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Instructors Take Note!

by Jennie Ruby, COTP

That’s right: note taking. It’s not just for students, anymore! 
Of course we are used to thinking of note-taking as a student activity. And it certainly still is. In one of my online classes just this week, one of my students said, “Hold on, hold on! I’ve got to get this down!” before she would go on with answering a question I had asked her. Then she answered my question, and no doubt wrote that down as well! But she and the other participants were not the only ones taking notes in my class. I was taking notes, too.
Starting during the participant introductions at the beginning of my online classes, I begin to take hand-written notes. I make sure to have a well-spaced roster of my participants, with plenty of room to write. During their introductions, I note key facts about them, such as where they are calling in from, what kinds of topics they work with, and what organization they work for. 
Taking these notes by hand helps me learn about my students. My goal in online classes is to get to know my students at least as well as I get to know participants in face-to-face classrooms—or maybe even better!
Recent research by Pam Mueller of Princeton University, along with Daniel Oppenheimer now at UCLA, shows that hand-written notes may help us learn things better. That’s important for students, and in my classes I sometimes mention this fact to learners. Now, the type of information that hand-written notes helps the most with is conceptual knowledge, rather than just plain facts. Notes typed on a laptop seem to be just as effective for learning rote facts and details. 
But I hand write my “class” notes anyway—notes about my class participants, not about my content—and I notice a dramatic improvement in my ability to remember who my students are and where they are coming from. I feel like I truly get to know them.
Once I know my students, I can help them with learning the content of the class by actively using examples that relate to their experience. For example, if I know one of my learners for eLearning software is going to be creating training videos for active-duty nurses, I might mention a few ways to engage learners without audio voiceover. Why? Because the nurses may be trying to absorb the eLearning while working at a station in a busy ward, where they can’t use earphones!
I teach online courses by myself in a room full of computers, monitors, and microphones. I may not see another human being all day. But at the end of the day, I do not feel as if I spent the day alone. I feel the same as if I had spent the day getting to know, and then working with, a room full of people.
Here are some of the things I take notes about:

~ Where participants are calling in from
~ What topics they work with (finance, healthcare, manufacturing, etc.)
~ What role they play (instructional designer, training manager, instructor)
~ Contributions/comments they make about the class
~ Questions they ask that I promised to cover later

And in my software classes, I create a column for checkmarks, where I note whether each student has had a turn to share their computer screen. 
In the online classroom, we need every possible tool we can use to get to know, engage with, and create learning experiences with our participants. Try note-taking in your next online class!
Jennie Ruby, CTT, COTP, is a veteran eLearning developer, trainer, and author. Jennie has an M.A. from George Washington University and is a Certified Technical Trainer and Certified Online Training Professional. She teaches both classroom and online courses, and has authored courseware, published training books, and developed content for countless eLearning projects. She is also a publishing professional with more than 30 years of experience in writing, editing, print publishing, and eLearning.


by Kevin Siegel, COTP, CTT

I started teaching online a dozen years ago and I owe it all to a case of the flu. I recall that I awoke in a nameless hotel, in a nameless city somewhere in parts unknown. I was supposed to teach something to someone but I couldn’t wrap my thoughts around the specifics. All that I did know was that I was sicker than I had ever been before or since. This wasn't just the flu... it was Mr. Flu.

I called home to consult Dr. Wife who was gracious to confirm my diagnosis (she’s that good) and was kind enough to remind me where I was, where I was supposed to go, and what I was supposed to be teaching. Because I was under contract, I went to the client site and taught the class as expected. (I did disclose my illness to the client and suggest we could reschedule; however, people had flown in from all over and there was no way to put the class off.)

The class went fine, thanks for asking. But travelling while sick is the worst (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that if you have prior experience). I told Dr. Wife that I never wanted to travel again… EVER! Of course, the problem with that pronouncement is that I’m a trainer... avoiding travel is impossible. Or is it?

Back in my day, the technology available to teach online was limited to short, boring webinars. There simply wasn’t fast enough Internet, affordable software or hardware, or enough bandwidth to host anything but lecture-based webinars. Nevertheless, using an early version of GoToMeeting, I advertised a few online classes and quickly got enrollments.

Over the years, I’ve perfected my online teaching style and now teach others how to successfully teach online. And while training classes online has extended my career (I was truly headed for retirement before discovering how great teaching live, online classes can be), I must be honest and say teaching online is not always awesome. Just today, for instance, I was preparing to teach a custom TechSmith Camtasia class. I was greeting my students as always and then, two minutes before the official start time, my router decides to take the morning off. Luckily, I have backup Internet (backup plans are something we discuss in the trainer certification class) and started the class on time. However, the stress of the moment got me thinking about the main pros and cons of teaching online.


Online spaces are inexpensive: Prices range from free to a few hundred dollars per month depending on the size of your online room (our rooms can hold 200 people) and features (our vendor offers eCommerce and full back office support for the learner registration process).

No travel for anyone: Talk about a commute buster! With online classes, nobody needs to travel. Teach or attend classes from home... in your slippers. All that you need to teach or attend an online class is a computer (or perhaps a tablet), and good, reliable Internet access.

Global reach: We have students attend our class from all over the world. In one Adobe Captivate class I had a group of 15 attendees. Ten of the students were from across the U.S. and the others were from the UK, Australia, Belgium, Japan, and India.

Less intimidation = better Q&A: This one surprised me. Given that the students are not in the same physical space, I’ve found that I get more questions and more attendee engagement than in onsite classes. It’s rare when I ask my classes “are there any questions?” that I hear crickets. I’m thinking the main reason is that online students are more relaxed and don’t feel the glare from another student who either doesn’t like the question or thinks that it is silly.


Technology can let you down: Did I mention that my router went down just before my latest class start time? That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things that can, and will, go wrong. The best thing you can do when technology fails you is to have a backup plan. (Again, that’s something we cover in detail during the certification class.)

1 Ticket=1 Seat? How do you know if only the people who paid for the class are in the class? If you find that someone has invited all their friends and colleagues to attend the class for free, what is your game plan? Do you confront the student or let it go?

The unprepared participant: You can tell your attendees exactly what they need to do prior to class a million different ways. However, a small percentage of your students will arrive to class late, without the software, or without the support materials. You name it, I’ve seen it. Prepare to have your class schedule seriously hindered by an unprepared participant.

There’s my short list of online training pros and cons. I’d be curious if you have your own list of pros and cons to share. If so, please share them as comments below… but please keep Mr. Flu to yourself.


Kevin Siegel, CTT, COTP, is the founder and president of IconLogic and ICCOTP. Following a career in Public Affairs with the US Coast Guard and in private industry, Kevin has spent decades as a technical com...

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The End of Anonymity

by Jennie Ruby, COTP

An online class is not a webinar. Webinars have a well-earned reputation for being snooze fests. Often they are required attendance. The speakers are not necessarily experienced public speakers. The content may or may not be intrinsically interesting—think, policy roll-out for next year’s open enrollment insurance period. And the audience may be massive: a required-attendance companywide webinar for a large, international company could well have a couple hundred attendees. All of that is the perfect recipe for attendees to multitask, dip in and out, turn down the audio, and drift away. In an online class, however, you can’t let this happen.

Part of the problem? Anonymity. In a large webinar attendees know that no one notices whether they are present and paying attention or not. In an online class, one of your best tools for student engagement is to eradicate anonymity through the use of name-calling.

No, no, I don’t mean you call your students bad words! I mean you learn the names of your students, and you call your students by name early and often. It all starts with your student introductions.

If you have fewer than about a dozen students, you can do audio introductions. Give each student about 2 minutes of airtime for an introduction. Even if the introductions eat up 20 minutes of a full-day class, the benefit is well worth the time. 

Give specific guidelines on what the introduction should contain: “Now, I’d like to meet each of you. I’d like you to tell us your name, the organization you work for, your job title, and where you are calling from.”

By giving a very specific formula of what you are looking for, you decrease the chance that a student will launch into a lengthy, life-story type introduction. Instead, most students will follow the formula. 

Then, to make the intros a little more personal, have a back-up question for each student. I might ask, in a course about eLearning, “What kinds of eLearning do you typically create?” Or I might ask something specific about the location the student is calling from. Then I react to their answer—not just, “Okay, next.” Instead, I make an empathetic comment about what they said. “Wow, so you do basically all types of eLearning! They really keep you busy, don’t they!” 

Just the little personal touch of listening to each student’s introduction, and reacting with a personal question or comment or two, goes a long way toward creating a positive, and personalized, experience for the student.

And don’t let that personalization lapse! Throughout the class, call on students by name. If possible, tie key points in the class to something you learned about them in the introductions. Even now and then saying something like, “Isn’t that right, Samuel?” makes the class feel personal, and keeps the student from drifting off to email. 

“Wait, did I hear my name?” thinks the student. “The instructor might call on me at any time!”

Don’t let this valuable method for personalization and engagement pass you by. Make sure to do at least some kind of introductions in all of your online learning courses.


Jennie Ruby, COTP, has more than 20 years of experience in training delivery, and is much loved for her enthusiasm and energy in the classroom setting, whether online or in person. She is a published author and co-author of numerous training books, including Essentials of Adobe PresenterEditing with Microsoft Word, and Writing for Curriculum Development


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