Conversations from Q: Focus, fatigue, and online learning

(L-R) Deepa Vijayan and James Félix from Quantico, in discussion with workshop participant Letitia Tan

Now that we know online learning is going to be a big part of what we do at Quantico, it’s time to examine the learning environment in more detail. Our instructors and instructional design experts started by researching advice and tips, which sparked a conversation to deal with focus and fatigue when delivering training online: what works and what doesn’t.

Deepa Vijayan:
I’ve been reading about delivery methods in online workshops and one thing that strikes me is the number of tools that everyone talks about — there are so many out there, lists and lists of platforms and online tools that are meant to make learning more engaging. I have nothing against any particular tool, but am wondering how many of these platforms we really need, and whether we need to cram so many into an online workshop.

James Félix:
Maybe we should think about how interactivity and engagement happen in any learning setting, and determine whether a particular platform tool is suitable or not.

DV:
You’ve often pointed out how important it is to engage learners from the start of a session, to draw people into conversation from the beginning. The energy is definitely different when we train through a screen and we know that things like Zoom fatigue are real, so I’m experimenting with delivery methods. For example, I’ve found that alternating between sitting and standing helps to keep that level of energy up.

JF:
Because we generally stand when we are training people in person.

DV:
I’d find it very difficult to conduct in-person training and be seated the whole time, so it makes sense to stand during an online workshop too.

JF:
I think it’s probably important to note that there’s two potential reasons for an online delivery format. One is as a necessary substitute for face-to-face training, such as those situations brought about by COVID-19, issues with venues, or other factors that are beyond our control. The second situation comes from a conscious decision, whether for convenience, accessibility, or any other reason, which then gives rise to an ‘online-by-design’ session. In the first scenario, it’s necessary to adapt existing training methods and delivery, sometimes at short notice, whereas in the second scenario things can be planned out more meticulously. However, just as some of the characteristics of effective teaching and delivery are common to both the online and in-person fields, it often helps to maintain some continuity of practices and habits in both settings. It can help to anchor both facilitator and participant, and it seems like standing during an online workshop, because you would stand in the face-to-face session, could be one of those points of continuity.

DV:
What about all those online tools and platforms, what do you think? Will they help bring that level of energy to online workshops?

JF:
My first instinct is to give the same answer as if the question didn’t include the ‘online’ modifier. Tools are easy to talk about because you can just list them off, but engagement, relevance, subject expertise, knowledge, enthusiasm, and willingness to learn are important in any sort of learning environment.

DV:
Exactly. The underlying principles are the same, and the delivery needs to adapt to the platform to ensure that we can bring those things to an online learning environment. As you say, simply listing tools or adding tools to an online workshop isn’t enough; we can’t throw more platforms at the problem. Look at shopping — it’s been a social act even before social media. People went to the market, they chatted, they formed relationships with sellers, they traded tips on what to cook for dinner. Shopping malls are the same; we browse, we eat, we don’t just shop. Of course we could go in just to buy something, but by its design, it’s a social space as well. Our in-person sessions, have that social, relaxed element to them. That brings a level of energy to the space that was enjoyable and pleasant for our learners. I think we need to acknowledge that online learning is going to be different to in-person learning in some ways, while staying similar in others, and we need to accept that this mode of delivery is here to stay.

JF:
This article popped up on LinkedIn, and it speaks to the issue of making online learning more effective as a long-term solution rather than just ‘emergency remote teaching’. Those nine dimensions of modality are interesting to look into.

DV:
This stands out to me: “Careful planning for online learning includes not just identifying the content to cover but also carefully tending to how you’re going to support different types of interactions that are important to the learning process. This approach recognizes learning as both a social and a cognitive process, not merely a matter of information transmission.”

JF:
Simply taking the same material that’s used in person and transmitting it online is not going to work. There’s more to learning than just hearing what an instructor has to say; we need to create what the article calls “an ecosystem of learner supports.”

DV:
Which brings us back to the tools. A lot of the advice out there seems to be that this ecosystem will be created by using these tools, but we know that’s not the case.

JF:
I’d take a slightly different approach. I think the ecosystem will, in part, be created by these tools, but in the same way a piece of wooden furniture is created by tools. It is the responsibility of the carpenter to know what each tool does, use that knowledge to select the right tool for the job, use their skill to employ the tool in the correct manner, and by using these tools they then shape and join the wood to create the piece outlined in the plan. In this example, the wood is the content and the plan represents the objectives. No educator can simply throw tools together with little thought or planning and expect successful content delivery, and no learner wants to be bombarded with gimmicks that serve very little use. It is the responsibility of the instructional designer or the instructor to know the tools and platforms available, choose those which will aid in delivering the specific content to the specific learners, and use them competently for their chosen purpose.

After this conversation, we decided to ask a learner for her perspective. Letitia Tan has attended an in-person public workshop, an in-person customised workshop, and an online workshop at Quantico, so she’s in a good position to compare delivery methods and share her perspective.

Deepa Vijayan:
We’ve been working on making online workshops more engaging and less tiring, and I’ve heard from a lot of people that the online delivery mode can cause fatigue. It’s actually a different level of intensity from a trainer’s perspective to. You mentioned breakout rooms helped you to engage more; what was it about them?

Letitia Tan:
My mind tends to wander after 15 to 20 minutes — I do this when I listen to podcasts, watch presentations where speakers are engaging and speaking about things I’m interested in. Nothing against you or other Quantico speakers! It’s been a while since I had to listen and download information from someone else this way that it takes a bit of adjusting. The break out rooms provide a nice switch to refocus while doing a different activity.

DV:
My personal concern has been that in online settings, breakout rooms feel isolating — but maybe that’s my perspective as a trainer. I’m used to having people in a large group in front of me, so it feels strange to send everyone off.

LT:
The break out rooms are really like the small groups we break into at in-person workshops for me. I thought you were simply bringing that experience online and didn’t find it isolating at all (although I see how it’s completely different from your point of view).

DV:
How do you guys start the conversation in breakout rooms, is there any awkwardness, and do you feel that it works to help you get to know the other participants?

LT:
It does get awkward, but that’s pretty on par with an in-person workshop! We re-introduce ourselves. It helps to have the task to refer to (I think this was introduced in one of the later workshops, but honestly can’t remember!) and that the tasks are broken down well so even if there’s a weird lull, I’ll just repeat it, see if anyone has ideas to move forward and if not, suggest something small to start. It’s more awkward when my group finished the exercise early once! There was definitely an “Errrr should we stay here/what now?” moment. But the room was closed soon enough. It’s a little strange when you pop in, just cos it’s so sudden and I guess the downside is that we have to hold our questions for later if you’ve already left.

DV:
Thank you, Letitia, for your candid thoughts. As a trainer, I need to be able to step outside my perspective and understand yours as a learner. It’s a different world from where you’re sitting, and I appreciate you letting me into it!

We like having these conversations at Quantico, because they help trainers and learners to negotiate the changes that are taking place in the learning space. While they seem to raise more questions than answers, this complexity must be embraced by training providers and educators. We’re less than a year into one of the most significant events this generation has experienced, so it’s neither useful nor realistic to expect to have all the answers immediately. What we do need, at this point, is more dialogue, more such conversations, and a lot of listening and empathy.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store