An insider’s look at what it takes to conduct a remote learning experience online.
It was Day 1 of my Remote Skillsfuture for the Digital Workplace (RSFDW) programme. Since it was my debut session as an online facilitator, a few of my colleagues offered to observe the session to see what could be improved for future runs.
There were many good points and feedback provided at the end of the programme, but what struck me the most was a feedback from my dear colleague, Eng Eng.
“You know what, Esther? You should consider using a glass to drink water from,” she said.
“Er… why?” I asked, bemused.
“You have an elegant look (Why, thank you!), it just doesn’t go down well to see you hold a huge water bottle to drink from during the session, where all participants could see it too. Try switching to a less conspicuous glass. Something to match the image.”
I burst out in incredulous laughter. At that moment, it seemed implausible that anyone would care about the kind of receptacle I was using to drink from.
My “unelegant” water bottle.
But as I gave it more thought, I realised that just as we make effort to dress for the role as workshop facilitators in face-to-face contexts, why shouldn’t the same kind of attention be paid to how we present ourselves in remote learning settings? These days, our engagement is pretty much bound by what we could fit into the rectangular display screens of the participants’ laptops or mobile phones. And believe me, when people are looking through screens that small, you want to make everything that they can see count.
And thus began my reflection on what it takes to hold meetings or workshops online. I’ve learnt so much from the past few months of intensive onboarding of the RSFDW programme.
Here are some of my takeaways, presented with a touch of my usual lame humour. I am hoping that in your weak “Hahas” you will have a resounding “Ah ha!” 🤪
Be mindful of the aesthetics of your environment (and you).
The design team at ROHEI suggested that facilitators could put meaningful objects in our background so that we could use them as talking points if participants would ever like to find out more about us. (As if!)
When I first heard of this, I thought, ‘Easy peasy!’
I proceeded to buy a few photo frames from IKEA, framed up some pretty calendar cut outs that I simply adore and have kept for a long time (that’s my interpretation of ‘meaningful objects’), and collected all of my memorabilia from around the house and laid them all out behind me.
I proudly showed them to my colleague who was tasked with the curation of my background.
“Erm… Esther, maybe you might want to just put items that are meaningful to you in the background,” she said, tentatively.
“But, they are ALL meaningful to me!” I said as I gestured towards the rows and rows of objects I’ve attempted to line up fashionably on the table behind me.
She gave me a withering look…
Eventually, we whittled down the objects to the few that you could see in the photos in this article. And I must say, it definitely looks more professional now. The effect of the lit table lamp behind was legit lit too! (Gen Zs could probably get the pun. I think.)
Me, my “meaningful”background, and the “inconspicuous yet elegant” glass. (Yes yes yes, the concept of elegance is relative but that’s the only kind of glass I have at home so… 🤐 )
As I was scrambling to set up the background, I realised that maybe I should get this colleague to vet my training attire too! I mean, if even my water bottle got scrutinised, what more my outfit, right??? So I said, “Hey Chrina (yes, that’s the poor gal who had to patiently endure my sentimental nonsense), do you think you could take a look at my outfits too?”
“Er… yeah, sure!” She was probably wondering what she just got herself into.
What ensued was a half hour of me running back and forth from the study to the wardrobe like a mad woman, as I took pieces to show her. To be extra sure, we decided that I should actually put on those clothing and sit in front of the camera for a good sensing.
I really felt like I was Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada”, showing my clothes for Meryl Streep’s approval, only that Chrina is sugar and spice and all things nice (with the ability to give withering looks when necessary!).
It wasn’t until the 3rd outfit change that it dawned upon me, ‘This isn’t the same as changing clothes in a face-to-face setting!’
You see, when you are changing clothes with company present physically, you would excuse yourself and head to a room where you could privately change. But in those early days of using ZOOM for communication, it was so easy to forget about the existence of the camera! Even though you have left the computer, the camera is still on and people watching from the other end of the conversation could still see everything….
So there I was, trying to pull up this pair of tights, only to realise that Chrina was looking intently at my half-dressed state. Of course she was just focusing on my outfit, and as my grandma used to say, ‘Nothing that you have that I don’t have!’
Needless to say, I was aghast. The only saving grace was I had on a pair of decent undies. Sorry you had to see that Chrina! Urgh!
This leads me to the following point:
Be camera-aware! It is something that you will develop over time as you facilitate more and more online sessions. It might help for you to demarcate in your space the limits of the camera’s vision, so that you would know which zone is safe for doing embarrassing stuff, and which aren’t. (Useless fact: I frequently dance in the safe zone during breaks.)
Functionality and Hacks
When one of the bosses first suggested that we use a table that is 80cm deep for our remote learning set up, I balked.
Why would we need such a deep table anyway? Do you know how bulky that table would be? Besides, most laptops are around 23cm in width anyway. Won’t a standard 60cm-deep table suffice?
But I’m a good kid, so I listen to the boss. (Most of the time.) I got myself an 80cm-deep study table for my set up, and boy! Was I glad! Check out the following photo to understand why.
Turns out there are lots of stuff that you need to put on the table for a smoother training experience. You have your:
- Extended monitor
- Ring light
- External keyboard (to accommodate that elevated laptop)
- Engagement Props
- Programme Timeline
You also need to factor in space to accommodate all of the cables from all of the tech paraphernalia, and also space to manoeuvre your mouse. Try fitting that all on a 120cm x 60cm table.
On training days, I actually have to use my husband’s table next to mine, to place my water jug and glass, and a chair to place any other items that I need readily on hand.
I find that having an office chair that allows you to stretch backwards help a lot in easing back pain too, especially if you have to sit down for long stretches of time.
And here’s the hack:
- If you are fortunate enough to have a say of where your work table is, consider putting it next to a wall. That way, you could have a permanent “notice board” for your post-its, or simply a place to hang stuff like a whiteboard. You could even cut out boards from boxes and use them as mobile notice boards. Just lean them against the wall. (Huh, who knew a wall can be so useful!)
- Need to recite some statements for the participants during the programme, but they are simply too long to remember? No sweat! Just stick them onto your laptop, anywhere near the camera hole or on anything behind it. I post mine onto the ring light behind the laptop. (Thank you, Angel, for this tip!)
Now, mind you, these recommendations are for people who are conducting remote learning experiences for the long term as the set up described here does require certain investment. So, if you do not see the need for such a move, then yes, anywhere in the house with a computer/mobile phone, a table and a chair would do. You can even climb atop a tree, if that is your thing.
Engage. Engage. Engage.
I think many of us were concerned about how the participant engagement level would be like once we move onto the online platform. The way to overcome this challenge was addressed by my colleagues Praise and Aline in the recent Adult Learning Symposium. You’d have to attend the symposium to know the strategies in detail. (No free lunches yeah?)
While they offered the macro look on how the remote learning experience could be enhanced, I would like to offer my personal experience at a more micro level — how to facilitate in an engaging way.
- Always remember that participants can only see what the camera shows. So make sure all hand gestures are kept within the boundaries of the camera view. This point was frequently emphasised to us during our dry runs by our resident “Quality Check Inspector”. (Yes, we have someone doing this very dry BUT IMPORTANT task of ensuring quality across all facilitators and programmes, and No, that title is not real… something for the team to consider though… No? Ok. Fine.)
- Use a name list to keep track of who you’ve engaged with.
The above point was actually a suggestion given by one of my colleagues, Wen-Wei. When he suggested this, I thought, ‘Huh! Not going to be a problem for me! I remember faces well. Besides, the name list will just slow me down.’ Bad move. Right at my first remote learning facilitation, I learnt the errors of my way.
You see, on the online platform, your participants are not permanently “fixed” onto a particular part of the video screen. These squares tend to “move” about as participants with weaker internet connections tend to drop in and out of the session. So if you are relying on calling off names row by row, guess what? You might end up calling on the same people twice.
So there I was, inviting participant X to share her reflections, only to have her say, “Er… I just shared just now.” Oops! It happened again later on because these people just wouldn’t stay where they are on my screen! Argh! I mean, pick a spot people! If you have chosen to be at the top right of my screen, STAY THERE!
Unfortunately, I find online participants being unreasonably uncooperative in this matter. Tsk! Whereas, in real life, you don’t really see people changing their seats once seated at a particular space. In fact once they have settled in that seat, it would probably be the same seat that they take for the next few days of training. (Ever noticed that?) Times have changed… (Jokes aside, if anyone has a way to remedy this problem, please do share!)
- Silence online is unnerving. Avoid it as much as possible. When you are in a face-to-face session, there’s never really complete silence. There’s either the ambient sounds coming from the venue, or chatter from your fellow participants. But online, when everyone’s microphone is muted, and only yours is on, silence can be quite awkward. (UNLESS, it was allowed for the purpose of wait time, to give participants time to think of their responses.)
When do these pockets of awkward silence happen? They could appear at the following times:
- When participants are waiting for each other to log on to the meeting.
- When a facilitator is fiddling with the various keys and and toggling between the windows on their computer. Have you ever seen someone trying to toggle the screen, and they took about 10 seconds to do that without saying anything, thinking that you would probably understand what they are trying to do, but it turns out that the whole time you were wondering, “What’s going on??”
Based on our experience during the multiple dry runs that we have conducted, we realised that what helps would be:
- Stream background music to fill that space. Avoid using the free Spotify account as the advertisements that appear in between songs can make it disorientating. The participants might be wondering, ‘Is that my facilitator talking? Why does he sound like he is selling me something? Why does he sound like he is in an advertisement? Wait… oh… this is an advertisement…’ Nuh uh, we don’t want that kind of experience for our clients.
- Explain aloud what you are doing as you fiddle with buttons at your end. This helps the participants to make sense of what is going on. This was previously not an issue during FTF workshops but here we are!
Five months ago, when we all had to be onboarded for the remote learning experience, we didn’t know what to expect. It was a steep learning curve and I’ve learnt many invaluable lessons and good practices from my colleagues. Some of them who were initially daunted by the prospect of having to master technology adequately to facilitate an online learning experience courageously took on the challenge, and what an inspiration they have been. (You know who you are!)
Beyond all the tips and stories that I’ve shared, I think there are two things that I find truly essential for a successful remote learning facilitation experience — having an open-mind and being willing to keep learning. With these two, the sky is the limit.
Now if you’d excuse me, I have a remote learning session to prepare for. Woohoo! (Yes, I love what I do!)