Online meetings – we can do better

Back in April, Phil Green advised us that we can’t go on meeting like this. A winter of travel disruptions from snow, volcanic dust clouds and industrial action made it clearer than ever that there has to be an alternative to the face-to-face meeting. We already knew there were sound economic and environmental reasons for meeting virtually, now we knew that were would be times when there simply wasn’t a choice.

These are early days for online meetings, so we can expect best practice to evolve, ingenious new features to be added to the available systems, and even cleverer applications to be discovered by those who have to put these tools into practice. At Onlignment, we have put a marker in the sand by developing our own set of rules for better online meetings, based on the best practice that we’ve been able to glean from around the world and from our own experiences as a virtual team. The result is our third e-book, Online meetings: A facilitator’s guide. Click on the link to download it – it’s free.

If you take a look, and we obviously hope you will, you may feel that some of what we have discussed is old hat, because it applies equally well to face-to-face meetings. To some extent that is true, but we make no apologies for the fact. The majority of face-to-face meetings are not only inefficient, because they could be more economically conducted online, but ineffective, because they are so poorly facilitated. We can take this switch of media as an opportunity to rethink how and why we meet together in real-time, to make sure we are not condemned to endlessly repeat the mistakes of the past.

Let us know how you get along with the e-book, whether we’ve hit the nail on the head, missed something important or simply got it wrong. Here’s to happy online meetings – not too frequent, not too long, but great fun and highly productive while they last.

Tired of technology? There’s always a teleseminar

Sometimes the last thing to occur to you is the most obvious. Having trouble with broadband connections or technophobic participants? Then run your virtual live session using the telephone. This straightforward alternative was suggested to me by Connie Malamed in her posting Using Teleseminars for Training on her excellent eLearning Coach blog.

Assuming you can’t get together face-to-face, then what does a teleseminar offer, particularly when compared with a webinar?

The pros:

  • Accessible – most people can use a telephone
  • Ubiquitous – practically everyone in the world has access to the necessary technology
  • Straightforward – easier to design, easier to deliver

The cons:

  • Hard to maintain attention – participants have all sorts of visual distractions
  • Uni-sensory – no slides, no documents, no webcams
  • Interactively limited – no text chat, no polls, no whiteboards

I reckon teleseminars could be made to work if they are kept short, are not limited to a single speaker’s voice and allow for some form of interaction, at least some Q&A.

Has anyone made this work?

What do you call someone who runs online learning events?

Colin Steed of the Institute of IT Training has just shared the results of a poll he conducted on LinkedIn. The question: “What is your preferred job title for someone who teaches/facilitates online?”

The most favoured response was ‘facilitator’, which sums up the role quite well. It’s also the title we chose at Onlignment when we created our free e-book, Live Online Learning: A facilitator’s guide.

The problem of hybrid meetings

Last week I attended a roundtable meeting where the focus of the discussion was around virtual teamworking. One of the issues that arose was how you deal with a situation where you are combining a face-to-face and virtual meeting, i.e. where most of the participants are together in the same room, but others, who presumably were not able to make the trip, are participating using a web conferencing tool. In particular the issue was how to make sure the virtual participants aren’t ignored completely and become just passive participants.

Now I’m not going to pretend that I have much experience of this situation, but I’m going to throw in a few ideas to get us started:

  1. Project the web conferencing system onto the screen so that this becomes the main focus of attention.
  2. Use the web conferencing system to present any slides or documents for review.
  3. Use an omni-directional mic to capture the face-to-face audio and feed this into the web conference.
  4. If possible, position a webcam to pick up the face-to-face group and feed this as well into the web conference.
  5. Output the audio from the web conference to the speakers in the room.
  6. Have all participants introduce themselves, whether face-to-face or virtual.
  7. When asking for contributions, keep a constant eye on the web conference to check whether there are ‘hands raised’ or entries to the chat. If this proves difficult to manage, allocate someone to looking after this as their sole task.
  8. Make a deliberate point of asking for remote contributions, and not necessarily after the face-to-face group has had their say.
  9. Have remote participants make presentations or lead activities.
  10. If you run breakout sessions, have the remote participants form their own group.

So, over to you. How have you tackled this situation? I’d love to know.

Interaction in online media

Interaction is key to the online experience. With traditional offline media – print, TV, radio, tapes, CDs – we were never anything but passive consumers. Online we are active participants able to hunt down information, learn new skills, transact as buyers and sellers, form relationships, network with our peers and much more – all activities that we once had to carry out face-to-face or using much more primitive media such as the mail or telephone. To underline the importance of interaction, just imagine if our online tools allowed no interaction – we’d get no further than our browser’s home page or an email application full of nothing but spam.

There are some very good reasons why we need to interact online:
  1. To navigate, e.g. to follow links on the World Wide Web, to select from menus in an online application, to move between pages in an e-learning module.
  2. To configure, to set up the parameters of a particular decision or action, e.g. setting audio volume, determining how often we wish to receive email updates.
  3. To explore, to move around a space such as a map or 3D world, to scroll a document or search within an audio-visual resource.
  4. To converse with other humans, whether synchronously (live) or asynchronously (at our own pace), using text, audio or video.
  5. To provide information, e.g. a survey or form.
  6. To answer questions, in order to demonstrate learning.
There are essentially four mechanisms for interacting online:
  • selecting – picking from the options provided
  • supplying – coming up with our own responses
  • organising – matching and sequencing the options provided
  • exploring – finding what we want within a space or body of content
To explore the nature of interaction in more detail, with a special emphasis on learning, I’ll be taking each of these in turn in an occasional series of postings over the next month or so.
And here are the posts: selecting, supplying, organising, exploring

We do need some words on our slides

I remember two things from a one-day course that I attended  in London on ‘how to create visual aids’, way back in the late 1970s, just weeks after I started as a trainer:

  1. Every word on a slide (and by ‘slide’ then we meant 35mm or overhead projector transparencies) is an admission of defeat.
  2. Don’t more words on a slide than you would on the front of a T shirt.

Wise words when you’re starting from the assumption that slides are primarily visual aids, although in recent years their purpose has been distorted somewhat by their use as presenters’ prompt cards and as as an alternative format for major consultancy reports. But the primary purpose of slides does remain, as visual aids or, to use another term that has disappeared from common parlance, ‘speaker support ‘.

The campaign against endless bullet points has gained ground in recent years and we are beginning at last to see a backlash. I have seen more great slide decks in the past year than in the past 10 put together and they have made a positive difference - more engaging, more informative, more memorable. But there’s always a danger that we go too far and regard words as an enemy, when used in moderation they can indeed be a friend.

Helping us to keep a sense of perspective is Olivia Mitchell, who has prepared her 9 reasons why you should put words on your slides. She’s done a fantastic job so, rather than paraphrase her work, I suggest you click on the link and take a look for yourselves.

Strategies for learning and performance support: a summary

To wrap up this series of posts on strategies for learning and performance support, here’s a summary of the characteristics of each. To see the original posts, click on the images above or the column headers below.

  Exposition Instruction Guided discovery Exploration
Examples Lectures, presentations, policy documents, all types of required reading / viewing / listening Group instruction, on-job training, self-study materials Simulations, scenarios, games, discussion, case studies, projects, action learning, coaching Reading lists, links, online search, unconferences, social networking, social bookmarking, blogs;
Role of the teacher/trainer Subject expert Instructor Facilitator Curator
Nature of the learning experience Learning material is delivered to the learner From the general to the specific / theory to practice; questioning and practical exercises are used to check for learning at each stage From the specific to the general; practical exercises and real-world experiences provide a basis for reflection and for the formulation of general principles The learner uses their own initiative to satisfy their particular needs for information and understanding, making use of available resources
Outcomes Communication of the material according to an established curriculum; no guarantee of the extent to which the material is retained Knowledge and skills transfer, with relatively predictable results based on specific objectives Development of insights and deeper levels of understanding; outcomes will vary from learner to learner Learners access whatever expertise it is they need; outcomes are entirely unpredictable
Nature of the interaction Minimal – perhaps just Q&A Structured exercises, Q&A  Structured exercises Ad-hoc, peer-to-peer
Who’s in control? The teacher/trainer – this is a push process The teacher/trainer – this is a push process The teacher/trainer – this is a push process The learner – this is a pull process
Suitable for what type of learner Independent learners and those with more experience of the subject Anyone, but particularly more dependent learners and relative novices Anyone, as long as they are well supported and personal risk is minimised Independent learners and those with more experience of the subject
Suitable for what type of learning Familiarisation with a body of knowledge All types of knowledge and skill, particularly those that really do have to be acquired Understanding of principles and processes; attitude shifting; refinement of skills Just-in-time information; knowledge updates; exploration beyond the curriculum; creating new knowledge

Conference call woes

David Grady’s highly amusing observations on the problems inherent in conference calls definitely grabbed my attention, not only because I can relate them to my experiences of running regular meetings on the phone, but also because of the similar issues that can be faced in online meetings.

Just as David’s meeting is constantly interrupted by new participants entering the conference, so many web conferences are thrown off by late-comers who (1) haven’t had a chance to introduce themselves, (2) are not sure what’s happened so far and (3) want to test that you can hear them. I’m not sure I’ve got a strategy to overcome this. In a face-to-face meeting, people can just sheepishly take a seat and hope no-one notices they’re late, but this doesn’t seem to happen online. Ideas?

By the way, if you’re looking for ways to overcome the conference call difficulties expressed in David’s video, you’ll find a wealth of tips at Michele Martin’s Bamboo Project Blog.

White-Boardom, a Litmus Test for Virtual Classrooms – Part 2

Trainers can be wonderfully inventive when it comes to designing activities, but awfully inhibited when it comes to transferring them online

In yesterday’s posting to share a number of whiteboards with you. Those I created for a variety of different teaching and training strategies. Today I shall continue the theme with some other examples. In subsequent postings I’ll take each of the 5 strategies I mooted yesterday, and I’ll show examples of interactions for each. Today I’ll dwell for just a little while longer on “engagement”.

I’d like to make the point that one should not be constrained to do everything within the glass window that is the computer screen. This is true whether we are working live online or through packaged tutorials. I almost always suggest at the start that participants bring along some paper and a pen or pencil. I run face-to-face and online courses which are supported by comprehensive notes and handouts. Nevertheless many learners prefer to write their own contemporaneous notes as it helps them to internalise and embed what they are learning. I always encourage this, and allow time for it to happen. Often, at the end of a busy three-day course, I will encourage participants to express all they have learned and their plans to implement it in no more than 50 words; then I ask them to reduce it to 20 words. It is a contrived exercise, I accept, but it does focus the mind on the absolute key learning points. Another cheap trick is to ask a group at the end of a session each to write a letter to themselves along the lines of, “You remember those days we spent together and all your good intentions on the day; well how have you been getting on? Have you managed to …? Did you …?”

Of course you can do all of this online; all virtual classrooms have some facility to type text. When you use them in combination with asynchronous tools, you can anchor the participant’s learning and build in support from self, peers and trainer, using words from plans, goals and affirmations that have been generated within the virtual classroom session.

In all circumstances, handwriting is good because it is essentially personal. Type is good in that you can harvest words from it by copying and pasting through your computer’s clipboard. Adobe Connect and Elluminate for example will accommodate this. You can ignore duplicates and pick out the best ideas from a stream of text to reconfigure into a consolidated document.  That document may be held within the whiteboard itself or it may be shared as a desktop-share or application-share.  WebEx has a dedicated notes panel, but it does not allow other participants to view or add to it. It is still a very useful facility since it is kept apart from the instant message/chat facility which acts as a running commentary of cross-fired thoughts, that which is generally referred to as the “back channel.” Elluminate has a very elegant widget that lets you open one or more text panels in a whiteboard and then type or paste words into it.

You can position and scale the panels so that they conform to good practice for screen layout.

If text fills the box then scroll bars appear and I’ve not yet been able to exceed the limit for number of words.

This serves very well for group work where each group has its own screen area just as it might have its own flipchart in a classroom, and you can copy and paste across from one to another. This may save time and give the rainer more control than using breakout rooms – another facility that I’ll comment on later.

Returning to the idea of hand-written text; in the first posting in this series I mentioned the “how to say hello in other languages” exercise. I showed you a couple of different scripts for trainers. I also suggested that the way you present it and the interaction you require from your audience may be affected by the tool you’re using. I stated that there is always a workaround. Good old pen and paper often provides the answer. Taking the same exercise as yesterday, here is an alternative low-tech approach to it while still working live online.

Trainer says:

How would you like a little challenge to get you warmed up and put your brains in gear?
You’ll need to write your answers on paper.
I’m going to name 15 countries quite quickly, and I’ll show you their flags.
So get ready now – write the numbers 1 to 15 on your paper.
When you’ve done that, raise your hand so I can see who’s ready.

All hands are raised (if some hands are not raised the trainer acknowledges it and the co-presenter as host deals with any obstacles in the background).

Trainer says:

Just to make certain everybody knows what to do, let’s do the first one together.
Here’s the flag of Germany.
We need to write on our lists the word for hello in German.
I’ll show you the other 14 flags, name the country and you make your list to show how to greet them with “hello” in their own language.
Does anyone know it – raise a hand or type it into “chat” if you do.
(Give a well done if anyone has the answer)
The word is wellkomm , and you can write that next to number 1 just as I’m doing here on my  screen, only you do it on your paper.
Well now we know everybody gets at least one mark in this test!
But from here you are on your own.

…and so on. Now for an adult audience you may feel that the script is pedantic or patronising and offers too much help. It’s really a judgement call; in my experience things that seem to the trainer to take a long time may actually pass very quickly for the learner who is not yet used to taking instructions online in this way. Put it another way, my golden rule is that there is no such thing as “obvious”. When instructional designers worth their salt design activities in tutorial-based e-learning, they always make sure the rubric is clear. The same discipline should apply to the design of synchronous online learning.

No matter what types of interaction you plan to use, it is very important to get everybody actively engaged before you move on, and you must leave them feeling confident about how to interact with you during the lesson ahead.

You may be interested to know that I use the font Bradley Hand ITC or Kristen ITC to achieve the hand-written effect in whiteboards. In the example shown, I’m working in Elluminate which lets me create my overlay text as an object in PowerPoint. I start with a background image made in PowerPoint and then loaded into the whiteboard.

Then I create simple text boxes which I tilt in PowerPoint to fit the perspective in the whiteboard image.

Then I scale it and paste it into the whiteboard.

All of this fiddly work can be done in advance and so when I say I have built a library of whiteboards, they are not all flat images, but rather compilations of objects. This is the end result. I can reuse images like this by simply replacing the text with anything I like from a store of prepared items or I can build them “on the fly”.

My preferred tool for this is Elluminate for its versatility in letting me place, hide, reveal and reposition objects dynamically live online. I can also pass control so members of my audience can do the same. Using this simple technique it is possible to personalise images very quickly and to good effect. The t-shirt image below is one that I plundered from my friend Barry’s presentation. Using a black box as a mask I can replace the text with an infinite number of messages or I can use it as a creative exercise as below.

Script for t-shirt exercise

Display t-shirt whiteboard with specimen text on view.
Trainer says:
“t-shirts can carry all kind of messages. Here’s one”
Remove the text, leaving a blank text box on the t-shirt front.
Trainer says:
“Let’s think up a slogan of our own to convey the message we need to get across today.
You must come up with as few words as possible to get your message across.
You’ll work in groups of 4 in breakout rooms.
Use your whiteboard and text chat to try out ideas.
You have 5 minutes to come up with your slogan.
I’ll warn you when there is a minute left and I’ll call you back into the main room to share ideas and vote for the one you like best.

I’d be using the exercise to reinforce whatever the topic of the virtual classroom happens to be for example “do you need that light on?” or “loose lips sink ships” or “smile before you dial” or whatever else is appropriate to the content of the lesson. I’m not holding up this exercise as a paragon of novelty and creativity. It is the sort of thing that happens in real classrooms day by day. However I am certain that many trainers feel inhibited about trying the same sort of thing live online. Please have courage – the truth is that with a little practice you can do this sort of thing more effectively than face-to-face, you can preserve the process as well as the result by recording it and you do not waste time or shoe leather pounding along corridors looking for syndicate groups that failed to return on time.


Next week, in part 3 of this series I’ll move on from engagement to the concept of sharing as I defined it yesterday. I’ll illustrate the points with images and scripting from a variety of interactive exercises I’ve tried and tested in various virtual classroom systems.

White-Boardom, a Litmus Test for Virtual Classrooms

There are only three questions I want to ask when I’m thinking about a virtual classroom system:

  1. Is it easy to use?
  2. How does it perform?
  3. What can I do with it?

In the past few months I’ve been using a range of different tools which include Adobe Connect, DimDim, Elluminate, Saba-Centra and WebEx. As I’ve used them in earnest, I have developed a good number of interactive exercises and activities. I think of these now as my litmus test for virtual classrooms. In this post I’ll show you some of those exercises, explain how they work, which VC software gets the best out of them, and how they relate to instructional strategies – which is my own principal interest. The questions about ease of use and performance are of high importance. I need to be able to prepare and test a sesson in advance. My audience must be effortlessy enrolled and able to hear, speak and contribute through markup and chat. Naturally I need to feel confident that the quality of experience will be a good one and that there will be no sound glitches, time lags or inconvenient interruptions. I want to be sure that if I’ve set the system to record, I’ll be able to access a complete and competent recording after the event. Important though they may be, I’m not going to deal with those issues in this blog. They can wait for another time. What I am going to ask today about the virtual classroom is “What can I do with it?”

When I first set foot on the primrose path towards teaching and learning live online, I built a basic list of things I regularly do in classrooms. Then I asked myself not “whether” but “how” might I achieve the same online. I’m going to tell you about that list of instructional strategies in some detail, with images of how they have been accomplished through virtual classroom systems.

At the highest level there are just 5 things I want to do, and they are engage, share, evaluate, organise, synthesise and query.


To engage is a straightforward matter. It needs no debate. The cliché that is used in sales training and in train-the-trainer is “you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression”.

One thing that is obvious is that people need to know how to take part and that may involve a little time for induction, orientation and practice. Onlignment’s eBooks do not generally recommend doing this within an actual session. It is best to set it up as a “prequel” by opening a session 20-30 minutes early for inexperienced participants. Otherwise run a separate “sandbox” session or send out a newcomer’s guide. Many of the mainstream system providers have produced this kind of material so you don’t have to. WebEx for example has its “University” and almost all of the others provide some form of hands-on rehearsal free of charge.

Elluminate navigation slide

Elluminate navigation slide

Here as an example is a single image taken from a helpful user guide about Elluminate.

If you do a Google search for Keller’s ARCs, you’ll find lots of creative suggestions for how to capture the attention of an audience of learners, and then hold it. In the virtual classroom, some of the most obvious methods have now become rather hackneyed. For example if you have attended one or two online sessons, it is quite likely that you will have met some kind of “map exercise” such as this one in which the participant is asked to use a pointer or a markup device to show where they are right now.

Where are you right now?

Another variation of the same is to show a wider map and ask users to mark the place where they would most like to be on holiday.

Map of Europe labelled

Where would you like to go on holiday?

In their defence, these are easy to mount in any of the systems I listed at the start, and even those who’ve done it before can take some interest from the responses of others. The important thing is to engineer some reason for an audience of learners to respond early in a session, rather than sit back and wait for “things to be done to them”.

Because it knows no physical boundaries, the virtual classroom may well bring together people who come from backgrounds far beyond the UK. When I’m working with international audiences an icebreaker exercise offers the chance to connect with them, who they are and what they bring. I put together a simple activity that offers a greeting in a number of different world languages. I did a little plundering by asking Google “How do you say hello in…” Try it and you too will soon be able to greet others in 775 different languages. Once I had the words, I developed a series of 30 or so screens in PowerPoint. Here is an example.

Flag of Luxembourg showing how to say "hello".

Welcome in Luxemburgish

Working in Adobe Connect gave me an advantage because I could cover the answer with a filled in box, and then lift off the box during the sesson to reveal the answer. This was even easier in Elluminate, as shown in the screen grab, where I could prepare in advance all of my whiteboards and save them to a file together with the masks (such as the box filled-in with background colour) and other trickery I needed. I’ll come back to this technique of conceal – reveal later, as it serves a number of different strategies for learning and teaching.

If I scripted it in a story-board the activity might read like this:

Show the first slide.
The national flag and name of the country is concealed by an ‘invisible’ box.
Say, “Suppose I say to you ‘Wellkomm’, where might we be?
“Type your answer into ‘chat’.
Await correct answer. If no correct answer give prompt such as “it is a very small country close to Switzerland, Austria and Germany”.
Acknowledge correct answer or if none is offered, say something encouraging such as “well that was quite a tough one. Let’s try another.”
Remove invisible box to reveal correct answer.

The very same whiteboard could be used in many different ways, and often it is the software of the virtual classroom that dictates which approach you use. Here is an alternative:

Show the first slide. The word “Wellkomm” is concealed by an ‘invisible’ box.
Say, “Here you can see the national flag of Luxembourg. Who knows how to say ‘hello’ in Luxemburgish?”
Raise your hand if you know the answer.
Await raised hand. If no correct answer give prompt such as “it does sound rather like the English word but with a different accent, rather Germanic”.
Invite first raised hand to open microphone and speak. Acknowledge correct answer or if noneis offered, say something encouraging such as “well that was qite a tough one. Maybe we’ll get something a little easier next time like France, Germany, Spain or Italy. Let’s try another.”
Remove invisible box to reveal correct answer.

One or two features of virtual classrooms that help this process are the numbering of hands in the order in which they were raised, and the facility to mute and unmute microphones selectively.

Returning to the goal of “engaging” participants, you might know many other ways of doing this in face-to-face situations. For example you might use quotations, tell a story, show impressive statistics, ask a question, offer an activity, show or say something intriguing or mysterious, set a challenge or some kind of surprise. I have found ways of doing all of these in a virtual classroom. Often the added value that mark-up tools, polls, chat and a shared workspace bring makes it an even richer and more satisfying experience than doing it face-to-face. Still I’ll let you decide. I’ve got many examples that I am going to show you. We’ve not yet scratched the surface beyond saying “hello” to participants and getting them ready to start work.

I’d like to return to my 5 strategies of engage, share, evaluate, organise, synthesis and query.  I’ll open each one up and, over a succession of short blogs, I’ll show you examples of how each has been done through popular virtual classrooms.


By my classification, sharing includes a number of different of different activities. It often requires some form of collaboration and may involve experiential learning, exchange of information and ideas, passing and receiving items to and from others, demonstrations, and presentations. In a virtual classroom the channels for these are words and pictures, media, weblinks, documents, slides and diagrams. You will see from the examples I show you how it is possible to combine and configure these to provide an engaging and constructivist learning opportunity that goes fay beyond mere tell-or-show-and-test. Conversation, direction, instruction, debriefing, comparing and giving pause for reflection are other examples of the “sharing” that I see well-supportable in live virtual classrooms.


In this part I’ll show you images and scripts for whiteboards for visualisation expressed through imagination and described through drawing, speech or text. Evaluation will also cover examples of query using Q&A, and decision-making by prioritising, ranking and resolving individually and in groups. Considering and selecting are important elements of these mental processes and I’ll show you examples of how they were supported using the virtual classroom’s strengths in highlighting and marking.


Organisation has three sub-sets: classify, locate and isolate. This means labelling and linking, associating and numbering items that are presented as images, symbols or text. You’ll see how activities call upon users to find and reveal objects from a ground, and then to sort, highlight, group, remove or conceal them.


This is about constructing sense out of unorganised ideas and images. It needs the learner to have the facility to position and reposition, sequence, group and regroup. Typically in the virtual classroom that means drag and drop, cut and copy and paste, undo and redo. This is where you begin to notice the fundamental differences amongst the different VC systems; not all of them offer this level of functionality and so it becomes necessary to flex the creative muscle and invent a workaround. There is, in my experience, always a workaround; it’s just a matter of keeping focus on the stategy and then inventing a way of delivering it within the constraints.


This is my fifth strategy. It may entail assessment in its many forms and for a variety of purposes. That may need the use of polls and surveys, guesses and estimates, self-checks, question-design tools and response analysis.

Currently that are 70 whiteboards in the collection I’ve reserved to illustrate all 5 of the techniques in this blog series. I’m hoping they will inspire some people to tip in ideas of their own, or provoke the real experts out there to say, “Ah but if you only knew how, you’d be doing it like this…”