The day starts with a PowerPoint deck. Using PowerPoint for classroom training is already passe and we use it very sparingly in English training. But for virtual classroom sessions, where the participants attend from their computers, PowerPoint is essential as it goes some way to make up for the physical absence of the trainer.
I am the manager responsible for the English skills development at a large financial consulting and services firm in China. I work in Beijing but I'm responsible for the English skills development of 12,000 members of staff in mainland China and Hong Kong. There are just two of us with one other trainer in Shanghai.
Designing a lesson for a virtual classroom throws up a bunch of challenges that you don't need to worry about when designing classroom training workshops or courses. The most important consideration is the lack of control over the learning environment. As a classroom trainer, you can close the classroom door, open a window and ask participants to change their seating arrangements, or even gather them around you at a glass wall or whiteboard. A virtual classroom trainer has very little control over the learning environment, your learners will be receiving emails and phone calls from their bosses or will have people walking up to their desks to ask them questions during your lesson. To counter this, you have to make sure your virtual classroom is fast-paced and dynamic right from the start so that you grab their interest at the beginning and keep them engaged - so engaged that they'll ignore their incoming mail alert for another minute. This means that, just as with designing websites, you have to work on the assumption that your learners are just three seconds away from turning their attention away from your training session. This means that every second needs to be planned. I also try to keep my sessions between 45 minutes and one hour - definitely no more than an hour.
There are a few extra challenges when it comes to Chinese learners. The biggest issue is the enormous amount of power managers have in China. Over here, if a boss or customer sends an email, they'll expect an immediate reply. Another issue is a different etiquette around mobile phone usage. It's not rude to answer your phone in the middle of a conversation here and it's not unusual for a sale rep to answer their mobile phone in the middle of a sales presentation - I think this links to my previous point, if your boss or customer phones you, they'll expect you to take the call and won't take "I was busy" as a valid excuse for not picking up - they also expect that you'll keep your mobile phone on 24 hours a day. Lastly, Chinese learners are so shy and hesitant to open up. Not only is there the fear of losing face through making a mistake, there is also the Chinese proverb that "the first bird out of the nest gets shot" - nobody wants to be the one to speak up. You have to be quite insistent and encouraging right from the moment you start your lesson about participation and you have to do all you can to create a safe environment for people to take risks and try. This last element is essential for language learning and small virtual classes work much better than larger ones.
With all this in mind, I go about designing my slides, using my list of objectives and key content notes as a guide. I like to start somewhere in the middle, with the key point to be learned and then work on my practice and transfer activities, where I show the learners how they can apply what we're doing to their working contexts. Lastly I design the slides from the start of the class up to the main point. This makes sure that everything, right from the opening slides, relates to the key learning point. A virtual classroom needs a lot of interaction built in, especially with Chinese learners. I check my slides and make sure that I have a good mixture of 'tell', 'show' and 'ask' slides, with one 'ask' slide very couple of minutes or so - this keeps my learners engaged, helps me know who's still listening and and how much they understand. The 'ask' slides incorporate a certain amount of interactivity, where the learners are asked to write something on a whiteboard or move words on a screen. It's this increased interactivity, where everybody can do something simultaneously that gives the virtual classroom an edge over classroom training and definitely makes it far better than a video conference or teleconference lesson. The slides themselves need to have high impact and be visually appealing.
With all these challenges, why am I using virtual classroom at all? The fact of the matter is that I have little choice! If I want to get English learning opportunities to my learners on a regular basis, I'll need to find some affordable way of interacting with them in a way that they can easily attend. Most of my learners find it difficult to follow an elearning course. My learners are finding it very hard to use elearning for English learning as they are so busy and have many pressing tasks that need to be done with not enough time to do them. They need a lot of structure to help them plan their learning to make sure it's always manageable. This means using a mixture of elearning with virtual classrooms and the occasional classroom workshop where I can find the budget and leadership support.
Once I have the slides done, I write my trainer notes. I have to write them so they make sense to another trainer. I wouldn't call it a 'script' as I don't write down every word but I write notes on what the trainer should say when and what the learners are supposed to be doing.
By lunchtime I'm proofing my work and uploading the PPT deck to a database. After lunch I spend the afternoon in a training room conducting a four-hour management skills workshop to 12 newly promoted managers on how to coach and give 'constructive feedback' to their team members. Once again, this needs special care in China, as introducing western business practices into a Chinese context without some adaptations is just going to result in failure. I need to be careful how I present this stuff to these new managers as I know that if I come on too strong with a "west is best' approach, I'll just lose their interest and trust. I use my own China experience and, most importantly, ask them how they feel about the key concepts we're exploring.
My biggest challenge is that the current best practice to coaching is to use a 'Socratic learning' approach which involves the coach asking his or her coachee a series of questions to encourage critical thinking and deep-level engagement with the subject matter. This contradicts the traditional Confucian learning approach which involves the coach explaining and the coachee listening and taking careful notes. It would be considered disrespectful for the coachee to ask too many questions and the coach will generally not ask the coachee questions unless they want to test them - "Do you understand?" is normally as far as it goes. I need to deal with this clash of ideas sensitively and patiently; one thing we can both take on board is that there isn't just one way of doing something and it normally does not come down to an all-or-nothing choice..
My background is English language training for business people but I do like the management skills training as it adds variety and new challenges to my working day.
By 5.30 I'm ready for home and dinner. It's a long day, but I definitely don't miss the split shifts and weekend and evening lessons I used to do before I became an in-house corporate trainer. Tomorrow morning I'll be joining all the other early morning commuters on my way back to the office but, except for the commute, each day is different with different kinds of things I need to do.