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How to Revamp Your Next Webinar

Short. Practical. Engaging.

How many times have you used these words to describe job training? For some, the answer is very few — or not at all. If that’s you, you’re not alone.

We’ve all been subjected to the never-ending webinar or the marathon lecture, whether in school or as working professionals. You may or may not have been the person dozing off in your seat, or one of the few who stayed awake but had little time afterward to ask questions.

Chris DiPalma, operations discipline champion at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) knows these dilemmas all too well. His agency has been there, done that, and literally flipped the traditional learning model on its head to make training more engaging and practical for employees.

The two-hour webinar approach is “not a very effective way to teach people across the country,” DiPalma said during GovLoop’s Future of Learning in Government event on Tuesday. It’s “not very engaging and the results that we had essentially indicated as much.”

How FHWA Flipped Its Learning Model

FHWA used a flipped classroom approach to bring together more than 100 people from across the country with varying levels of experience — ranging from 30 years to 30 days. You’ve probably heard about flipped classrooms in the context of K-12 and higher education, but DiPalma found the effects to be beneficial for government learners, too. The traditional role of classroom time is reversed. Rather than learners sitting through two-hour lectures and having to complete an activity or assignment at home, students watch lectures on their own time. The instructor uses class time to guide students in active and meaningful discussions so they can apply their knowledge.

Think of the workplace as a big classroom. FHWA replaced long lectures with short, five to 10-minute videos on the training topics and included interactive components in the form of questions and exercises. Providing short, bite-sized chunks of online information empowered employees to view training material on their own time. They were able to watch training in between meetings or at the end of the day, and they were also encouraged to have discussions with other trainees.

But FHWA didn’t stop there.

“We flipped the flipped classroom,” said DiPalma, who streamed into the event live from Washington state. The agency identified seasoned professionals with decades of experiences, who could share knowledge with their colleagues. Think of it as peer-to-peer learning where employees got honest advice about the good, the bad and the challenges they were likely to experience on the job. Recorded interviews with agency experts were conducted in a radio-style format and posted online. There were also live sessions, and most of the time was reserved for employee questions.

“It drove the point home that you can do this,” DiPalma said. “This isn’t just something that’s off in theory, or on a piece of paper, or in a textbook somewhere.”

Feedback on FHWA’s flipped classroom approach speaks for itself:

94 percent of trainees said the instructors were effective in conveying course information

83 percent said there was enough interaction to keep them engaged throughout the course.

85 percent said live webinars were effective or highly effective.

85 percent said online discussions were effective or highly effective.

Lessons Learned: Creating a Virtual Course

As the technology partnerships coordinator for the FHWA Center for Accelerating Innovation, Julie Zirlin encourages professionals to use proven — but underutilized — innovations when building roads and bridges.

Zirlin’s team partnered with GovLoop to create a course that teaches professionals how to develop an implementation plan for a series of innovations. The challenge: converting an interactive, onsite course into an engaging virtual course. The end product included live instruction webinars, scheduled time for participants to work in teams following the webinars, online discussions, self-paced content and a collaborative editing tool.

Although the content was created in advance, the team used an agile approach to tweak the course content each week based on feedback from participants.

The most surprising outcome of the project, Zirlin said, was that participation increased by offering a virtual course. That’s almost expected in the aftermath of the government conference scandal and dwindling travel budgets. But despite FHWA offering to cover travel costs, participants were often prohibited by their organization from accepting the money.

Zirlin offered a few lessons learned for agencies embarking on a similar journey:

  • Pre-register participants for the course.
  • Plan the long-term needs of users. Consider whether participants will need collaboration space beyond the course.
  • Self-pace content is a bonus, not a priority.
  • Dry-runs are useful for tightening content.
  • Limit live instruction to one hour.
  • Adjust content as you go.

See DiPalma’s full presentation here, and Zirlin’s here.

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