What Can Make Online Learning Challenging? 

By: Marsha Acker, Antoinette Coetzee, Kay Harper, and Kari McLeod


As we’ve been having conversations with many of you over the past few weeks, we thought we would share and normalize some of the concerns that we’ve heard from you regarding online learning. We understand that you might naturally be feeling hesitant about an online experience. After all, there is no lack of online options these days! 

We at TeamCatapult love connecting with people in a room. We care deeply about creating a space for deep learning through experiences, reflections, and conversations. We feel a connection with our class participants, the teams we coach, and the working session participants we facilitate. We take the time to get to know others.

TeamCatapult has been teaching a workshop called “Virtual Facilitation Masterclass” for the past four years. We co-created this course with Rachel Smith, an expert in Virtual Work and Remote Online learning and in partnership with The Grove, pioneers of visual and virtual collaboration, to help fill a gap we saw as the workplace included more remote and distributed teams. Experienced, in-the-room facilitators were wondering, “How do I translate that into leading engaging collaboration in a virtual environment?” 

With the public health measures in place to stall the Coronavirus and COVID-19 Pandemic, we have decided to pivot and present all our courses in a virtual setting for the foreseeable future.  Which means we will apply the same advanced techniques we teach in the Virtual Facilitation Masterclass to bring our attendees the very best virtual experience in all our workshops.

Fact: Online Learning Will Not Be The Same As in the Room

That is right! Online and in-person learning experiences are different. 

However, difference does not necessarily mean less-than. First and foremost, you can’t simply “copy-paste” a course designed with the intention of in-person training into an online format. 

Virtual space creates different energy–energy that takes a mindset and skill to design and facilitate. The key is that successful virtual leaders examine the intent of what they are trying to accomplish and aren’t merely fixated on porting in-the-room techniques to an online medium. 

The protocols when working online are different and take some getting used to, but once you have gone through the initial learning curve, the rewards extend way beyond the workshop. 

Fact: We Cannot Bring Our Entire Physical Being to an Online Workshop

When we meet one another in person there are a lot of physical cues that help us create connection. In the type of classes we teach at TeamCatapult, we need connection to grow, and that grows into trust, in order to create the optimum conditions for transformational learning. One of the concerns we’ve heard is that people just don’t like “online;” they feel disconnected from others. 

We cannot bring our entire physical being to an online workshop. Well, not yet, anyway! Yet we all have experiences of building connections with people we have never met in person–someone you’ve only exchanged emails or letters with, the characters we see in movies, or our favorite celebrity chef or musical artist. In some cases the connection may be one-way, but it grows because we get to know the person, understand and resonate with them.

Creating connection virtually is one of the things that we are called to do especially now that so much of our work is online via email, Slack, Zoom, Mural, and the like. And from connection, we need to build trust. 

There are three stages of building trust in remote teams, all of which can be applied to online learning: swift trust, cognitive trust, and affective trust. 

Trust builds differently with remote teams than in-person teams. We use our virtual team facilitation experience to build trust with participants, the same way we teach you to do so. 

We start with a brief check-in, not just at the start of the day, but after breaks and lunch. We establish spaces where people can connect informally. In our training, we do this through asking people to Zoom in before class starts and we set up Slack channels that aren’t directly related to the course. As our participants start to connect, we make sure to bring their brief social exchanges into their working sessions. We divide these working sessions into whole-group, small-group, and paired discussions. That’s right! Effective remote meetings and trainings have participants doing things with one another. This too builds trust.

In our online workshops, we guide you to growing your mindset and acquiring the skills to build connection and trust in your teams, which you then take what you’ve learned back to your organizations. You will help your teams, not just while they are working from home because of Coronavirus, but in the future when work is bound to look different than it did two months ago.

Fact: Facilitation and Coaching Skills Can Be Learned Online

We hold two beliefs about the concern whether skills like facilitation and coaching can be learned online.

First, we cannot train others in something that we have not achieved some level of mastery. For that reason, all of our faculty are certified professional coaches, and trained or certified facilitators, and have their own practice of facilitation and coaching with teams. The deep experience of our faculty is what allows each of us to pivot easily in the moment, work with what shows up in a group, and have leadership range in how we co-create and lead an engaging learning environment. 

Our second belief about this concern is that no one can teach you facilitation and coaching simply by providing a course. We can provide key principles. We can help you understand your own mindset and beliefs about these competencies. But, you will only truly learn them by doing them. So practice, practice, practice is a fundamental component to our curriculum. In our virtual classes, you will have the opportunity to practice facilitation and coaching in a safe learning space, and give and get feedback. We set you up for success in growing your mindset and practicing these skills for when you return to work the following day or week.  The same opportunities we provide in our in-person classes, with an added benefit of getting to practice with remote collaboration tools! What better time to practice these skills virtually when you will be using them virtually for work.  

Fact: Online Learning With TeamCatapult Does Not Mean You Sit and Stare at a Screen for 8 Hours Straight!

Virtual work is more taxing than we think it’s going to be. How can it be so tiring just sitting in a chair, looking at a computer screen, typing, and talking on Zoom calls? 

We promise: TeamCatapult virtual classes will not have you sitting for the entire class. 

  • We build in more frequent and longer breaks than you may be used to in both in-person and virtual training. 
  • You’ll have time to go for a walk at lunch and prepare a real meal. 
  • You’ll be able to check-in with kids doing homework and pet your dog during our breaks. 

In our ICAgile Facilitation and Coaching classes, we’ll even have you up and moving around a few times during the class. All of this is designed to give your brain and body a break. Not only will you have more energy for the class, these longer breaks create the time and space that allows what you’ve learned to settle and stick.

virtual leadership workshops

The Benefits of Online Learning!

While online learning certainly is not the same as learning in the room, there are numerous ways online learning might be a better fit for you than learning in the room.

Learning and Teaching Online Will Be a Must-Have Skill Moving Forward

As leaders and managers our way of working is changing. 

What will your leadership and management style look like in a year from now? None of us knows the answer to that, but what we do know is that our way of working will change. There is a strong possibility that for the foreseeable future we will not be gathering in a room with 15-20 people to learn and collaborate together. 

The same will be true for your teams. 

How will you lead in a remote world? How will you connect with people? How will you engage a remote team?

The experience you need to make these changes can be learned in our classes and then be applied to your own team. 

Introverts Unite; Online Learning Was Made For You! 

Our world of work and learning is highly biased towards those with a preference for extroversion. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, writes about how brainstorming, meetings, learning and work all have a bias towards extroversion (click here for a short article).  

In our online programs we certainly do ask people to come prepared to speak, listen, contribute and “play-in.” The experience is different than it is in-person though. We often put participants in small break-out groups where the discussion is in a quiet and private space. You don’t hear the conversation from other groups in the room, which lessens distraction and increases your opportunity to focus and engage. 

In a room with others it’s easy to be distracted by what other people are doing or not doing. Online you can turn off your camera and mute your microphone and truly have a quiet moment. We have also designed even more reflective exercises in our online classes, giving everyone the quiet space to reflect and take notes. 

Getting to Know the Whole Person

We could jump for joy over this benefit! For decades we’ve watched leaders struggle with this concept of “my work self” and “my home self” and that somehow those are different. It’s almost like there’s a belief that one can put on a work suit (armor?) and go off to work and then come home and be a completely different person. This is a false duality because we are whole human beings. The more we try to suppress one side of ourselves at work, the less joyful, authentic and real we feel. It’s been our experience that this is the source of many interpersonal conflicts at work. 

What we’ve seen in our online learning spaces is that the whole person is coming to our courses–mainly because we don’t have a choice! 

We see people wearing sweatshirts rather than dress shirts, sitting at kitchen tables (or in their closet just to find a quiet place), being interrupted by determined and loving pets, and laughing as kids go streaking through the background in diapers or coming in for a quick hug. 

While all of those things could be viewed as distractions, we incorporate them and make them okay. These are all opportunities to get to know one another more deeply.

We know that trust builds more quickly when we know people more personally. When the right conditions are present and people are willing to fully show up, our online learning experience creates deeper connections between people than in the room. 

The Future of TeamCatapult Workshops

Just like you, with the Coronavirus and COVID-19 Pandemic, we’re continuing to experiment, innovate and challenge our own learning edges. We’ve moved most of our workshops online, but we haven’t done it at the expense of lessening the learning or the experience for participants! 

As we continue to sense and respond to the pandemic, we will keep your learning experience at the core of our experimentation and innovation.

We hope you’ll join us as we chart a path towards the future of leading in a connected, but separate space.

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