What does remote learning look like? A tour of our virtual classroom [video]

Like so much else, most formal learning right now is happening online. And the virtual classroom is key to making it possible. But what the heck does a virtual classroom look like anyway?

Remote learning tended to provoke a little uncertainty even before it became the only option for instructor-led training. And that’s hardly surprising, given that the idea of attending a course in the cloud could feel a little … hazy.

So let’s make it more solid. We’ve put together a short video tour of our virtual classroom, which you can check out below. And read on after that to dig a little deeper into how we use the key features for effective and engaging remote learning.


Naturally, a remote classroom is never going to ‘look’ exactly like the kind of room you go into on a face-to-face course. But by using the learning platforms’ simple-but-effective features, we can create the same engaging effects as you’d get in person. Here’s how it works.


These are not technically or natively a part of a platform’s features, but they are a central thread in a remote session. During the instructive parts of an in-person course, the trainer’s the focus. They can easily cover learning points with participants, as everyone is together in the same room. And there the participants will also be referring back and forth from the trainer to their bespoke course materials (and each other).

But in the virtual environment, the slides make an effective focal point. They work to reinforce the trainer’s explanation, as well as keeping up focus and interest. Of course, they’ll only do that if they’re designed in the right way.

That means avoiding the temptation to cram every slide with text and keep each one on-screen for minutes at a time (while learners glaze over or drift off to check email). Instead, we use many more slides than we would in the physical world, each of which has only a small amount of content. This allows us to move along at a good pace and keep up momentum. So does shifting away from the slide deck regularly for interactive activities that bring the group’s energy up and allow participants to practise the techniques.

Breakout rooms

These virtual ‘other rooms’ are a fantastic feature of the virtual classroom that we use for two key parts of our training: small-group activities and one-to-ones.

And this is an example of where the remote version may have the real-life version licked, providing a fully private separate space for one or several of the group. As our trainer Doug Nel explains, ‘Breakout rooms are great. In face-to-face training, you either have to find another room, which isn’t always possible, or assign areas of the main training room for group work, which can be tricky if it’s a small space.’

Pair or small-group exercises see people split off from the main group to collaborate on tailored activities, where they discuss learning points and practise the techniques on real-life examples. The practical aspect tests – and ensures – attendees understand and absorb the material.

During the one-to-ones, the trainer talks each participant through their individual writing analysis – a part of the session that is totally personalised and which shows them where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

Learners are often nervous about this part, whether as part of remote or in-person sessions. We all tend to feel pretty sensitive to feedback on our writing, as it’s such a personal thing. But many cite this afterwards as their favourite part of the day. That one-to-one time allows them to understand the key areas they need to focus on to improve rapidly, and to ask the trainer their questions in confidence.

Status settings

A day of training is a shared experience. The trainer tuning in to the participants’ responses is part of what keeps everything on track and means everyone gets what they need and actually enjoys it. (That’s important!)

status icons in Adobe Connect virtual classroomGoing virtual means the trainer needs new ways to tune in to the room and the learners need new ways to express their responses. The status icons play a useful part here. These look a lot like the emojis we use in texting and instant messaging, and have a similar function – bridging the gaps left by not being in front of each other. These similarities also mean learners use them quite naturally to express themselves.

So, at the push of a button, participants can virtually raise their hands, agree or disagree, indicate the trainer should speak up or slow down, and even laugh – on the off-chance our trainer cracks a particularly good joke. (It does happen.)


Chat box

Everyone in the session will be able to speak to each other – and we do encourage this, as that voice-to-voice engagement is good for building rapport and giving everyone a chance to be heard. And as trainer Doug says, ‘Encouraging verbal interaction is really important, as you can pick up a lot from the language people use and their tone.’

But the chat box can be a better option – whether because of background noise (especially where the delegate has no headset) or mere personal preference. As our trainers know, you have to stay sensitive to what makes each delegate comfortable. Rather than assume everyone likes to engage in the same way, they’re ready to let those that are happier using the chat do so.

And here they can respond to activities, ask questions and interact with each other, as they would on any instant messenger. They can also send a private message to the trainer, if there’s something they’d prefer not to share with everyone.


Training shouldn’t be a one-way street – and a poll is a good way of hearing from everyone, especially at the outset. Our trainer Jack Elliot says, ‘It starts to engage people – and tells them the course is not just about a disembodied “voice of authority” doing all the talking.’

A simple tool with many great applications, the poll can also make appearances throughout the session. It’s ideal for opinion-gathering and establishing talking points, as well as running quick knowledge checks. (As our trainer Kathy Gemmell sagely notes: ‘Everyone loves a quiz.’) Each person casts their vote and the results can be instantly revealed.



So-called ‘pods’ come in a few varieties, including file-share and notes pods. File-share pods let trainers quickly add a file that learners can download right out of the training room. This allows trainers to tailor their session on the fly to the group’s or an individual’s needs by providing the right materials at the right time – or things people can take away for later.

Meanwhile, during those small-group activities, participants can easily collaborate using a notes pod. With these, everyone can contribute directly into the same shared document.

Not every learning platform has pods, but most have an equivalent (or a function that can be adapted to do the same thing).


The question of webcams

Now that meetings have become synonymous with Zoom, it might seem perverse to avoid webcams – but we generally do on courses. Granted, there may be a case to be made for using them, and there can be something about seeing a face (even on-screen) that gives an increased feeling of connection.

But there’s no denying that it does not feel the same as being gathered together. And the tension of that disparity (not to mention those floating thumbnail videos) can be distracting for both participants and trainers. Being on camera also leaves people feeling the pressure of being under scrutiny. The energy that that can take away is much better put to use during the training.

One of the big benefits of remote training is that distributed global teams can come together on the same course. But that can mean catching some of the team at a time when they may not feel they’re looking their best. As Jack wryly notes, ‘If it’s 6am in Los Angeles, no one wants me to see them in their pyjamas.’


Different platforms

There is now a whole range of platforms geared towards remote learning – from Adobe Connect to Zoom. Different platforms suit different organisations for a variety of reasons, whether it’s down to company security settings or simple familiarity.

These platforms share many features but are not identical, so the actual look of training sessions does vary. For example, Microsoft Teams doesn’t have rooms, but rather channels (a bit like Slack). Creating private channels does a fine job of replicating the breakout rooms you can set up in Adobe Connect or Zoom.

At this point we’ve had the opportunity to adapt our training to all the major platform players. (As we’ve said before, when you run remote learning, you soon realise you’ll need to be adaptable.) So while a session may look a little different, a client can still know what to expect.


Familiar features

So while remote learning may seem abstract at first, on closer inspection many of the features and facets of it are familiar to us, even if we’ve never set metaphorical foot in the virtual classroom before. (We also do everything we can to make sure people know their way around the software before the session starts.)

It’s usually not long before participants feel at ease and are using the features quite instinctively. They soon stop thinking about the technology and simply get absorbed in the learning experience.

Image credit: fizkes / iStock

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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