“When any real progress is made, we unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before.” -Henry David Thoreau

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdown for social distancing, I have been compelled to reflect on what are the things I need to do differently. One of the more significant transformation during this period is that I have migrated my “So You Want To Be An Author” workshop to a virtual masterclass.
The 2-day face-to-face workshop is now delivered online as 6-module synchronous masterclass. I have been experimenting with different technologies to evaluate what works for me and would like to share some of my lessons learnt here. The two platforms which I have used are Zoom videoconferencing tool for the synchronous delivery of content and Google Classroom (GC) as the Learning Management System (LMS).


Learning Effectiveness

I know of many trainers who simply move their usual one-day or two-day face-to-face workshop online using the same format as a stop-gap measure. The common feedback I hear is that it is difficult to engage participants and the end result is that they became disillusioned with online training and longed to return to the good old days. I can fully empathise with the participants as I felt drained after attending a 5-hour virtual training recently. I could tell that it used to be a full-day training but it is shorter now because the trainer simply removed the activities, interactions, tea-breaks, lunch-break and delivered the usual contents in a one-way approach. Needless to say, I can hardly remember what was taught in that workshop now. Besides, there were no learning materials provided and hence I could not recap my learning even if I had wanted.

As an adult educator, I am mindful that learning effectiveness in a virtual class will definitely be affected when the modality has changed. Thankfully, I am not constrained by client requirements for my public workshop and I knew from the start that I had to re-design my workshop differently. During the design phase, I reviewed the entire curriculum of my workshop by putting myself in the shoes of the participants. To address the issue of online fatigue, I packaged all the modules to be bite-sized with durations between 90 to 120 minutes. At the point of writing this article, I have delivered two modules and I must admit that I am still experimenting with the duration. My experience so far has proved that it is actually possible to extend learners’ engagement. Online fatigue sets in earlier when the virtual class is a one-way download of information by the trainer. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to adopt a facilitative training style even in an online class. In fact, this training style is even more important now. For my virtual class, I made it a point to curate one to two activities in every module to help participants apply and internalise their learning. Hence, my current challenge has been trying to end the class on time instead of a lack of engagement.

Besides the re-design of curriculum, it is also important to revamp your training materials. A simple solution adopted by most trainers is to convert their existing workbook into PDF format and email to their participants. Honestly, this was my initial thought too until I was introduced to GC. At the back of my mind, I knew that I needed a shared space to hold training resources for the entire span of the training which lasts 3 weeks. Straightforward solutions would be Google Drive, Dropbox, or other shared drive solutions. But once I learnt to use GC, it proved to be a game changer. Beyond just a shared drive, GC is a LMS at heart.

Zoom Videoconferencing Tool

For the delivery of my synchronous training, the most important factor of consideration for my choice of videoconferencing tool is not which tool I am most familiar with, but which tool will most of my participants be comfortable with. I am cognizant that most people have some prior experience with Zoom due to its popularity. Hence, I chose to use Zoom as “So You Want To Be An Author” virtual masterclass is opened to the public. Besides, I find the tool to be very user friendly as well. However, if you are delivering in-house training for corporate clients, you will likely need to deliver your workshop using the videoconferencing tool that your client subscribes to. Other common videoconferencing tools in the market are Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts.

Another reason why Zoom works for me is because it offers the Breakout Room feature. As my workshop is experiential in nature and not just a one-way content download, the Breakout Room feature allows me to mirror the pair or group discussions in my face-to-face workshop. Below I will be sharing some of my practices that has helped to enhance the learning experience in my virtual masterclass:

1. One week before the session

a. Send a welcome email containing the agenda with the Zoom links and login details to access each module. In the email, I will also set meeting expectations like finding a quiet spot at home that is free of distractions, turning on video, checking in 15 mins before session starts to test connections, avoid joining the meeting using mobile devices (due to limited functionalities), reminding participants that there will be recording, etc. This email can also contain any preparation required like installing and testing software, checking internet connection, doing pre-work, etc.

b. Add the event to Google calendar and sent as an invite. This allows participants to save the event in their calendars and for you to track the RSVP. You can also set reminders to be sent at different timings before the actual start of the session.

c. Start a WhatsApp group to connect with participants. I find that unlike a face-to-face workshop, it is more important for participants to get to know one another before the virtual masterclass to build some sense of familiarity. A Whatsapp group is also useful when you need to send last-minute instructions or reminders. It also serves as a backup communication channel in the event when participants encounter technical difficulties with the videoconferencing tool. Lastly, it serves as a support group before, during, and after the virtual masterclass.

d. Ensure that you update your videoconferencing software to the latest version so that any known security breaches would have been patched.

2. Half an hour before the session

a. Start the session half an hour earlier to test your connections and do your setup. In my case, I have connected an additional monitor to my laptop so that there is extra screen space to manage both Zoom functionalities and my slides. A selfie light will be useful to illuminate your face as well. For better audio quality, you may also wish to invest in a headset.

b. For security reason, I will always set up a Waiting Room in Zoom so that I know exactly who I am admitting into the session.

c. You can play some soft music and share computer sound in Zoom while waiting for participants to join the session. This has a calming effect compared to complete silence when participants first join the Zoom session. This simulates the registration phase in my face-to-face workshop too.

d. It is a good practice to type reminders for participants in the Zoom In-meeting chat. These can be reminders on keeping the video turned on, testing speaker and mic, keeping audio to mute, enabling the in-meeting chat, preparing writing materials, etc.

e. For the first module, I also created a Zoom Poll (remember to enable this feature in Zoom settings) to help me understand where my participants are on the authorship journey.

3. During the session

a. Compared to face-to-face workshop, the challenge will be keeping participants engaged throughout the virtual class. Hence, a check-in round with participants taking turns to introduce themselves will be important to set the stage. During the session, beyond delivering content using slides, it is important to incorporate activities like pair or group discussion using the Zoom Breakout Room (remember to enable this feature in Zoom settings).

b. If time permits, you can request groups to appoint a spokesperson to share a summary of their group discussions when they are back in the main room. In this way, it encourages cross-pollination of ideas across different groups.

c. To minimise disruptions when you are delivering content, it is best to ask participants to remain muted. Despite this, it is possible to interact with your participants using the Zoom Non-verbal feedback feature in the Participants panel (remember to enable this feature in Zoom settings). For example, if they wish to ask a question, they can use the Raise Hand icon or if you ask them a closed question, they can use the Yes or No icons to indicate their responses.

d. The Zoom In-meeting chat is another useful feature for participants’ interaction using text. However, my experience is that it may be challenging to monitor the chat box when you are delivering the content. Hence, you need to set the expectation that you will only check the chat box during breaks. If you have a co-facilitator, it is recommended to appoint him/her as the Co-host so that he/she can help to monitor the chat box as well as to admit participants who may be late in joining the session.

e. Another way to engage your participants is to pose a question and share a Zoom Whiteboard for them to type their answers (remember to enable this feature in Zoom settings). Participants can use the Annotate feature and start typing or drawing on the whiteboard. The only drawback is that when participants are typing/ drawing concurrently at the same spot, the text or images will overlap one another.

f. Fatigue sets in easily when one has to stare at the screen for a prolonged period of time. Hence it is important to plan for 5-10 minutes breaks after every hour for participants to use the washroom, grab a cup of coffee, or simply to do some stretching.

Google Classroom

GC is a popular LMS in schools but lesser known in the adult learning community. The key benefit of using GC is that it allows me to consolidate all the materials and assignments to anchor the learning in a single space for all participants. Other than the ease of access, it promotes social learning too as participants can collaborate and communicate with one another. As the trainer, I can track the submission of assignments to know the progress made by each participant. In a way, GC has empowered me to reap the maximum benefit from a multiple session virtual masterclass. Unlike the compressed 2-day face-to-face workshop in the past, participants can now continue to refine their assignments in between modules. Furthermore, I have the opportunity to review their work which was not possible in the past. In fact, the learning is extended even beyond the virtual masterclass as I can continue to add resources in GC to support participants’ post-workshop learning journey. Below I will be sharing the steps to get started on GC.

1. Setting Up

Set up a GC account at classroom.google.com. In GC terminology, there are two groups of users, either Teachers or Students. If you are using the free GC account, both teachers and students need to use gmail as the username. But if you pay and subscribe to G Suite, they will be allowed to use other emails accounts. As the trainer, select “I’M A TEACHER” to get started.

2. Taxonomy

It is important to understand the taxonomy of GC.

a. At the highest level is Classes. As the trainer, the first thing you need to do is to Create Class. To build psychological safety, I would recommend setting up a class for every batch of students so that they will feel comfortable interacting and collaborating with people they know. Once you have created a class, you are the Class Owner.

b. Within a Class, there is a top menu where you will see:

i. Stream – this is a collection of notifications on all the activities happening in the Class.

ii. Classwork – this is where you add or create all your learning resources.

iii. People – this is where you can add, remove, mute, or email Teachers and Students in your Class

iv. Grades – this is like a report card where you can see the grades you have given to each Student for their Assignments.

c. Next, I will elaborate on the components of Classwork.

i. Topic – this helps you to categorise your resources and present them in a logical manner. In my case, I create 6 topics to group the resources under each of the module under my 6P Framework of Publishing. They are namely, Planning, Penning, Preparing, Producing, Promoting, and Publicising. On top of that, I have also created a Welcome topic that groups all the pre-work that participants need to complete before the first module. Other than that, I have also created a My Next Steps topic to hold the resources to help participants apply their learning after the conclusion of the virtual masterclass.

ii. Assignment, Quiz Assignment – these are exercises that you assign to participants either during or in between the modules. You can set the due date and also award points. Quiz Assignment is quite similar to Assignment except that it automatically creates a Google Form.

iii. Questions – this helps you to pose questions to Students. Their responses can be graded too.

iv. Material – these are learning resources that you would like to share with students.

d. You can either ‘Add’ or ‘Create’ resources under Assignments, Quiz Assignments, Questions, and Material. These resources can be added: a file from Google Drive, a website link, a file uploaded from your device, or a YouTube link. To create resources, you can use any of the following Google apps: Docs, Slides, Sheets, Drawing, Forms. For example, I uploaded my training slides before every module and the link to Zoom recording after every module. These are all uploaded as Material.

3. Preparation

For my virtual class, I populated most of the topics before the start of Module 1. As my Welcome topic contains pre-work for students, I posted or assigned all the resources one week before the virtual class starts. For the remaining topics, I scheduled to post or assign the resources only when the module commences. The best part of GC is that I can add new resources or edit existing resources any time.

4. Usage
GC is also a key pillar supporting the synchronous sessions of my virtual masterclass. Participants will be asked to assess GC during pair or group activities so that they can apply their learning immediately by doing the assignments in GC. This beats the sending of files to and fro between Teacher and Students, which can be very disorganised.

A New Normal?

There is a silver lining to every crisis. While we cannot control the situation that is unfolding, we can control our responses to it. The lockdown period has been a blessing in disguise as it has accelerated my learning of online tools and applying them immediately. Before Covid-19 pandemic, I was a firm advocate of face-to-face training and have always been resistant to the adoption of technology for training.

However, extraordinary times call for extraordinary responses. While I still believe in the importance of face-to-face human connections, I have opened my mind to leverage technology to enhance learning effectiveness. The synergy of Zoom videoconferencing and Google Classroom has indeed changed my perception of virtual learning. Will this be the new normal for my workshop after the current crisis? Honestly, I do not have the answer yet as I am still on the journey of exploring and learning. Perhaps, in the not too distant future, my workshop might eventually evolve as a blended classroom combining the best of both worlds. But one thing for sure, the workshop will no longer look the same as before.

About Phoon Kok Hwa

Phoon Kok Hwa is a Publisher at Candid Creation Publishing, an award-winning and leading bilingual independent publishing house based in Singapore, where he has spent the last 17 years coaching and supporting aspiring authors to get their books written, published and distributed.

He is also the lead facilitator for the authorship workshop “So You Want To Be An Author”, where aspiring authors are propelled towards publishing success through the 6P Framework of Publishing.