Online education and training have been around for a long time. But over this past year, many of us have had the opportunity and necessity to experience online training like never before. This is also true for the training of missionaries getting ready to head to the field. Facilitating an online training session is inherently different from facilitating a training module face-to-face. Since online instruction is likely here to stay, those of us involved in training missionaries should continue to sharpen our skills for facilitating online. Here are some things we have learned in the past year that help promote an effective online learning environment.

Use a variety of methods

A good principle of education is to use a variety of different teaching methods. Doing so connects with the various learning styles of your learners. This principle also holds true online. Asynchronous courses with forum discussions have existed in online learning for over 10 years. Some learners will thrive in this kind of setting, particularly if they like to carefully think through their answers before responding. In an asynchronous environment, they can read books, blog posts, and watch videos, reflect on them, and then respond when they are ready in writing through forum posts.

More recently, video conference platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, and Teams have become popular ways to facilitate. In this setting, other types of learners will thrive. They have a set time to connect and a more immediate response in the discussion.

So, when you design an online curriculum, seek to cater to as many personalities and learning styles as possible. Maybe your training course can include both asynchronous forum discussions and some live video conference sessions as well.

Break the ice

It may feel natural to introduce yourself to a fellow learner or a facilitator in a physical classroom setting when you first walk into the room or during a class break. But this can feel much more awkward in a virtual setting when you enter a virtual “room” that is already “full” of people, and no one is in closer physical proximity to you than anyone else.

A facilitator can help learners to begin to feel comfortable by opening the meeting up a few minutes early. This allows learners some time to chat before the formal time of instruction begins.

The facilitator can also come prepared with an icebreaker activity. Maybe she can ask an interesting personal question that everyone can answer in turn. In larger groups, ask each learner to limit their answer to a few sentences.

Many icebreaker ideas can be found online for virtual meetings. If the group is large, consider dividing them up into breakout rooms for these activities. If you are distracted by running the technology of the meeting, consider asking a co-facilitator to lead the icebreaker.

Encourage Interaction

After you have broken the ice, continue to encourage interaction from your learners. For the most effective adult education, the learners need to actively participate in the learning. Here again, we need to develop our online training skills.

Here are a few ideas for successful online interaction between facilitators and learners:

1. Tap into learner’s experiences

Consider beginning your session with a question related to the learners’ previous experience related to the topic. As you facilitate, reflect on how the learners’ previous experiences relate to the material you plan to share.

2. Wait

As we facilitate or lead small groups, we should learn to be comfortable waiting in silence as learners process and think about how to answer. This time feels even longer and more uncomfortable in an online setting. Wait silently for longer than feels comfortable to give learners a chance to think and respond. Your waiting time needs to be even slightly longer than you would wait in an in-person setting.

3. Be specific

It is tempting for facilitators to dump a pile of information, and then ask for general reflection or questions about the information. However, asking specific questions for reflection rather than just asking for general feedback on the material will promote more interaction.

4. Use the Think/Pair/Share method

Give learners a few minutes to think about an answer to a question by themselves and write down an answer. Then, divide them into pairs and give each person time to share their thoughts.

Use online learning tools well

As we continue to learn and grow in our online training skills, we should stay up to date with the latest features available in the technology used for online learning. Many of the video call platforms have a variety of different tools that can be used to enhance online facilitation. You might need to give a short introduction to your learners who might not be familiar with how to use these online features.

Here are a few examples of tools you can use to improve your skills in online training:

1. Screen share

As with in-person facilitation, prepare a PowerPoint presentation with visuals to share information with the learners. You can also share your screen to show videos or documents that are not embedded in your PowerPoint. However, it is often helpful to stop sharing your screen when you want to begin a discussion. Particularly if you have a large group of learners, keeping the PowerPoint presentation on the screen prevents learners from seeing each other’s faces during the discussion time.

2. Breakout rooms

Plan to break learners into smaller groups using your platform’s breakout room feature. Smaller groups allow for everyone to have a chance to participate. If discussing a sensitive topic, maybe gender-specific breakout rooms would be more appropriate.

If you were facilitating in-person, you would likely walk around the room during table discussions. You would listen for signs that the group is struggling to understand the question or that the group is now finished dealing with the question. In the same way, many of the online platforms allow the facilitator to “visit” the various breakout rooms and listen to their conversations for a few minutes.

In our evaluations of online training, we have seen learners consistently ask for more time in breakout rooms. So, consider extending the time you allow for breakout rooms in your sessions.

3. Whiteboard

Many video platforms have a whiteboard feature. Use the whiteboard for brainstorming. One added benefit is that everyone can write on the whiteboard at the same time. Thus, the facilitator does not need to be the scribe for the group.

4. Chat

The meeting chat can be used for a variety of purposes. Encourage learners to use the chat box throughout a session to ask clarifying questions. You can also invite the learners to use the chat box to respond to discussion questions. Again, in this way, everyone can answer at the same time.

5. Handouts

Hopefully, your platform will allow you to provide a link to a handout for your session. The handout will include the basic information that you will be sharing. We have found that it is best not to leave any blanks to be filled in on your handout. If the learners encounter any internet difficulties during a session, they will not be able to look at their neighbor’s handout to fill in the blanks that they missed.

If you plan to use breakout rooms, be sure that your handout provides the questions that the learners will discuss in the breakout rooms. Why is this important? Because your learners will lose the ability to see your question on your PowerPoint slide while they are in their breakout rooms. We have had the unfortunate experience too often of sending the participants into their breakout rooms, and then finding out five or ten minutes later that the group had forgotten what they were supposed to be discussing!

Work in Teams

Facilitating online can be difficult to do alone. While you are sharing a PowerPoint presentation on the screen, it can be difficult to also monitor the chat box for questions. Organizing learners into breakout rooms is almost impossible to do while you are talking. Therefore, it is really helpful to team up with a colleague while you are facilitating. He or she can operate the technology, giving you as the facilitator the opportunity to teach without distraction.

While many of us have been facilitating in-person for years, facilitating online might be a new experience. For that reason, it is a great idea to ask colleagues to observe and evaluate one another as they facilitate online.1 Of course, evaluation of the effectiveness of training is not just limited to evaluating what is done in the teaching session. See a couple of other blog posts that discuss the broader scope of evaluating training. Prepare a list of questions for them to use in evaluation. Ask them to comment on both what the facilitator did well and to provide suggestions for improving your online training skills the next time you teach that session.

Give breaks

Don’t forget the physical needs of your learners as you facilitate online. Screen fatigue is real. Even during in-person facilitation, a good rule of thumb is to give a 10-minute break for every 50 minutes of instruction. Online learners may need even more frequent breaks to rest their eyes and have an opportunity to move around.

Facilitate relationship building

One possible downside for online learning is that it becomes more difficult to build personal connections. For effective learning, you want relationships to be built between the facilitators and the learners and between the learners with one another. These relationships develop more naturally in an in-person learning environment. Participants have the opportunity to get to know one another before and after the training or during meals and coffee breaks.

But this does happen naturally in an online environment. Therefore, we need to be more intentional about building relationships with learners. We also need to help learners get to know one another. Look for creative ways to connect to your learners throughout the facilitation process. For example, a facilitator could ask for prayer requests from learners. We could schedule time in the meeting for chatting about what is happening in one another’s lives.

Through online learning, we are able to expand our influence as trainers in a global environment. But in the process, we also need to expand our understanding of online training skills. May we continue to challenge ourselves to learn and grow to provide the best possible training for missionaries that we can in our current climate.