Virtual vs. In-Person Training
I can’t wait to return to in-person professional development. It’s deeply meaningful and energizing in all aspects. For now, however, I am choosing an abundance of caution, as I am caring for both our first grandchild and my elderly parents. Both require two weeks’ quarantine after traveling anywhere away from our family “bubble” before I can visit and support them, and longer, of course, if I get the Coronavirus itself. Helping them are my highest priorities at the moment, and I can’t do that if I do in-person professional development; I can do training, however, if we do it virtually. In addition, some states and countries require people from my region of the United States to do a 14-day lockdown quarantine upon arrival on their soil, and I can’t do that with multiple engagements each week. Nor do I want to bring any COVID-19 virus via airport/highway bathrooms and other surfaces I inadvertently touch as I travel to your school, and I don’t want to bring any of that back to my family.
In response to these concerns, I will not be doing any in-person trainings until January 2021 or later, depending on the vaccine and antibody test developments.
Here’s the interesting part, however: It turns out virtual professional development is quite engaging and effective for most faculties, and I’m having a blast designing and delivering it! I have revamped the content and style of my in-person trainings significantly, resulting in 1 to 8-hour, virtual training almost every single workday for the past five months, providing these sessions in over 20 states and Guatemala, Canada, Korea, European countries, Singapore, and other Pacific Rim countries. They’ve worked remarkably well, even approaching the positive impact of in-person trainings.
There’s no doubt that being in the room physically together adds energy to the professional development experience; humans are like that. When a national or international presenter is in your school, it builds momentum, elevates the conversation, and helps everyone maintain focus. Guest speakers and their ideas are humanized for faculty members when they visit, their ideas no longer abstractions from far away, the possibilities for local application blossom, and faculty connect personally. And gosh, some speakers are just darn fun, leading crazy cheers, asking for volunteers for interesting demonstrations, singing parody songs related to education, and giving away nice prizes.
If done effectively, we can do all of these positives via virtual training as well, and with local facilitation, we can even do those crazy cheers and give away prizes, if that’s needed.
Virtual trainings have definite advantages:
First, schools cut out the speaker’s travel expenses, and with budgets already strained, this is a huge consideration.
Second, participants have direct access to the speaker. Auditorium keynotes, for example, can be antiseptic and frustrating, even when the guest speaker is physically present: He’s a distant figure on the stage, you may or may not be able to make out the text on the slides, the microphone echoes and crackles from time to time, you may be stuck in the middle of the row with no easy way out if needed, you are distracted by those sitting behind you having loud conversations, and rarely do you get a chance to talk one-on-one with the speaker about an individual question, as there are just too many people in the room and the lines to the bathrooms are oh, so long.
In the virtual training experience, however, your own screen fills your visual focus and you control your own environment during the session. Heck, you can get up and exercise while participating, getting oxygen for mental focus to the brain. You are up close and personal with content, seeing every slide, hearing every word and piece of music clearly. You can ask public and private questions directly to the presenter, and you can see his/her/their face and body language vividly, helping you perceive their message clearly. In evaluations from these past few months’ virtual presentations, participants repeatedly declared they were more interactive with each other and the presenter during the training, as they felt more comfortable sharing ideas and participating in the virtual space than they would have felt when being with everyone in a large room at the school.
Preparing content for the virtual experience has forced presenters to reinvigorate their message, visuals, and style. It’s been a creative renaissance for many of them, me included, as we become even more mindful of the participant’s experience. We’re culling tired tropes, content, and stats while adding new technologies, improved aesthetics, and creative ways to engage each participant directly. The sessions are more dynamic, with presenters and participants encountering multiple moments of back-and-forth interaction not possible in an auditorium.
Another great advantage is that virtual trainings can be recorded easily without any extra video equipment or wiring. It can be paused for discussion; viewed multiple times to clarify thinking and revisit ideas in the months ahead; and shared with those unable to attend the live session or with future faculty members to get them up to speed - what a great resource for professional development for years to come!
Virtual trainings are also significantly more flexible for schools, too, as they are easier to schedule and easier on the body and mind of participants. For example, they can be recorded in advance, if the school is concerned about internet availability on the day of the professional development - ‘no worries, the speaker and his content are already in your hands via your laptop! And if there is inclement weather on the PD day and schools are closed, it’s not a “down” day for teachers as they can still participate in the training from home.
In addition, a full day’s live session can be turned into two half days or four, 90-minute live sessions, spread across a month or two, so as to not create Zoom or PD fatigue (Those cafeteria seats can be hard on the rear end!) for faculty, and so faculty have time to process content in shorter chunks and try some of the speaker’s ideas in between segments. A two-day seminar can be turned into four half days, allowing the other half of each day to be used in discussion of the ideas or other professional duties. An added benefit is that it’s easy to schedule a 1-hour “Question and Answer” session with presenters via virtual training platforms a month or so later, if you’d like to answer questions that arise in applications of their ideas.
There is simply less drain on the school funds, but a greater dexterity, and in most cases, more creative and focused experience for participants that comes with virtual professional development done well in short chunks, half-days, full-days, or multiple days. If you are set on in-person PD only, this may be the time to reconsider that stance, and give flexible, virtual PD a try.
I stand ready to customize whatever PD you’ve requested so it meets your faculty’s direct needs. If you have booked me for an in-person training prior to the pandemic and its physical distancing protocols, however, and you still want to use me, I respectfully ask you to turn the event virtual, recognizing, too, that this might mean conducting it in multiple sessions, all for the same price as the one day session. If this is not something you’re comfortable doing right now, I understand completely, and direct you to the wonderful people at Staff Development for Educators, AEISpeakers, Inc., or AMLE.org who can assist you in finding a suitable replacement speaker for the topic.
Thank you for all you’re doing for educator development. I know it’s a tough time for everyone, but our students are worth our enterprise.
Rick Wormeli, September 2020