Eight simple ideas to improve your virtual workshop user experience

Published May 21, 2020 at 8:40 AM

As specialists in blended learning, we’ve run capacity building workshops for our clients nearly every year since our inception. 

Each run has always included an element of virtual collaboration (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, sometimes using multiple technologies, and sometimes in different contexts). No matter the audience, we are guaranteed to meet the occasional sigh of frustration when technology just doesn’t do what it should. What we’ve learnt, however, is that it always does what it needs to – it starts a conversation about user experience. 

In this post, we share eight simple ideas that can help you create a virtual experience that your audience will love.

Why the big fuss over user experience?

In this context, it’s all about managing cognitive load. When learning and collaborating virtually, there are distractions an inexperienced virtual learner must navigate. Technology that doesn’t work as expected is one of them. Consider this example – your audience needs to contribute to a group activity using an online forum, but they’re having trouble logging in. That’s critical learning time spent trying to figure out how to use the technology rather than performing the task they need to complete. Their cognitive load increases while trying to problem solve and contribute at the same time – and the quality of their output will reflect this. By reducing and managing the cognitive complexity of the technology-based elements in your online workshop, you help your audience get the most out of their learning. These eight tips can you help you achieve the best results.

1. Two heads are better than one

Batman needed a Robin, plants need sun, and if you’re a presenter of a virtual workshop, you need a producer. While you’re focused on delivering the knowledge and tools for learning, your producer can take care of all the ‘technical stuff’. Instead of breaking up the flow of learning to set up the next activity, your producer can do this for you. They focus on creating a seamless experience for your audience that doesn’t distract from the goal. These are just some of the things your producer can help you with, but the possibilities are endless:

  • answering chat questions that focus on technical issues
  • sending out activity instructions to set up for the next activity
  • updating slides as you learn new things about your audience
  • setting up and monitoring breakout rooms/sessions
  • keeping track of parking lot questions
  • resetting passwords
  • sending out links
  • gathering audience input and ideas

2. Identify champions and test with them

If you want to avoid any nasty surprises in your first workshop, getting a sample of your audience to help you test the experience is a great idea. They can tell you when something works or doesn’t, and they can also help you identify existing technologies in their space that could work better instead.

We ran workshops for an organisation that had intense security restrictions on their network. So, it was difficult for us to get all our participants onto our collaboration platform of choice for group work. One participant worked with learning technology in the company and was part of our pre-testing process. He helped set us up on their internal learning management system so that we could use their platform to enable our activities. It worked like a dream, and everyone in the group could access it with no problems.

3. Establish the rules

One of the challenges with virtual workshops is the lack of visual cues. The audience can’t always rely on these cues to tell you when they have a question. Similarly, they might not know the best way to get their questions and comments to you.   Setting simple rules like keeping your mic on mute, using the ‘raise your hand’ feature when you want to speak, or popping questions into the chat can create a sense of structure and reduce their cognitive load.

Our golden rule at the start of a session is to encourage everyone to pop questions into the chat. When we complete a section of facilitation, a learning producer then reads all of them out loud, and the conversation grows from there.

4. Build-in activities

At some point, the attention of even the most engaged in your audience will wander. Group collaboration activities (and virtual breakout rooms in which to conduct them) are a great way to re-energise and engage your audience, bringing them back into the fold while embedding essential knowledge. Designing your virtual workshop so that it mirrors your classroom is an excellent first step. If you ask questions, take polls, split people up into groups and run various group activities in a face-to-face workshop, then you can do the same online. 

5. …But remember the cognitive load

There is a chance that you and your audience will feel uneasy about everything at first, but this adage is true: practice makes perfect. You will find your flow, and they will find theirs too. Use every resource you have available to paint a picture for people of the way things work. We once created an infographic for our audience that mapped out the entire experience. It showed what platforms to use for which kinds of activities, how to log on to each and direct links to breakout rooms in case they couldn’t find them. Having this reference reduced the cognitive load of having to remember where everything was and when they should use it. In the end, even our most timid technology users joined us on every platform and participated in every activity.

6. Have a plan B

We love the technology we work with daily, but we know it’s a smart move to manage our expectations along with everyone else’s. Tech can let you down. So, have a plan B. Here are some ‘plan B’ examples we’ve had to use before:

  • Slides not displaying? PDF them and have them ready to send to your audience via email
  • Can’t hear someone in your audience? Ask them to pop their comments and questions in the chat
  • The audience can’t display their projects? Have them email their documents to you ahead of time
  • The audience can’t access the case study links you’re sharing? Export them to a format that you can email to everyone, e.g. PDF
  • Bad network? Try using your phone as a data hotspot
  • Serious technical trouble on your side? Have a range of activities available that can keep your audience learning while you work them out

Your audience might recognise these bumps in the road. By putting your plan B into action, you’ll reduce the amount of time they spend thinking about them, and you’ll manage their cognitive load.

7. Join in the fun

Your audience wants to know that you’re engaged and invested even if you aren’t in the room with them. During group activities, they’ll have questions and comments, and they may need thinking prompts. Being able to address these aspects promptly can reduce the cognitive load of the activity they’re attempting. Although you can’t walk around the classroom, you can visit groups in their virtual breakout rooms, participate in their discussion and listen in. You can also pop into breakout conversations to keep timing for the session on track by giving people a time check.

8. Don’t force it

We once worked with an organisation, upskilling their facilitators so they could deliver blended learning programs. Participant groups were formed based on the commonality of the programmes each facilitator ran. As luck would have it, one group was made up of seasoned facilitators, not at all accustomed to using technology. They embraced the challenge but were frustrated by numerous technical difficulties. While other groups could collaborate on their projects online after hours, it didn’t work for this one. Eventually, they found that having a conference call and emailing documents between them helped save them time. Although they didn’t always use the technology we introduced, it was the best way for them to work and deliver and we didn’t force them to do it our way. In this case, their exposure to technology was more important than having them use it in the same way as others.

These eight simple ideas are easy enough to try today. Have help on hand to create a seamless experience and collaborate with champions who can help you iron out any bugs or help you identify alternative paths. Create some structure, so people don’t expend valuable effort trying to figure out the technology by themselves. Mirror your classroom but find ways to keep it simple. Have a contingency plan to minimise interruptions in the flow of learning. Interact with your participants and make learning the focus of your workshop instead of the technology.

Click here to download a helpful Virtual Training Toolkit from our partners at Unboxed.

Our Blended Learning Masterclass (capacity building workshop) helps learning consultants responsible for the design and development of blended learning programmes add to their skills toolbox. Click here to learn more.

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Kershia Naidoo

Kershia Naidoo

Senior Learning Technologist

Published May 21, 2020 at 8:40 AM

Download a helpful Virtual Training Toolkit from our partners at Unboxed.

Our Blended Learning Masterclass (capacity building workshop) helps learning consultants responsible for the design and development of blended learning programmes add to their skills toolbox.