Article published in Training Magazine.

Relying on learners to set up and use their own machine introduces a host of complications that ultimately will derail even the most prepared virtual instructor. Article Author: David Hand, Vice President, Orasi

In today’s COVID-sensitive climate, organizations are rushing to move their in-person software training to online, virtual delivery. However, most have very limited experience when it comes to virtual training. So in their haste, they simply copy the in-person content to a cloud server and use a standard Web conference application (such as Zoom or Webex) to broadcast the instructor’s screen. While this might work for presentation-only classes, this approach is a recipe for disaster when it comes to hands-on training. Doing so usually results in a watered-down, highly ineffective “data dump.”

In a hands-on training class, students need a properly configured environment in order to follow along with the instructor and to complete practice exercises. Relying on the learners to set up and use their own machine introduces a host of complications that ultimately will derail even the most prepared instructor.

5 Blunders When Moving Software Training Online

To ensure your virtual, hands-on training class is highly successful and effective, here are five mistakes you need to be careful NOT to make:

1. “I can just use the Web conferencing software we already have.”

The most common mistake is thinking that using Zoom or Webex is good enough. While these Web conferencing applications are valuable and have some compelling features, they aren’t sufficient if the class requires learners to do hands-on work. They also don’t allow instructors to monitor student progress during hands-on exercises.

Instead, complement or replace the Web conferencing system with virtual training software that manages preconfigured, dedicated training environments for all participants, including both instructors and students. Instructors use their labs to teach and students use their environments for practice exercises.

The best virtual training applications use secure, cloud-based resources that are spun up and down dynamically based on either a class schedule or at the instructor’s discretion. Students then access these environments remotely and need only a Web browser and an Internet connection. Ideally, these labs should be built from reusable templates so it’s easy to create a class from preconfigured environments.

2. “I’ll just have the students install the application software before class.”

Another easy mistake is to think you can use student machines to avoid the work and expense in setting up class-specific environments. However, asking students to install software and copy lab files before the class is a time bomb waiting to explode. Students often forget to do the preparation work or don’t have adequate machine-level permissions to install software themselves. This results in costly delays during class time to get everyone up to the same point.

Instead, use a virtual training lab students can access remotely. This lets the instructors confirm the setup before class starts, eliminating the individual configuration that can delay class. Also, students most likely will only need a browser or standard RDP connectivity to access the remote labs so they don’t need any administrative privilege on their machine. This even normally avoids potential networking issues where corporate firewalls might block required access.

3. “I’ll be able to cover all the same material as I did teaching in person.”

While it’s easy to understand why, instructors should avoid the lazy tendency to simply reuse the existing training materials as-is. In most cases, you simply can’t cover the same amount of material in a virtual session as you can in a face-to-face session of the same length. In addition, virtual classes typically need to be split up into multiple, smaller sessions to accommodate in-class breaks.

One popular technique is to divide the class into smaller instructional sessions followed by “offline” sessions where the students perform class exercises. The instructor can still monitor student progress in real time, though, and should have a communication channel open for conversation and questions. Also, while it’s often desirable to use an on-screen drawing program for annotations, be sure to prepare “canned” versions of all whiteboard drawings to be made available as permanent handouts (e.g., PowerPoint slides or graphics).

4. “I’m sure my students will know how to use the virtual training systems.”

While you might use a virtual training system every day, for most students this is not something they do very often. So don’t assume they will immediately understand your new virtual training environment. Also, if they are attending the training from a home office, they may not have the proper Internet connectivity to support your virtual environment.

One practice I always recommend is to conduct a training “Open House” prior to the actual class date. Set aside an afternoon where you open the training environment so students can login (at their convenience) for a 10-minute test that makes sure they can connect and know how to start up their virtual lab resources. You can even make this a fun activity with virtual prizes such as “free” quiz answers or fun backgrounds for their lab images.

5. “I’ll be able to tell when my students need help.”

When training face-to-face, instructors can watch students’ faces for visual cues about whether they’re engaged and comprehending the material. Students also can easily raise their hand or ask a question when they’re stumped. In a virtual world, however, there are no visual cues and trying to ask a question while the instructor is sharing their screen can be difficult.

Instead, be sure to use virtual training software that allows students to electronically “raise their hand.” The instructor should be notified when there is a question pending, so he or she can work in the question at the appropriate time without disturbing the flow of the class.

Also, make sure the virtual training software allows the instructor to monitor what all of the students are doing in real time. Some have an “over-the-shoulder” view that displays the student machines as thumbnails in a gallery so the instructor can monitor student progress and “zoom in” and even take control when someone needs help.

In summary, just remember that hands-on training is not a presentation. Treating it like a simple presentation with traditional Web conferencing apps alone introduces a host of problems for your instructors and will waste valuable time and money. Also, without planning for interactivity in your class, students will be easily bored and retention will plummet. Avoid the mistakes listed above and you’ll have a much better chance at delivering effective online classes where students retain the knowledge they gained during class.

David Hand is vice president at Orasi, a DevSecOps innovator enabling the acceleration, security, and adoption of software applications through automation. Headquartered in Kennesaw, GA, Orasi works with hundreds of global brands, including Fortune 500 companies, in a variety of industries.