson PHD

Learning Business Creation Consultant

Web Courseworks

About the Author

Dr. Jon Aleckson is an educational leader and consultant in association learning technologies and eLearning.  He works with an extensive list of association clients on LMS implementation and development, platform alignment and integration, and online curriculum development, giving him a holistic view of business models, operational practices, and educational approaches in association eLearning.

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