AWS Training and Certification Blog

Why Virtual Training Is (and Isn’t) Completely Different

Telecommuting, work-shifting, flexible workspace, teleworking, mobile work, working from home– these are ever-evolving modalities that have existed in some form or another since the advent of the personal computer. Many tasks that at one time required an in-office presence are rapidly being moved to virtual contexts.

Cloud adoption has always natively been office-less, but one aspect of this adoption is surprisingly challenging despite all our advancements in technology: virtual training.

We’ve made the entire catalog of classroom training courses from Amazon Web Services (AWS) Training and Certification available to our learners virtually. The AWS Authorized Instructor program (AAI) ensures that all our training — in person or virtual — is held to a very high bar.

As the Global Lead Instructor for virtual classroom training, I’ve thought a lot about what the overall virtual training experience is like. This post is a look into the challenges my team and I have observed and how we can still deliver great learning experiences.

The customer’s experience is our guide

The first thing to know about AWS, and it’s certainly true in AWS Training and Certification, is that we always examine the ideal customer experience and work backwards. When applied to training, we   noticed a number of small differences between virtual and in-person training. These little differences add up, and they require strategies to prevent them from overshadowing the quality of instruction.

A classroom without a physical room

The biggest difference is maybe the most obvious. In virtual training, there is no physical classroom space: no tables and chairs, and no instructor nor classmates sharing your space. Learners are free from being in a classroom or office setting and can participate from the comfort of their own homes. However, that comfort can be a breeding ground for distractions. The learner’s attention can easily switch to answering an urgent email that would have been ignored with a closed laptop. Instructors cannot realistically make demands of attention, but they can counteract this with clear timing expectations. Communicating the plan for breaks gives attendees predictability for the day and eases their minds about keeping tabs on work or other obligations. Breaks are also good to give both the instructor and attendees an opportunity to check in with each other.

What about cameras?

Would having cameras that show the learners and the instructor solve this? Most delivery platforms are focused on delivering the image of the instructor, not the learners. In others, the maximum number of video feeds often hits a limit due to impacts to bandwidth. This asymmetry puts learners first because they can see their instructor’s facial expressions and nuance beyond that of tone of voice. However, it robs the instructor of one of their greatest tools for success: seeing the students. While it may not be possible to see the attendees or the instructor the whole time, the selective use of the camera can help. Introductions on camera can help remind the attendees that the instructor is a real person and not a recording. Using the camera during knowledge checks, and before and after breaks, can increase engagement and give the instructor confirmation that the information is resonating.

A good instructor subtly and continuously modifies the delivery of information for maximum impact. Not being able to see learners’ expressions in the “aha” moments or the “huh?” faces can severely hamper an instructors’ effectiveness. The key to solving this from the instructor’s side is fostering a culture of engagement within the class.

The best instructors need to go beyond the slides

So how do you do this in a virtual setting? In a physical room, an instructor can simply walk over to a whiteboard. This physical movement can re-engage the learners mentally. In a virtual setting, learners are stuck staring at a screen whose position doesn’t change. Even the most compelling content can’t prevent learner screen-fatigue. Leveraging multiple delivery methods supports a dynamic learning experience.

Engagement means involving multiple delivery methods — hands-on practice, whiteboards, and demos — in short, going beyond the slides. This is one way of continuously reorienting a classroom of learners. It is a balance, as attention spans are different, but a few times an hour seems to work best. An instructor can “hit the refresh button” occasionally by changing techniques while still covering concepts.

A good instructor does not do all the talking

In addition to varied delivery modes, good instructors solicit and hold time for questions. Instructors may also directly pose questions to learners with periodic knowledge checks to gauge what learners have retained. The best examples force learners to go beyond the “what” to answer questions of “how” or “why”. These often require next level thinking to synthesize and work in a solutions context rather than a simple answer.

One of my favorite techniques is a “one-two-punch” set of questions. First, ask an easy question to get people in the mindset of answering, and then ask a second question that requires a longer, deeper answer. Knowing when to leave a question unanswered can be profound. A little silence can go a long way.

Making virtual and in-classroom experiences better requires continuous practice

Focusing on virtual training is a crucible for instructors to hone our craft for delivering good experiences. In examining these challenges and solutions, a key theme emerged: the skills and best practices to foster engagement in virtual contexts are transferrable to in-person contexts. Wanting more engagement out of a classroom is not new, so the skills and strategies developed for virtual training should lead to better instructors and in-person learning experiences.

In a future blog post, I’ll share strategies for learners to make the most out of virtual training. Active engagement from both instructors and learners drives better knowledge retention and deeper understanding.

Find a classroom course for you or your team

Browse our public classroom training courses, which are all available virtually, delivered by AWS and our APN Training Partners. Interested in private training for your team? Contact us to request more information.