That is the question.

At least this was one of the questions that were raised during the live online session I facilitated at Learning Live. There were some great points, observations and thoughts that came through on the chat during the session that are worth exploring in more detail.

The first point was actually made in jest but is quite important in terms of group interaction / dynamics. The point was raised by David Goddin aka @ChangeContinuum and was making reference to the text twister exercise and if the quiet ones would get involved or ‘sit at the back’. An online session is indeed a different beast in terms of the manner in which it’s delivered however if we think about face to face sessions where we ask a question and look for interaction, a few things can happen:

  1. There is the tumbleweed moment where nobody responds (we’ve all been there)
  2. You get 1 or 2 participants who are the first to put their thoughts across and then continue to be the ‘loud’ or dominant ones
  3. The group get some really good discussions going and everyone is involved and participating

From my experience of using chat in live online learning I’ve found that used well it actually allows more people to engage and stimulates conversation. I’ve had feedback from group members that they felt more comfortable communicating in this way than in a room full of people. How many people go through a training session without saying a thing? Admittedly it won’t suit everyone’s communication preference initially but over a period of time through building confidence and capability in using chat it can be used very effectively throughout a session. The added benefit that it’s also recorded and can be referred back to is also very handy to continue conversations and attribute contributions to individuals.

The way in which chat is used within the session is important and is a crucial element of the session design. As with any session the content and purpose of the session will directly impact the way in which chat can be used. As we know conversation is an important aspect of learning and chat encourages conversation, in fact chat IS conversation so it should be encouraged and supported as much as possible should it not?

The next points that came up were really interesting, they were around attention indicators and multitasking:

I have to say I’m not a fan of attention indicators I find them misleading and whether someone is looking at the screen or not does not tell me whether they are engaged and listening. If I’m facilitating an online session and working with a partner (flip chart fairy) to create an engaging session then I find the attention indicators a distraction myself. If people who have chosen (or not) to attend the session decide to go and check emails during the session or multitask themselves then that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t paying attention or benefiting from the session.  If your session is designed with limited interaction and is one way traffic then yes people will switch off and go and do other things. I have attended online sessions and gone off to do other things but continued to listen to the facilitator likewise I’ve been in sessions where I’ve switched off from the facilitator but have been involved in a highly engaging chat with other participants. Each time I’ve taken what I needed from the sessions and when dealing with adult learners is this not what we want to encourage?

Next up ground rules around using chat

Ground rules are of course useful and as a facilitator you will set some house keeping around the session as you would in a face to face environment and the design of the session should be very similar to how you would approach the design and manage a face to face session. You would create an environment and create conditions where people feel comfortable, they know what to expect and what is needed of them, position their role in the session and most likely provide some resources for them. Ultimately your learners will take things away that they want to and engage when they want to, the goal of an online session is to create those same conditions and an environment where your online participants understand what is needed of them and what they can expect to gain from the session.

Another point was raised by David around using chat to pose questions and to answer them later but I think you can use Q&A tools or polls more effectively than chat for this. In my mind I want to see people using chat throughout the session and talking to each other and actually creating a back channel for the session. We have the ability to encourage people to have conversations and use the session content as a prompt or a pointer and to discuss the content in more detail. In a face to face environment the facilitator controls when people can chat and talk which can be very limiting or even pressured e.g.  “2 mins left” “1 min left”, “Right it’s time to move on now”. Where as in an online environment people can use chat throughout and if well facilitated this can really help people understand and interact with the content and create other discussion points to introduce to support the session. To be able to refer to this after the session and also go back and answer any questions in more detail surely deepens the learning experience for both facilitator and attendee. In a face to face environment what ever is said is lost forever (unless recorded) and as we know Ebbinghouse Forgetting Curve shows we’d forget most of what we listen to in that training session anyway without any follow up or interaction.

My view is that online sessions shouldn’t be delivered in isolation for this very reason and wherever possible should be combined with some sort of community based learning in which the group can explore resources and complete tasks prior to the session, develop ideas and discuss approaches within the session and continue conversation and share outputs post session. All the resources that support the session and resources from within the session such as the whiteboards, chat, polls, and the overall session recordings so people can refer back to it can also be shared. Technology should be used to connect and to continue connecting people and enabling conversation to flow within organisations. I love the idea of hosting Twitter style chats within organisations and would love to hear from anyone who does this.

Live online learning supported by collaborative networks are a great combination to support and enhance  (or replace?) any learning programme and can provide truly powerful learning experiences that change people’s perceptions and expectations of what online learning can do and the value it can bring. They are an essential part of any learning strategy and if it’s not on your agenda it needs to be. I’m a big advocate for moving more training towards this method of learning and reducing the amount of resources needed and the costs that go with delivering traditional training events. Connecting people within your organisation is key, creating conversation between employees is essential and the closer we can get this conversation to real life work and activities the better.

In the last four years I’ve heard so many challenges to online learning that it’s not effective or it’s not engaging and interactive and it isn’t a patch on the experience you get from a face to face session. These challenges often coming from people who have never experienced online learning or people from within learning & development. There always seemed to be this feeling that delivering training online wasn’t learning and this even threatening the role of delivery trainer as we know it. More assumed constraints and L&D thinking instead of art of the possible thinking.

Well guess what the role of learning professional has changed and if you aren’t aware of how live online learning and networks can be used to support your organisation and help people connect, share and learn then it’s time to take your head out of the sand and go and work in the post room. Learning & Development is an exciting place to be and the future of L&D is even more interesting. Using online learning and communities is just one part of an ever changing landscape of workplace learning.

To the doubters and those still stuck in the “L&D own learning era” I say this……it’s good to talk and even better to chat 🙂

How do you use chat in your online sessions?

Do you use live online learning with communities?

How are you encouraging more open conversation and sharing in your organisation?

I’d be interesting in your experiences and any thoughts you have on the subject