Archive for May, 2011

What is a virtual classroom?

Many of you reading this will already have participated in some form of virtual classroom learning. In its more mortal guise, the virtual classroom is an application of web conferencing technology. So if you’ve ever participated in a webinar, perhaps hosted by one or two instructors taking you through a PowerPoint presentation, you have already been initiated into the world of virtual learning. But like the true shape shifter it is, the virtual classroom can also take on the form of a self-contained (potentially even self-sufficient) virtual environment such as that of the 3D virtual world Second Life. And indeed, Second Life is used as a platform for education by many institutions such as universities, colleges and libraries.

The virtual classroom isn’t a new thing – distance learning organisations such as the Open University have been putting bums on virtual seats for decades. Following in their wake, the virtual classroom is increasingly discussed and used as a tool for workplace learning. In fact, Second Life also gives companies the option to create virtual workspaces in which employees can meet, hold events and training sessions, and even simulate businesses processes and new product prototypes.

The virtual classroom: it might not be very good

But the question is this: is any of this virtual learning any good? Could it, dare I say, be bad? Well, without going into too much detail, one of the much talked about benefits of the virtual classroom is its capacity for collaborative, peer-assisted learning. Groups of users can communicate in voice, writing (via chat) or video in real-time as well as fill out surveys and answer questions over chat or through polling systems. I don’t think I need to push this point any further. But does the fact that the virtual classroom is collaborative mean that the virtual classroom is good? I am not that sure that it does…

The ‘quality of learning/quality of participant’ ratio!

My reason for doubting the logic of such a conclusion lies in what could be called the ‘quality of learning/quality of participant’ ratio: the higher the standard of the participants, the higher the potential for learning. Anyone who’s ever participated in group learning (which is most of us) will agree that the standard of other participants’ contributions makes a huge difference to how much you can learn.

For instance, the virtual classroom can be a great tool for staff inductions. Video conferencing media, like Skype, can help staff to spread their knowledge to new members of the team. I have heard of some organisations that encourage staff to upload videos to the company intranet for new staff members to browse through for tips on how to do things such as access files when they’ve been deleted or claim back expenses. But such communal knowledge will only be distributed if the staff member responsible for doing so is actually experienced or skilled enough to:

  • possess the knowledge themselves; and
  • be able to teach that to another employee

Those two things aren’t a given and the last one certainly isn’t easy! Don’t get me wrong: if the virtual classroom allows staff to participate in staff inductions who wouldn’t otherwise have done so, that is great. But we need to make sure that this type of induction complements, rather than replaces, existing staff induction programs.

Perhaps the importance of the ‘quality of learning/quality of participant’ ratio comes into even greater relief during bigger group learning sessions like webinars (as opposed to a staff induction which is likely to be one-to-one). I have experienced some terrible webinars but also some really good ones. Usually the good ones are those in which the other participants are more knowledgeable than I am. I don’t mean to suggest that the bad webinars I’ve taken part in are full of people who are less knowledgeable than me; perhaps they are very knowledgeable but don’t know how to convey that knowledge to other people – that is, they aren’t teachers. Some people are competitive and might not like to share what they think ‘belongs’ to them. These people aren’t the best webinar buddies. Some people may simply be misplaced in a particular classroom session. Consider the classmate who, during an A level English literature class on WWI poetry, puts up their hand to ask the teacher whether Germany had ‘won’. Now ask yourself the question: how much learning would take place if everyone in the class was equally as knowledgeable about WWI history as this particular student?

What does this mean for virtual learning in the workplace?

I think we can safely say that the quality of your virtual classroom experience will be heavily influenced by the people with whom you share it. So my top tip for any organisation that is thinking of venturing into virtual classroom training is this: don’t be afraid of artificial selection. I am sure that your company is full of people with extremely mixed skill sets. Imagine that you want to hold a webinar on how to comply with competition law. Why not make sure that each of your webinar groups has a couple of subject matter experts (who may or may not be the webinar instructor) and make sure that each webinar includes a representative cross section of your organisation? That way everyone can benefit from the knowledge of someone else. You might find that it improves the quality of your webinar (or any other group learning session) in leaps and bounds!

After weeks of sharing, discussing and deliberating, earlier this week we announced the winners of our ‘Shoot to Share’ experiment.

The quality of the videos was fantastic, and everyone has their favourite. The number of views alone shows just how valuable our video library is – despite its ‘social learning on a shoestring’ nature. But, as every L&D professional knows, true evaluation relies on more than just stats. We spoke to colleagues, customers, friends and associates to find out what they thought and which videos they found most useful or valuable.

So, without further ado, here are our top three video contributors with a little bit about why we loved what they had to say.

In third place: Craig Taylor, Urenco

Despite Craig’s role as a learning technologist, his video is actually about combining on-screen activity with real-world tasks away from the computer. We asked Craig what his favourite e-learning interaction is and why. He earned his first brownie point by considering his answer from the perspective of a learner as well as a designer – putting yourself in the learner’s shoes is one of our ID mantras. Craig went on to explain that, for him, the best interactions are those that encourage learners to get up and do something to put the e-learning into context or into practice. Free-text responses need a bit of clever thinking in terms of constructive evaluation and feedback, but we’re big advocates of blended learning and so Craig’s preference for thinking beyond the confines of the computer when designing a self-paced e-learning course gets a thumbs-up from us!

In second place: Jack Beaman, Fusion Universal

Fusion Universal certainly made a big impact at Learning Technologies, what with their bright pink stand and their exciting new social learning platform – so who better to provide a succinct summary of what’s important about social learning? Jack hits the nail on the head when he recommends transferring practices from our home lives into our work lives. If we need to find something out at home, we don’t book ourselves onto a course or seek out an expert; we turn to Google, YouTube, or whoever happens to be in the room at the time. This, for Jack, is exactly what social learning in the workplace is all about: capturing knowledge across the organisation, and sharing it as widely as possible. We wholeheartedly agree with Jack’s top three tips for doing this effectively: make it short, instantly accessible, and searchable. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves, Jack!

In first place (drum roll please…): Matt Brewer, Chubb Insurance

Lots of people are able to talk about the things that are wrong with compliance e-learning but struggle to provide tips for how to do it right. Matt is not one of these people! Instead, he makes great use of his 88 seconds to tackle the question of what we can do to make compliance training more effective. What we love about Matt’s video is that he doesn’t just throw out the true-but-tired adjectives (‘practical’, ‘interesting’, ‘realistic’) – instead, he provides some concrete ideas that you can go away and try for yourself. We’re big fans of these top tips from Matt: identify the desired outcomes and select the content accordingly, rather than just chucking everything in; explain why as well as what – provide links to background information or real-life supporting evidence on the topic; and show the consequences of non-compliance, not just for the company, but for individuals. We urge you to keep Matt’s tips in mind when designing your next compliance course – he knows his stuff!

Matt is now the proud new owner of a Flip video camera (the same equipment we used to film all our contributors) – no doubt this fabulous prize will come in handy at family gatherings, but we hope Matt will also use it at work to start developing his own ‘shoot to share’ culture. Congrats Matt, and let us know how you get on!

So, there you have it. Thanks to everyone who contributed to our video library, and to everyone who shared and provided feedback on the clips. If you haven’t yet seen these videos, they and the rest of the library can still be watched on our YouTube channel. Whether you’re looking for tips on making the most of social media, want to find out exactly what a QR code is, or need some ideas for evaluating your e-learning, there’s a video for you!

I have often seen courses where the learner has to read information in a popup on clicking a button. This click appears with its associated learner instruction and at times is just ornamentation on the screen. If this happens too frequently in a course, the learner starts responding in almost ‘Pavlov-esque’ fashion: a conditioned reflex (okay, so it was the dog and not Pavlov that responded, but you see my point!). The course is no longer entertaining and certainly not engaging. However by definition you could say it is interactive!

So here’s something I have done in the past to help the learner be a more ‘active’ participant in the course: I use scenarios. Instead of a button click for information, the learner is placed in a particular position and asked to respond. The situation does not necessarily flow from the content before it, but is not totally disconnected from it either. Responses can be simply yes/no, true/false options (although we at Saffron try to avoid these – here’s why), or slightly more complicated multiple choice options. In either case, it makes the learner pause and think, and thus the learner is more actively involved in the course.

As an example, consider the following:

“Six Sigma originated as a set of practices designed to improve manufacturing processes and eliminate defects, but its application was subsequently extended to other types of business processes as well.
In Six Sigma, a defect is defined as any process output that does not meet customer specifications, or that could lead to creating an output that does not meet customer specifications.”

With all due respect to the contributors at Wikipedia, this would hardly be the best way to present information for learners in an e-learning module. A number of people would tackle it as follows:

  • Rewrite the first paragraph.
  • Consider including the second paragraph in a popup with a button labelled ‘Defect’.

I admit I have been party to such a line of thought many times. With hindsight, however, I propose the following, slightly more interesting, solution:

  • Rewrite the first paragraph for clarity. For example – Six Sigma is a set of rules developed to perfect manufacturing processes by reducing defects. Its principles have recently been extended to improve other types of business processes as well.
  • In place of the second paragraph, position the learner in a scenario. For example:

The latest MPhone Touch2010 mobile phone advertisement is awesome! You order one over the internet immediately. On receiving the product, however, you find that the touch sensors are not working properly. Which of the following responses are you most likely to choose?

A. You call MPhone and give them a piece of your mind. You ask for a replacement handset immediately.

B. You take it to the nearest MPhone store and have them replace it. All’s well that ends well.

C. You ask for a full refund and pledge to yourself that you are never buying an MPhone again.


A. As well you should, some might say! This is clearly a defective product and not what you expected. Whatever happened to quality control? Had the company adhered to Six Sigma, the chances of this happening would have been quite remote. In Six Sigma, a defect is defined as any process output that does not meet customer specifications, or that could lead to creating an output that does not meet customer specifications.

B. That’s nice of you! There’s no point taking it out on the poor guys at customer care. It’s not their fault that the product has a defect, after all. But had the company adhered to Six Sigma, the chances of this happening would have been quite remote. In Six Sigma, a defect is defined as any process output that does not meet customer specifications, or that could lead to creating an output that does not meet customer specifications.

C. I don’t blame you! A defective product can be quite frustrating. Had the company adhered to Six Sigma, the chances of this happening would have been quite remote. In Six Sigma, a defect is defined as any process output that does not meet customer specifications, or that could lead to creating an output that does not meet customer specifications.

When compared to the original piece of text, or to the click and popup box suggestion, this approach is more thought-provoking and more engaging (and ultimately more effective). It provides meaningful interaction, as opposed to interaction for the sake of it.

So, consider yourself in a position where you have just received content from the client. Going through it you find that you are tempted to use a popup. What do you do? I’ll leave it up to you to figure out the options for this one.

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