The (accidental) virtual trainer – Adults going back to school. How to prepare for an online course!

I recently taught a course online with an ‘older’ student (actually, they were younger than I am, but they were feeling ‘older’… I know the feeling!)  They were very concerned about the different technology being used, and not being ‘with it’ like the younger, 30 something students.  It is a common fear – ‘fear of the unknown’.

Nicholas Carleton highlighted this, wondering if it might be the ‘One fear to rule them all’ (something for the Tolkien fans out there!) In his article, published in 2016 in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, he references the concept of the ‘fundamental fears’ which can defined within a set of criterion. In the case of my student, these came in the form of an emotional response to the unfamiliar technology and remote learning environment.  It is all too common and can be really limiting when we realize that so much training, while still ‘face to face’, is now in the online ‘face to face’ environment.

In the continuing ‘pivot’ we’re experiencing as we move to operate in a ‘covid-normal’ world, we see that online learning, and hybrid learning, are here to stay.  If you haven’t already participated in an online training activity, it is likely you will… so how can you prepare?  I have delivered many online courses over the past 20 months or so, and from my experience I’ve found 5 key points that may help you prepare.

1 – Recognize the fearWe know that fear is part of us, and it is actually a valuable response to have, recognize and manage.  Accept that fear, and you are on your way to overcoming it.  Don’t hold it in, don’t pretend it doesn’t exist.  Tell the instructor, tell your manager who is sending you on the course, tell your partner, tell your cat – once you corral your fear with words it loses much of its power.

2 – Do your homeworkWere you one of those people who liked homework?  Well, neither was I.  But it really did help me to learn.  I still remember a project I did in the 9th grade on my family tree – I may have hated doing the homework, but I appreciated being better prepared for the presentation.  I am now at the age where I am passing on the information of the family to my own children and I’m still prepared, thanks to my homework so long ago.  Prepare for the course, take the time to review the pre-reading, get familiar with the tools that will be used.  If there is an online learning management system you need to use, check your access is set up, sign in and explore the site.  If there is an app on your phone you will be expected to use, download the app and give it a try.  If you have never used Zoom, or Collaborate, or Teams, or Webex, or any of the other online group communication programs, go online and read up about the technology that will be used.  Often there are even short videos that can walk you through the basics.  By learning about the technology, you will be learning to overcome that fear!

3 – Prepare your ‘study’ environmentWhere will you be joining the course from? It may be your dining room table, your bedroom, or a home office – I even had someone join for a session from their car since there was too much going on in the house!  Ideally, though, try to find a space where you will be comfortable working on a keyboard and screen, potentially for an extended period of time.  Light level is important – try to arrange a light that is behind your screen, not behind your head!  The benefit of ‘camera on’ online training is that you can really see each other (sometimes a bit too close up for comfort… is that spinach caught in my teeth?).  If you can’t have a ‘clean’ background, try using the virtual backgrounds.  If that takes too much bandwidth, put up a curtain.  Just remember, you don’t want your kids running around in their PJs behind your camera when you are on course!  Think about the background noise – are you on a busy road, near a police station? Are there really loud birds outside your window (that is an experience I had where the local magpie teenage gang decided to sit outside my window while I was teaching – talk about loud!). Having a bit of space around the keyboard for a pad of paper and pen may help, so you can take notes the ‘old fashioned way’ if you like.  Oh – and remember to plug in the laptop… How many times have you been in the middle of a call and realized you were out of power???

4 – Make the timeIf you were to go to a ‘physical’ course in a training centre, you would block out the time in your calendar.  You would cancel that quick morning standup meeting since you would be physically in a different location, maybe even a different city.  It’s no different for online training.  Make the effort to make the time – block out your calendar, let your colleagues, family and friends know you are on training.  The joy of online training is that you don’t need to travel, book hotels, or worry about parking tickets – but this also means you may be expected to participate in other online meetings during the course.  Learn to say ‘No’.  This is training time, this is time for you to grow and learn, and it’s that simple.

5 – Adapt to the challenges No one is perfect.  We know that nothing will ever go exactly as planned – so we need to be adaptable.  What would happen if you are online in the middle of the course and your wifi decides to cut out?  What now?  Well, be prepared to adapt with a hot spot from your phone (so maybe arrange for extra data on your phone ‘just in case’).  Your dog may decide he has to go out – right now!  Or the kids may need you despite your efforts to have then settled – we have all been there.  A quick note in the chat box, pop off your camera and go on mute for a minute to deal with the crisis.  As an online trainer I actually enjoy having the children drop in for a visit during the course, or to get to know the family fur-baby.  I have been known to teach with a cat sitting on my shoulder (she gets really needy about 1400 every day and would cry if I didn’t hold her).  For me it is ‘letting the fun happen’.  It is one of the joys of teaching and learning online.  Being adaptable and learning to enjoy these short insights into our lives helps bring a feeling of connectedness that we may miss.  We can’t go for a cuppa together during break, but we can share in the fun of learning online.

“Let the fun happen”

So, while we may all have the fear of the unknown, it doesn’t need to be that ‘one fear to rule us all’ – we can take control, take action, and prepare ourselves for an exciting and rewarding training session.  Everyone is different, every course is different.  The opportunities are to be embraced, not feared, but it may take a bit of preparation and willingness to ‘let go’ and adapt.  The digital transformation of education and training is pretty exciting, and we can all benefit! 

Stayed tuned… I will take a closer look at sequencing to support online learning – the ‘S’ in the STICK model.  

Jillian Carson-Jackson M.Ed, FRIN, FNI

14 November 2021