Improve the Online Learning Experience with a Train-the-Trainer Program

Moving your in-person conferences and courses to an online platform was like putting on a new pair of prescription glasses. What was once blurry in the background suddenly came into focus. When replicated online, your conference sessions and courses resembled the average webinar—a passive learning experience that prompted attendees to multitask since they didn’t have any opportunities to engage with fellow learners or apply new information.

Virtual conferences and courses might have received a passing grade last year because people were eager to get out of their pandemic routine—plus they needed the credits and associations needed the revenue. But you can provide a more effective and enjoyable learning experience if your instructors understand and apply the principles of adult learning. A train-the-trainer program will help you improve the quality and impact of online and in-person instruction.

Instructor effectiveness is not a new problem

Last year, in a matter of weeks or months, you had to turn in-person courses and conferences into a virtual experience. The logistics were tough enough:

•    Finding a platform
•    Converting content
•    Making sure instructors and presenters had the right setup to record and/or present programs
•    Pricing and marketing the new program

One big issue was often overlooked: Do instructors and presenters know how to teach adult learners in an online setting? The sad reality is many of them don’t know how to do it in an in-person setting. They’re not education professionals; they’re subject matter experts who do this as a volunteer job or side hustle. It’s fairly easy to teach them about lighting, sound and video; teaching them the principles of effective adult learning is a different challenge, but you can do it.

train-the-trainer program

What will you teach the teachers?

First, talk to existing instructors. What do they wish they had known when they started? What support would they have appreciated?

Bone up on the basic principles of adult learning. Here are some of our favorite resources:

•    Science of Learning (video) by Jeff Hurt
•    Adult learning posts from Lead Learning Now/Tagoras
•    Science of Learning for Conferences: posts with advice from Will Thalheimer, Peter C. Brown and Jeff Hurt

We’ve covered several elements of effective design and instruction on our blog, such as:

•    Spaced learning
•    Engaging learners and more ways to engage learners
•    Flipped learning
•    Microlearning
•    Adult learning myths

How will you deliver your train-the-trainer program?

Your train-the-trainer program should follow the adult learning principles you’re promoting. Since you’re dealing with busy professionals, give them options. If it’s convenient for them, a live program would allow for social learning. But an asynchronous experience might work better for their schedules. If enough people are taking the program, see if you can schedule a few live discussion groups for participants.

In an ASAE Collaborate discussion, Jack Coursen, director of professional development at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), suggested an option for session presenters that would also work well for online course instructors:

“…a course with CE credits, designed for speakers, that is intended to be used in the flow of creating a presentation, that provides JIT [just-in-time] practical tips and suggestions, mapped to known best practices in adult learning, designed to empower the speaker to deliver a more effective learning experience.”

He proposes marketing this course to anyone but offering it free to your speakers and instructors as a perk for their participation. It also lets your industry and market know about the standards you expect from instructors—they actually know how to teach adult learners.

What will you require new instructors to do?

One of the many pitfalls of relying on volunteer instructors or presenters is the feeling that you can’t make too many demands on their time since they’re already giving so much. But if your learners and attendees are investing their time and money in your programs, they deserve the best you can do. If volunteers want the opportunity to teach or present, they must know how to deliver effective instruction. Make them participate in your train-the-trainer program, no exceptions.

Some of the new instructor practices we’ve observed at associations include:

•    New instructors audit or take the course they will teach, at your expense, of course, before they teach it. They experience how an experienced instructor delivers the content, so they have a standard to reach or exceed.

•    You arrange for them to talk with an existing instructor so they can hear their observations about the teaching experience, where the course needs improvement, and issues to beware.

•    They rehearse a lesson with staff and/or experienced instructors and get feedback from them.

•    They’re paired with an existing instructor to teach the course together. Two personalities are more interesting than one.

One issue to keep in mind: paid instructors are independent contractors. Have your legal counsel review the instructor contract and requirements to ensure you’re not doing anything that could jeopardize their standing as an independent contractor. You don’t want the IRS or state labor board to consider them employees.

train-the-trainer program

What support will you give instructors?

Some associations provide new instructors:

•    Observation and feedback from staff and/or an educational consultant.

•    Mentoring from an experienced instructor.

•    Practice with webinars before taking on a full-length course.

Provide instructor and presenter resources on your website or LMS. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education has a page on their site with guidelines, best practices and tips on building and delivering an interactive online session.

Issue a digital badge and/or certificate to those who take and pass the train-the-trainer program. They can market themselves as a certified instructor to chapters, affiliated organizations and other industry organizations.

How will you encourage continual improvement?

Ask instructors who go through the train-the-trainer program for feedback.

•    What did we miss?
•    What did you want to go deeper on?
•    What wasn’t necessary?
•    What did you think of the delivery method?
•    What was the most useful part of the program?
•    What should we improve?

You can also rely on evaluations by student, staff and/or consultants to spark further improvement.

Any organization can host an online course or conference resembling a series of webinar-like experiences, but is that the low bar you’re going for? A train-the-trainer program will produce the best instructors in your industry and market. Differentiate yourself from the competition and validate your reputation as the industry’s leading educator by providing a learning experience that’s enjoyable and transformative.

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