Live online learning — or virtual classroom — has been around for decades. Today in
many parts of the L&D world its adoption rates are sky high. Gartner firm Software
Advice, for example, recently found virtual classrooms are being used by nearly 50
percent of HR professionals it surveyed.
Some organisations and many L&D professionals, however, remain reticent about
giving virtual classrooms a prominent place in their learning programs, whether for
reasons to do with technology, interaction, structure or content.
TO DELIVER ON THE PROMISE
OF THE VIRTUAL CLASSROOM
- a précis
TP3 recently conducted a webinar entitled “Enabling L&D to Deliver on the Promise of Virtual Classroom” with digital and
future-learning strategist Cheryle Walker. Cheryle is leading the way in helping people create highly interactive learning
experiences using web conferencing, and is well-known for initiating and operationalising new digital learning channels at
National Australia Bank with outstanding results. Among Cheryle’s many qualifications is delivering the UK’s Learning and
Performance Institute’s Certification in Online Learning Facilitation.
Here we share key learnings from that webinar.
TP3 White Paper
Image Copyright: Ana Klaric
TP3: Cheryle, let’s begin with what a “virtual
classroom” is so that we all start on the same page.
How do you define it?
Cheryle: A virtual classroom is simply a tool for delivering
learning online. It mimics the face-to-face classroom
in many ways: a facilitator leads the group and, using a
webcam, can be seen by learners who in turn can ask
questions using a hand-raising icon, chat via text with the
instructor or other participants, and use other tools that are
designed to help them participate.
What’s different between the virtual and physical classroom
is that the virtual classroom is designed to deliver
instructional content to people who are not in a single
location but who are geographically dispersed.
TP3: Is that need to train widely dispersed learners
the driving force behind virtual classroom adoption?
Cheryle: Yes, but it’s only one of the driving forces. Many
organisations need to reach employees all over the country
and sometimes globally, and often their L&D professionals
spend a lot of time travelling to deliver face-to-face training.
In fact, up to 40 percent
of an organisation’s
total training costs can
be burned on travel and
I’m not saying that we
shouldn’t get together
in classrooms for
because we all know
that’s a very rich learning experience. However, if we bring
the virtual classroom into play L&D departments can reach
more people very cost-effectively — so yes, that’s one of the
reasons why virtual classroom is hitting the headlines in our
profession these days.
Another reason is that the nature of work is changing, again
as we all know. According to one Australian Government
business survey, more than 75 percent of businesses
encourage employees to work from home so we’re seeing
more and more people coming in remotely to join together
in virtual teams. That creates the opportunity for us to run
our training more virtually as well. Added to that the NBN,
or National Broadband Network, is revolutionising how
Australians communicate and learn and work from many
different, very remote regions.
TP3: So lower costs, and greater geographic reach?
Cheryle: Yes, as well as many more benefits that have
manifested themselves over time as the technology has
improved. Learners and facilitators can now interact much
more than before thanks to sophisticated drawing tools,
chat panels and even live break-out rooms. which can
make the virtual classroom highly engaging. This method of
training is also great for meeting the different learning styles
of learners, and of course it can be recorded for viewing
offline any time.
So, as well as eliminating travel costs and providing
accessibility to remote learners, there are many benefits of
live online learning that are coming into play all the time.
TP3: Given the many benefits of the virtual
classroom, why aren’t we doing more of them?
Cheryle: That’s a great question, and I when ask L&D people
about concerns they have about running virtual classrooms I
get a fairly predictable range of answers.
To begin with, many facilitators have concerns about the
technology —there’s often a fear it’s too complicated or
it will fail in the middle of a
session and they won’t be
able to continue. Or they’re
uncomfortable with not being
able to see participants like
they can in a classroom. I
think many also fear the
change in the nature of their
job in delivering training.
The truth is that a little bit
of skill and practice can overcome all of those concerns.
Facilitators need to utilise their existing skills, as well as
learn new additional skills to conduct training live online.
The traditional skill-sets of L&D professionals are very,
very adaptable to the virtual classroom environment. I
think the real challenge for many is for them to discover
just how adaptable those skills can be. Then, once people
learn some new tricks and tips used in the virtual classroom
environment, those skills in helping people learn that they
already possess can really start to shine through.
TP3: You’re fond of saying every L&D professional
can beam confidence and competence—and wins
friends—in the virtual classroom.
Cheryle: It’s true, once they focus on developing their skills
as online facilitators. And I don’t mean to sound flippant
when I say that begins with being willing to learn.
There’s often a fear
it’s too complicated
or it will fail
Let me explain. When it comes to the technology, which is
really just a bridge between you and your learners, there
are a lot of different web conferencing technologies and
virtual classroom platforms you can learn about. It’s easy to
find out all about them, some of them are probably being
used by colleagues you know, and remember these tools
have all been designed especially for people like you!
But it’s not only about being willing to learn about the
technology. An L&D professional new to the live online
learning environment needs to also learn how to engage
people using what I call “online presence” and “online
body language”. That is, how to read people in the online
environment, how to engage them, how to get them active
in doing things on their screens, and how to respond to
learners online. Essentially, this means applying the same
adult learning principles you use in the classroom but within
the online environment.
Now, it’s true that facilitating online requires an ability to
multi-task, but I use the analogy that learning to be a good
virtual classroom facilitator is like learning to drive a car.
The first few times behind the wheel in traffic can be quite
daunting. “Where are all those controls?”, “I’ve forgotten
to check my mirrors,” “What gear am I in?” and “Look
out, here comes another car.” It can feel just like that the
Keeping participants engaged with visuals is also critical,
and in the virtual classroom there are two primary channels:
the verbal channel and the visual channel. The visual
channel is the screen, and because it’s a small piece of
real estate learners will inevitably have visual distractions.
They may be able to look out the window, interact with
co-workers or family, or multi-task by browsing on their iPad
or smartphone. So, it’s very important to make the most of
that visual screen element, and there are a lot of proven
ways to achieve that.
The verbal channel, on the other hand, is primarily the
facilitator and their voice. Not unlike in the classroom, we
need to focus on both what we say and how we use our
As I said earlier, these and other skills we’ve learned as
teaching adults are very adaptable to the virtual classroom
environment — perhaps more adaptable than you may
TP3: What are some of the other elements that
comprise an effective live online environment?
Cheryle: My view of a perfect virtual classroom formula
starts with one facilitator. I like to teach people to be able
first time you’re in an
online classroom as a
facilitator. But really it’s
just like driving a car.
Once you spend some
time practising, then
driving becomes second
nature. After a while
you’re driving quite
capably and not really
focusing so much on what
you’re doing. It becomes
automatic for you.
That’s what I mean when I say all it takes is a little bit of skill,
which of course facilitators already have, and practice to master
virtual classroom facilitation.
TP3: Can you explain more about what you say
about applying adult learning principles to the online
Cheryle: Certainly. Just as in the classroom, in the online
environment you have to be able to engage everyone even
though you can’t see them. That’s always a challenge and for me
my primary focus is to engage everyone in the unseen audience.
I begin with making learners feel comfortable with their end of
the technology and showing them how easy it is to interact
to “fly solo” in the virtual
classroom as facilitators.
After all, that’s how we
operate in face-to-face
training most of the time,
plus it’s also the most cost-
Next, a virtual classroom
with 5-15 participants will
ensure a deeply interactive
that in many ways mirrors
the face-to-face workshop where you can speak with
participants in the room or run break outs where really in-
depth learning and more challenging tasks can take place.
As for timing, I find 90-120 minutes is good with a
10-minute break at the one-hour point so learners can
step away from their desks, stretch, and have a comfort
break But it’s true that when you’ve got interactive and
engaging activities happening in the virtual classroom, and
people are speaking and interacting with each other, 90 or
120 minutes can really fly by. Still, I find 90-120 minutes
is a good amount of time to spur substantial learning and
interaction, but not so long that learners feel chained to
Learn how to engage
people using “online
presence” and “online
There’s a company in Perth that
conducts wine tasting lessons online.
You might think, “How would that work?
TP3: We often hear that classroom content isn’t always suitable for teaching online.
Cheryle: That’s a bias I hear too, and I think it comes from people not always having had good live online learning experiences
themselves, or they’ve had webinar experiences where it was a lecture presentation to a large audience, instead of being truly
interactive and engaging.
The anecdote that I like to talk about in this context is wine tasting. I know a company in Perth that conducts wine tasting lessons
online. Now, you might think, “How would that work? It sounds pretty impractical and not much fun.”
On the contrary: the company makes it engaging by making it practical.
Firstly, they send out a box of wine to all of the participants signed up for the course, and those boxes of wine don’t have labels
on — just “Bottle A” and “Bottle B” and “Bottle C”. Then they convene their clients at a specific time and with everyone online,
the company’s facilitator says, “We’re all going to open Bottle A”. From there, participants are taught how to pour the wine, sniff
it, swill it, and taste it. Everybody gets the opportunity to say what they’re tasting, relay their experiences and discuss what’s
going on in the group.
The result is an interactive, entertaining and highly informative virtual online wine tasting course.
During that period of time the ideal virtual classroom session would involve 45 or so interactions. That may be asking them
to complete an activity on an online whiteboard on the screen, getting them to raise their hand to agree or disagree with
something, asking them to answer questions, participate in a chat panel discussion, or giving them a specific activity to go away
on the internet and research. I believe about every two to three minutes there should be an interaction with participants.
And finally, I recommend a blended learning model. I generally have a survey or assignment before the virtual classroom so
there’s some context setting. Material that asks questions of them such as “What are we coming to this virtual classroom for?”,
“Where does this sit in the context of my learning?” and “What do I expect to be doing in the virtual classroom?” prepare
participants for a truly interactive and live learning experience, while post-discussion — “What are you going to do or change as a
result of attending the virtual classroom?” and “What’s going to be your activity, your follow-up, your application of learning?” —
are important. Certainly follow-up coaching can be extremely valuable.
Now, many people would rather learn about wine face-to-face, and I would too — but for remote and regional participants this
is a very effective way to reach people. And I also know this is a somewhat extreme example, but there are many, many more to
show that practically any subject is suitable for live online learning.
That said, the trap we can fall into is becoming obsessed with designing information for learners instead of learning
experiences. I find it interesting that when people start thinking about designing virtual classrooms, they can easily slip back to
designing information only and forget about the fact that the virtual classroom can and should be highly experiential learning.
TP3: This feeds into making live online learning part
of a learning culture does it not?
Cheryle: Absolutely. We don’t want to see the virtual
classroom as the poor cousin of training, or a situation arise
where going to face-to-face training and travelling interstate
is glamorous but doing the virtual classroom is not.
In the early days of virtual classroom, organisations saw
learning online as an optional extra. They created virtual
classrooms around subjects they hoped people would be
interested in, and leveraged employees who volunteered
to attend. Other organisations offered them to remote and
regional participants at first, employees who weren’t given
the budget to travel to Sydney or Melbourne or wherever
Either way, virtual classrooms were introduced as something
new and different, something additional to what employees
already had. They were used by early adopters in the L&D
community to extend the reach of learning and make more
networking opportunities available.
Since then there’s been a host of new ways to make on-the-
job learning in the virtual classroom cool. Whether it’s a sign
on the back of learners’ chairs or computers that say, “Shh,
I’m in a virtual classroom at the moment” or custom coaching
sessions, it’s something that builds slowly as part of a learning
culture. Making virtual classroom-based learning cool is
something we addressed at National Australia Bank where we
created an environment where learners were able to access
a whole lot more training because virtual classrooms were
available. That is, we didn’t replace face-to-face learning with
We added virtual classrooms in order to extend the coaching
experience and expand the range of training we could offer
even further. By taking that approach we weren’t perceived
as taking away from the great training experiences that
were already occurring — instead, we were seen to adding
great training. That helped drive perception, acceptance and
adoption around the organisation. Today at the Bank, virtual
classroom has become very operational and core to the
organisation’s learning and development strategies.
TP3: As well as NAB, what other examples of the
successful use of virtual classrooms?
Cheryle: One of the best examples of getting started with
virtual classrooms in the corporate world is what I call
“Interview an Expert.”
It’s a little bit like a webinar except you open up the question
or chat panel to allow participants to actively participate in
the discussion and ask questions, either pre-constructed or
spontaneous, of an expert anywhere in the world, inside or
outside of the organisation. Depending upon the number
of participants in a session, you may open microphones for
participants to talk directly with the subject-matter expert.
This is a really easy one to run because all you need to get
started is a set of questions and an expert online. Then, just
get your employees into the virtual classroom and start a
compelling discussion that includes all participants.
Another example is “Project Spotlight”. Let me explain: Many
projects in large organisations, even small ones, are significant
because lessons learned from them are important. A virtual
classroom can be a great way to disseminate and share those
I’ve seen virtual classroom used to communicate very
effectively with everyone involved in project launches,
updates, handovers, wrap-ups and everywhere in between,
including peripheral stakeholders to get them involved at
different points in time. But again I caution you to not to make
it a broadcast session with lots of PowerPoints and simply
presenting on the project.
Instead, make it a consultation and keep your participants
Another use of the virtual classroom I’ve seen done well is a
“Blog Club” where employees come together around a specific
subject. It may be a technical subject or something specific to
a role in the organisation. Or it might be an innovation club.
Here, getting people together voluntarily and bringing along a
whole lot of resources like blogs, eBooks, websites, whatever
— and sharing them with each other in a semi-formal,
scheduled virtual classroom is a very valuable way to share
knowledge across an organisation.
I’ve also seen organisations use live online learning for what I call “20-Minute Advanced Skills” sessions. For example, an
organisation is rolling out a new software platform, launching a new offering to the market, or conducting induction training.
Here, L&D can bring in experts, early adopters or change agents from the workforce to volunteer and run short, 20-minute
skills-sharing sessions. The sessions are promoted on the organisation’s intranet, an e-newsletter or email invitation to get
as many employees along as possible. Using the new software scenario, we know the virtual classroom is very good for
demonstrating software and similar subjects because of the capability to show the subject matter right there on the screen —
and to then hand over control to participants so they can have a go themselves. That feature alone makes it a really easy, and
effective, application of the virtual classroom.
Whatever you do, be creative. Unlocking the potential of the virtual
classroom is limited only by your imagination and desire to learn
something new, and practice. The results can also be immense in terms
of saving your organisation money, allowing greater flexibility in training
delivery, and making your workforce more engaged, effective
Yes, virtual classrooms are great for making and maintaining connections
with people globally or throughout the enterprise, but that’s only the tip
of the benefit iceberg. I believe we should be — and will be, in the future —
running more virtual classrooms in practically every organisation. Beyond
simply reaching remote learners or reducing travel and accommodation
costs, live online learning provides learners with flexibility, facilitates
networking, improves facilitator utilisation, supports informal learning,
improves digital literacy, supports 70:20:10, exploits the power of
blended learning and much, much more we’re still yet to discover.
TP3: Cheryle, this certainly is a discussion that could go for quite
a while, so let’s look at what the next steps might be for L&D
professionals who are thinking about implementing virtual
classroom in their organisations.
Cheryle: My advice is to imagine a traffic light.
The red light is for you to first stop and think about what might hold you
back from implementing your plans. Maybe it’s your stakeholders’ biases
or paradigms around virtual classrooms not being engaging or the poor
cousin to face-to-face training. Or maybe it’s that red herring we discussed
earlier about “My content can’t be taught online.” Whatever it is, pause to
think carefully about what might stop you from implementing your virtual
Next, the yellow light. Whose approval or support do you need? Do you
need to speak to your IT department about getting some more tools, or
can you bypass the IT and sign up to something in the cloud? Who else
can assist you?
And finally, green. This is all about what you can do now to get started. It
might be conducting a pilot with some early adopters and finding ways to
apply virtual classroom easily, such as within your existing blended
Cheryle Walker is a sought-after independent consultant and innovative L&D strategist
with a career history in sales, marketing and business development and in a number
of diverse industries from oil companies to bakeries and banks. In her most significant
career role to date, she initiated and successfully operationalised three new digital
learning channels at National Australia Bank that met core business objectives with
As a participant in the Global Change Agents program at Harvard University, Cheryle is
keen to champion social change within the corporate arena, particularly in developing
responsive learning cultures in large organisations, and delivers the UK-based Learning
& Performance Institute’s Certification in Online Learning Facilitation.
www.cheryleewalker.com | 0418 134 126 | email@example.com
Let us help you plan, build and implement an instructer lead and highly interactive
virtual classroom today using our popular client platform, Guided Online Learning.
If eLearning is more of a suitable solution, chat to us about how we can create engaging,
tightly focused, and award-winning digital learning experiences that balance the needs
of organisations and the needs of their people.
For more information contact you TP3 Account Manager, contact us toll-free on
1300 658 388, visit us at www.TP3.com.au, or email us at info@TP3.com.au.
Enjoy this read? Check out our white paper library:
ph: 1300 658 388
View the webinar
To learn more about Cheryle’s advice about designing effective, interactive online
content, working with time-poor professionals and managing slow learners, common
traps to avoid in the virtual classroom environment and much more, you can download
the webinar in demand “Enabling L&D to Deliver on the Promise of Virtual Classroom”
from TP3’s website at www.TP3.com.au/ideas/.