February 19, 2021 7 min read
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The way we work and teach has changed. Sticky notes have been replaced with collaborative digital tools and coffee chats with breakout rooms on Zoom. We don’t interrupt, we click on the raise hand icon. We don’t exchange looks anymore, we shift our focus from window to window.
Among leaders and educators, the opinion is unanimous: “It’s not the same.” The biggest complaint when it comes to remote workshops is the lack of engagement. Are our attendees even paying attention? There are so many nonverbal cues lost when we switch from a face-to-face setting to an online environment. How can we ensure our learners are engaged and interested behind the screen?
To address this concern, I’ll be using Robert Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction adapted to a remote environment.
1. Gain attention
Gagne identified the mental conditions for learning in his book Conditions of Learning, first published in 1965 and still highly relevant for instructional designers today. The first of the nine events is “gaining attention,” and it seems obvious if we think about it. If you can’t capture your attendees’ attention, why would they even want to hear what you have to say?
This principle can be easily applied to remote workshops. For example, introduce a topic with a thought-provoking question, or pique attendees’ curiosity with an interesting story or problem. At this stage, the key is to surprise them, get them involved, even incorporate an icebreaker if needed. This works best when your workshop is indeed fully remote. If half your team is sitting together and the other half is remote, then make sure each person is logging from their own computer. It’ll be best if you make sure everyone is involved and no one is left behind. Now that you have their attention, they are ready to listen to you.
2. Inform your audience of the objectives
If you managed to get your audience excited, well done. The next step is to manage expectations. This is often overlooked even under typical circumstances, which greatly impacts how engaging and meaningful the experience is. What will your attendees learn? What will they be able to accomplish by the end of the session? How will this training even benefit them? If it has a direct impact on their job, what’s their required performance? Make sure you provide this information and also examples so that everyone understands clearly what is expected of them. This is especially important when you’re conducting a remote workshop, because as long as your learners understand the benefits and risks, they’ll be more motivated and receptive to the training.
3. Stimulate recall of prior learning
Making sense of new information isn’t easy, and it can easily demotivate your learners if the topic is completely alien to them. In a remote environment, where many people might not feel comfortable speaking up (not to mention the dreaded delays), it can be especially overwhelming to learn something new. A simple way to address this problem is to ask your learners about their past experiences. What’s their understanding of related information? If you’ve covered the same topic in previous workshops, make sure they can relate to past concepts. Ask them questions, do a pop quiz, make it fun.
4. Present the content
Now you’re ready to do the teaching. Several learning strategies and approaches can be applied at this phase, but when it comes to remote workshops, there are some key considerations to remember. Present the information in small chunks and implement breaks often. Zoom fatigue is real. No matter how attractive your topic is, you’ll lose your audience’s attention if you present for too long. Keep your materials varied by using videos, text, images and practical examples. Make sure your learners are involved and it’s not only you doing the talking. Invite them to discuss the topic, incorporate activities and encourage everyone to ask questions. Tools like Zoom breakout rooms or digital whiteboards can help you make the workshop more interactive.
5. Provide learning guidance
This step is crucial for any remote learning activities. When people interact face-to-face, it becomes natural to ask for additional guidance. In a remote workshop, you have to make the extra effort to be present and provide appropriate guidance for learning. For example, if you’re doing an icebreaker activity that requires a specific tool, make sure everyone understands how to use it. Provide examples every time you can. If you split your audience into groups and breakout rooms, do the same you would in person: alternate between groups and help them complete the activities required. The last thing you want is your learners to feel unsupported, especially if they’re unfamiliar with the tech tools.
6. Elicit performance (practice)
Give a chance for your audience to apply what they learned. This often means giving them homework in a remote environment and a well-deserved break away from the computer. If the activity requires your learners to be in the same environment together, consider scheduling a separate session. While it’s easy to host a one-day event in person, the same can’t happen remotely. Don’t force your attendees to sit in front of the computer for hours. You need to adapt your training to remote circumstances.
7. Provide feedback
Once your learners have attempted to apply what they’ve learned, they’ll need to receive feedback. Feedback is the most effective when it’s immediate, personalized and detailed. If you aren’t able to give feedback during the session, make sure you provide written feedback on any assignments or tasks. Consider combining your input with peer evaluation and self-evaluation. For example, you can provide a self-assessment form before addressing the task in detail in the following session.
8. Assess performance
How effective was your training? You can only answer this question if you measure the success of its learning outcomes. To do that, you’ll need to assess your audience’s performance. There are different ways to measure the impact of training, depending on the workshop goals. Written assessments can help us understand the progress and general understanding of a certain topic, but they are often not enough. Especially in a remote environment, where it’s easy to look for information online, we often face the dilemma of memorizing or understanding versus applying. Make sure you’re tracking the right goals so you can assess the real performance and impact of your training on your audience.
9. Enhance retention and transfer
The purpose of any workshop is that your audience (team, company, clients) is able to apply what they’ve learned to real-world situations and enhance their performance or skills based on that newly acquired knowledge. An effective training program has a focus on performance and facilitates retention and transfer on the job. By the end of your workshop, your attendees should feel prepared and empowered to apply what they’ve learned on their own. Present your learners with real-life examples and allow them to practice within the safe space of your workshop. Repetition, recall, feedback and practice are critical in this process. If there are reference materials that will be helpful for your learners’ daily tasks, make sure you provide them.
Applying Gagne’s nine-step model to a remote workshop helps you create a training program that is effective, engaging and meaningful. Gagne’s framework can also be used in combination with other methods and popular training models. A training program is only successful when learning occurs. For learning to happen, we need to understand the science behind how people learn and apply these principles to each unique context. That’s the heart of our new remote digital-first environment.