Designing interactive virtual classrooms with Jo Cook

 This is another podcast in our series on live online teaching and facilitation. In the podcast, Robin is talking with Jo Cook about designing interactive virtual sessions. They start with what an interactive virtual classroom session looks like and then move into how to design engaging, interactive virtual sessions. This podcast is full of practical tips and ideas about designing more interactive sessions and how to become a better facilitator.   

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Robin: Jo, for you, what does a really interactive virtual classroom session look like?

Jo: Well, the key is interactive. It's also interesting that you mentioned ‘virtual classroom’ because the look of that is around how many people are in that session. I always define a virtual classroom as up to about 10 people. You can stretch it to 12, 12 to 30 or 25-ish, I'd say is a large virtual classroom. Just like having more people face-to-face, it changes the dynamic of the discussion and what you can do and how you relate to individuals as a facilitator and then 30 up to however many, is a webinar and that means you've got much broader interaction with people.

So the interaction part is the key because a lot of people, when they're doing virtual classrooms or any kind of live online sessions for the first time, feel like they're talking at a computer screen, they're on their own, they can't see people and therefore, the interaction is key to get that feedback and feel like you're with them.

Robin: I sort of think of it in terms of the fact that if you had 80 people in a room, which is quite common to get 80 people in a webinar, you're not going to have a discussion with that many people. You might have some random questions thrown in at the end, but no-one's going to actually have a pure discussion. You need to get the numbers down to build the interactions.

Jo: Yes. The interaction that you have in a webinar with 80 people and a virtual classroom with eight people is really quite different. A webinar can still be great for learning, can still be great for interaction with 80 people but the conversation is more broad and certainly you can tailor for the group needs but you can't tailor for the individual needs, like you can with eight or 10 people.

Robin: Eight or 10 people, it's almost like the amount of people you get around a big table. That's even small for a face-to-face group.

Jo: Yes.

Robin: One of the keys is the numbers. How about the interaction word. It's an interesting word in itself, isn't it?

It’s all about connection

Jo: So interaction in a virtual classroom is all about connecting with people and the way you do that is using the technology. So each platform is different. You usually have some kind of feedback emoticons. So that could be a thumbs up, green tick or check mark, a red X for yes or no. You usually have the chat window for people to type in, annotation tools or whiteboard tools for all sorts of creative activities and of course, unmuting your telephone or microphones, so that you can have audio in discussions and breakouts, so you can have those small syndicate rooms.

And interaction can be as quick as a green tick if you agree or you've had this experience or whatever it might be. Or it can be as long as, let's have a 45 minute breakout room and go and do whatever activity, exercise, collaborative project. The interaction bit is key and I like what you say about describing that because there's the technical element such as type in chat, run a poll, whatever it might be but also there's the understanding of what that really means.

Because some people, when they're first learning and experiencing this as trainers will kind of say, isn't that a bit convoluted? And it can really feel that way but the way I try and explain it is, if you don't have the people in front of you, if you don't have their physical body language, you have to break down what you are normally doing face-to-face and rebuild it live online.

So actually you have to know your craft better, plus the technology, so that you can do it live online. Actually, you become a better teacher, trainer, facilitator and designer of that learning through doing it live online, is what I think.

Robin: I think of it a bit like having a bucket on your head and you get some holes through the bucket or lift it up a little bit by the amount of interaction you build. So you can actually reach out beyond your bucket, to be able to connect with people.

Jo: I've got a whole Ned Kelly image in my head now.

Robin: Suppose the bucket idea does evoke Ned Kelly.  I hadn't thought about that before. Sometimes people focus on the tools, rather than what you're doing with the tools as well. Do you actually have any gems of advice about that when you start to think about designing interactions?

Group Interaction

Jo: Good one. So first of all, if you're learning this fairly new and fresh, keep it super simple. Don't worry about breakout rooms because they are a little bit more advanced. Don't even worry necessarily about whiteboards if you're that early in your journey. Focus on the emoticons, the chat window and actually talking to people. Concentrate on those things.

Another thing is to make sure that you are designing in this interactivity and this is where you have to look at the point of, what would I normally do face-to-face and how can I replicate that online? So it could be normally we'd have a discussion at this point and you'd just pose a question and the discussion would be fairly natural but you can't do that as naturally online.

So maybe what you would have to do is pose a closed question, green tick, red cross. Then you might say, well, if you put the green tick in the chat window, please tell me more about X and if you put a red X, Bob, can you unmute and tell us more about such and such? And actually build up the conversation that way.

I think when you're planning this and designing this, if you read any kind of blogs, articles, books, the recommendation is to design and plan a group interaction. So that's for everybody, every three to five minutes. So if you've been talking for five minutes, you need to plan an interaction. So that's the general theory.

I make sure that actually I'm doing that about every two and a half minutes, so that it's constant and that's a little bit different.

Robin: I really like how you've broken down a question that you might normally do face-to-face into smaller interactions, that you build them up over time. I think about it as designing the discussion and scaffolding. Sometimes, in face-to-face, you might actually know that you need to have one part and then move into another part, that you actually really need to think that through online. You're really helping your learners through the process as well.

Design and Scaffolding

Jo: And you're helping yourself through that process. That's the other part of interaction. It's not just for the attendees, to keep them focused. It's not just so that they don't wander off into their email.

It's actually for us as facilitators, so that A, I know that they're there, that's really nice but I know what they're thinking. I know what they're learning. So every time I ask a question and I get those answers in chat, I'm building up a picture of A, who the individuals are, so I can tailor to their needs, but also what they're learning.

Because if they answer with dot, dot, dot, whatever the answer is, question mark, they're unsure of something or if they're short one word answers, as opposed to longer answers maybe, that all tells me something. This is what I call digital body language, taken from the work by Steve Woods. This is how I'm building up a picture of who the people are and what they need and how to then flow that discussion or answer those questions.

Robin: I personally find this concept of digital body language so powerful, you might not have your normal physical presence but there's ways you can actually get connections to people, ways you can turn up as a human, ways you can read what they're doing. 

I'm not familiar with Steve Wood’s work at all. In actual fact, digital body language came to me as a term through marketing, to try to be able to actually read what your potential customers might be doing.

Digital Body Language

Jo: Yes. So that's how Steve Woods used it. So it was back in 2009 and it was around digital marketing and taking the data and the analytics that you have as a person rather than the Google Analytics of how many people on your website, what's the bounce rate, all of that.

So then it's about applying it in different ways. You can apply it to social media. I've got a blog where I apply it to analysing the data about my social media account. There's even a, I think it's, a Udemy course where it helps you with your LinkedIn profile and your online dating profile, about digital body language. So it's a really huge area that you can look at in lots of different ways.

Robin: This is a really lovely use of digital body language, in terms of virtual classrooms and being able to think about, what data am I getting back? How can I read that? All of a sudden, the group doesn't become just the name on the screen or just faces. 

Jo: Yes, and there's a company in the UK called the Conversation Space and they've got a model, I think it's called conversational wisdom and one part of that is about being human. I really like that because we can forget that while live online, we're humans connecting with humans. We just happen to be doing it through technology rather than being in the same place.

The power of chat

Robin: Jo, what's your favourite interaction online?

Jo: I'm going to be awkward and say obviously it depends on what you're trying to achieve. I think probably the chat window and the reason being, it's so versatile. You can have everybody using it at the same time, so they can be chatting quite happily and you don't get that face-to-face, because if you're sitting talking to the person next to you, that's considered rude.

Whereas you can type in the chat window, people can type and you can come to them kind of when you're ready. Also people tell you what they want to tell you, as opposed to when you're reading physical body language, you can misinterpret it. So, yes, of course, you can misinterpret people's language but I think it's much less so because they're typing what they want to say. I love it.

Robin: Oh, that's interesting, both Iona and I come from a visual design background and we use the whiteboard a lot.  

Jo: I love the whiteboard too. It's like asking me to choose my favourite child or something.

Robin: The context is important as well, but we actually did a session today with a team, in Microsoft Teams. We were not familiar with Microsoft Teams.

But exactly what you talked about happened. People asked more questions, added observations. Someone in the group gave a lovely reply to a question about working with video in Teams,  all without my interaction. If we had been using the whiteboard more, I doubt we would have got that cross-participant insight and sharing. I think it was nice to have it in the background and because we have Iona in the room as producer/co-facilitator, in the room as well, she was able to help monitor the chat.  

Jo: I think the producer or co-facilitator could be really good for that. Mike, who's my business operations manager, he's my partner at Lightbulb Moment is also my producer of my sessions. He's really good at either bringing the conversation along or responding to questions, so I don't need to. As well as then maybe alerting me to something if I, I don't usually miss something in chat but if something, a conversation has been going on and I've purposefully ignored it for a time whilst I'm doing something else, I know I can say, hey Mike, so what's the conversation going on in chat at the moment? And he can summarise it. So a producer or co-facilitator can do that really well.

Robin: In terms of designing, for a person who has done a few sessions and now I really want to level up, how would they start to think about designing a different type of session?

Know your Technology

Jo: Good question. So at this point, I'm going to assume that somebody knows their platform, Zoom, Adobe Connect, Office 365, Teams, whatever it might be. That they know it fairly well and they're reasonably comfortable with it and they've done a few sessions and they know that they need to have a bit more of this interaction. They need to, just as you say, level up and be more confident, more comfortable, a bit more variety.

The way that I look at this is with a facilitator guide or a session plan, lesson guide, whatever you want to call it and that really helps me design my sessions well. So whatever document you have, it's about the detail. On my blog, I do have one you can download, you can go and download my one and use it, use bits of it, whatever you want to do.

But for me, the key is making sure that whatever my slide is and my key point is, I've got that key point, whether it's a script or a bullet point there. Maybe my question, I always have that in a different colour, so that even if I know my material and I'm not really following the guide that much, the question jumps out at me, because that's the interactive point.

But also what I do is, I have a column in my Word document which highlights which of the platform tools I'm using, is it chat, whiteboard poll, et cetera? So I don't script out, please type in the chat window. I just have the icon there. So it's just a screen grab from Adobe Connect or something. Just a tiny little icon.

And what that does is a few things. One, when we're talking, we can't read. The same part of the brain can't process that. So by having it as a picture, I can just glance and go, it's a white board or it's a poll or whatever. So I can process that really quickly, and they don't have to script out the please type in chat. I can just do that much more naturally in my conversation.

But the other thing as well is that, when I then look through my Word document of however many pages, if I see chat, chat, chat, it's like, oh, there's going to be a little bit of tool fatigue here. I'll change that one. I'll have a green tick, red X question, and then I'll lead that into, let's have open microphones. Oh, this actually would be great as a whiteboard. So that really allows me to see the variety of tools that I'm using.

And then the last bit is, I actually time out each of my slides down to the 30 seconds, if that's appropriate for the timing and have a cumulative time on each page. Some people look at that and go, oh my God, I normally do this in half day chunks and you're doing down to that 30 seconds. So it's not right for everyone.

But what this really allows me to do is plan and it means that anybody picking up my materials knows whether this is a quick slide for an introduction to the topic or whether it's a 10 minute activity. Again, that really helps me with the interaction because in my first draft, I wrote something the other day and my first draft was all the content dump stuff and I looked through it and I timed it out at something like six minutes of content dump. Well, I obviously can't do this because I'm breaking my own rule.

So I just went back and went here's my questions, here's my whiteboard and suddenly mapped that out and it was much more interactive and had a much better flow.

Robin: A couple of lovely strategies there. First of all, the visual clues about when you're actually using the tool, the mapping out, which means you can rapidly see the flow. The timing one, that's remarkable, Jo.

Timing and Mapping Strategies

Jo: A bit much for some people. There are different ways of doing this, of course and you've got to find the way that's right for you and your team when you're working on something. But I've done a lot of work for a lot of different companies over the years. I used to get some facilitator guides through, it would have the slide, it would have what the facilitator is doing, it would have what the producer is doing if there is one.

And it might have it in a 20 minute block. So you've got five,10, 20 slides, whatever it is to get through in your time block. And that was great but I always worried within that 10 or 20 minute block was I ahead or behind time? Because time disappears quickly live online as you know. And that really worried me because I wanted to make sure I was doing justice to the right learning points, as they were designed but also not rushing and not being behind time.

So by having that on each slide the way I've done it, I don't stick to that timing. I go all over the place but it gives me an idea of where I should be and that's different.

Robin: What I personally suggest, I even do it with our webinars, I need to be at this slide at the 40 minutes mark. As I'm delivering it, I can realise when I’m behind and I’m where I need to pick up some time. 

Jo: And that's the thing if you've put the effort into it or someone's put the effort into it and each one of those learning points, in theory, should be important that you cover. So therefore, if you plan the timing well enough and the interaction, theory is a good place to be, you should be able to cover most or all of those to some degree. Rather than dropping something and there's always challenges, there's always differences, different groups but if it's in the course or the programme or the session, it's probably important and if you're dropping it, maybe it didn't need to be there. Maybe that's an opportunity to update the design of the whole course, the whole blend and maybe put that as a video or a resource. I don't know. Just an idea.

Robin: In sessions, we have two or three slides or a section that can be skipped over if we don't have time.

Jo: Exactly. It's a ‘nice to have.’

Robin: Yes, nice to have rather than a need to have. We don't always have that luxury, when we're actually in a learning experience.  You do need to get through the material and if all of a sudden you're going over time, that's not a great experience for anyone.

If someone's listening to this podcast and they're sitting there going, oh, I wonder how I could actually just really be a really different type of online facilitator and to level up, what could they do? What should they do? What's your gem of advice about that?

Jo: I think maybe one thing would be to see if you can get on lots of different webinars, lots of different online sessions and experience different personalities, different people, different styles, different software. I still do this because the way I do something is the way I think it should be done but what do other people think? What do they do? What can I learn from them?

I think our own personality and style needs to come into this all the time, as well as trying to moderate and modify that to the audience and the need. So sometimes in my sessions, for instance, people say, well, can we have longer breakout rooms? Actually, yes, of course we can. I just do really short ones because we've not got that much time and so I think having that experience and that variety is really important.

Another one I always say, know your software, whatever your platform is, know it inside out. The more you know that and the more confident you are with it, actually, the better you will be at design, the better you will be at facilitation and that will make you a different kind of facilitator.

I know the difference between the first six months when I was facilitating, where everything was read off a script, every click almost was written out, to now where I feel like, do you know what? If it all goes wrong, if I don't have slides, whatever happens, I'll go with it. I'll wing it, I'll be fine. It might not be the best session, but it will be okay.

I think that kind of experience really comes into it and after that, it's those design elements that we talked about earlier on. Make sure you've got tonnes of slides, tonnes of interaction as is appropriate to the learning and get that feedback from people. Dive into that digital body language because that will make a real difference.

Robin: Thank you, Jo, for a lovely wrap up. Just one more question. If people want to hunt you out online, what's the best way to find you?

Jo: So you can find me on Twitter @LightbulbJo, Jo Cook on LinkedIn. You can have a look at lightbulbmoment.community for my free community podcast and resources and of course, there's lightbulbmoment.online if your team needs training or anything like that