virtual classroom imgNicola Tyzack, Organisational Development Administrator at the National Autistic Society, chats about the benefits and challenges of using virtual classrooms – and gives her top tips for success.

How long have you been using virtual classrooms?

We’ve been using WebEx functionality for several years. It started on an ad-hoc basis with some teams using it for a short information session or meeting. The first time I used it properly was when we rolled out Moodle in the National Autistic Society (NAS).

What prompted the idea?

One of the people in the NAS who has promoted the use of WebEx technology quite highly is my colleague Chris who is our health and safety manager. He is very keen on being as environmental as possible and accessing an online session, rather than travelling across the country, fits into that bracket nicely. We decided to use it to roll out Moodle when we joined the Charity Learning Consortium around six years ago (I think!) as it seemed like a really good way of advertising the site and getting lots of people involved. We could also do an online demo and show people what we were doing.

What are the benefits? Any disadvantages?

I think there are lots of benefits to using a virtual system. The environmental side is one of them and also when you have a diverse organisation with remote workers it works well, as it means not everyone has to be in one place. It’s ‘in time’ training as well – I hope people find it easier to schedule in an hour for a virtual session rather than using a whole day for a classroom session.

Disadvantages are mainly around connection and use of technology. I find that the issues I have are getting people logged in on time for a session and the fear factor of doing something new. A lot of staff steer away from it as they feel uncertain about using it. Once they have participated in a session they usually find it a lot easier the next time round.

How have they been received?

It was a slow process at first, especially getting people used to this new way of working, but it now seems to be an accepted form of training for us. As someone actually delivering, it was pretty daunting to start with as there is quite a lot you need to focus on when running a solo session, but I can definitely say it gets easier each time you do it! I now really enjoy delivering sessions and look forward to planning new ones.

How difficult did you find it to set up your first virtual classroom session? What tips can you give to first time users?

I feel like I’ve done so many sessions now, I can’t remember what the first one was… It was probably around the use of Moodle in some respect. The first time you are running anything it will be a bit scary and feel uncomfortable, but you learn the skills as you go along and the more you do it the easier it becomes. So if at first it doesn’t go well, just take away the positives to build on and work on the negative stuff to improve it.

 “One of my best pieces of feedback was from a colleague who said ‘I don’t remember any of the other WebEx sessions I’ve attended, but I remember yours’”.

What three tips would you pass on to others about using virtual classrooms Eg Do you have to present in a different manner to face to face?

  • When you are presenting a virtual session it is slightly different to face to face learning. You need all the trainer skills with a little bit extra on top! You don’t have the same interaction aspect as when you are able to actually see that someone is drifting off in the corner. The technology does give you some prompts though (you can see when someone has clicked away from the page) but you need to keep the interaction going throughout your session and make sure your attendees are with you. Using icebreakers and activities at regular intervals is recommended as well as things like keeping the tone of voice engaging and asking questions.
  • Learning the technology is probably the most important part as if you don’t feel confident with it, it will show in your sessions.
  • For me, slides are extremely important so make sure they are engaging, relevant to the learning and not text heavy.
  • Most of all, have some fun with it. I use humour a lot and try to be as engaging as possible with my learners as I believe they will have a better experience if they join in and enjoy what they are learning. One of my best pieces of feedback was from a colleague who said “I don’t remember any of the other WebEx sessions I’ve attended, but I remember yours”.

And finally…what’s your greatest challenge using learning technologies at work…

Infrastructure, networking, lack of access. Probably the same as elsewhere to be honest. We are working hard to improve in these areas though and it is getting better. We also offer support to staff who perhaps might not feel comfortable with using technologies as part of their work.

And what excites you about the future of learning technologies?

MOOC’s are something I want to look into, I just haven’t had a chance to find one to do yet. I find the concept of wearable technology interesting and think that this is probably something that will take off more in the future. In a work environment, probably building on using things like interactive tables and whiteboards and more around virtual learning.

National Autistic Society fact file
Number of staff at The National Autistic Society: Approx 3,500Number of Volunteers: Approx 1,250Number of offices/locations: Approx 140 (includes services, schools and offices)The National Autistic Society eLearning Zone has had more than 5,920 logins to date – a fantastic increase from 4,100 registered at the end of October 2013. This is made up of staff and volunteers as well as the people the NAS supports, so there’s a great diversity and variety of people undertaking eLearning.The National Autistic Society is the leading UK charity for people with autism (including Asperger syndrome) and their families. With the help of members, supporters and volunteers it provides information, support and pioneering services, and campaigns for a better world for people with autism.Around 700,000 people in the UK have autism. Together with their families they make up over 2.7 million people whose lives are touched by autism every single day. From good times to challenging times, The National Autistic Society is there at every stage, to help transform the lives of everyone living with autism.We are proud of the difference we make.