elert & associates

Should You Have both Remote and Onsite Attendees in the Same Class?

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Actually, the way this question is usually phrased to the trainer who will present the class is “Can I have both remote and onsite attendees in the same class?” This is asked with the best of intentions by people who need to serve training to an audience that will mainly be in a traditional classroom with the instructor, but also have some people who are in remote locations and therefore cannot attend in person. But, through the magic of online conferencing tools, we can still let those people attend the class, right?

Well, maybe. Technically, you can do this—the instructor can share a computer screen both to onsite attendees over a projector and to a remote audience by also being signed into an online conferencing service. But the real question you should ask yourself is the one I stated in the title of this post—should you do this? I’d like to spend a few moments arguing that in most cases, the answer to this question is a big “NO.”

I have indeed taught classes this way, and have talked to other trainers who have also done so. I think while that we can agree that we did a good job of handling the two audiences and the training probably was fine, neither of the two audiences got the full experience that they could have, if we could have focused on them exclusively. Fine is, well, fine. But most trainers want more than that for their students, and I’m sure the businesses sponsoring the training do too.

The students in the classroom are definitely getting the better deal—they have me right there, I can easily look at their computers (or whatever class materials we’re working with), and we can see each other’s’ gestures and facial expressions. The remote students, meanwhile, only hear me over their audio connection, and cannot see my gestures or facial expressions unless I’m streaming live video and if I happen to look at the camera as I make the gesture or facial expression. And if I’m not near the phone or mic (assuming I’m not wearing a headset because of the classroom students), they can’t hear me very well, and I’ll probably have to repeat what the onsite students ask or say for the benefit of the remote students. I also can’t see the remote students’ computer screens, at least not without a disruptive, multi-step process to do so, and then switch back again to my own screen. If the remote students need technical support, I’m doing this while the onsite students wait. And finally, the idea that things can be taught exactly the same online as in a classroom is simply not true, and by combining the audiences I’m probably not using the methods best suited to both. Most likely the remote students are again the ones who will be shortchanged on this front, because I’m going to teach to the people who are sitting right there in front of me.

It’s really the unavoidable division of attention between the two audiences, and the wasted time spent on duplication of efforts (like having to repeat things for one of the audiences), that causes each audience to feel like they did not have my full attention–because they didn’t. And that’s not fair—not to them, not to me. Obviously, life is not always fair, and we do the best we can with our situations, budgets, etc. But if you can have two separate sessions, one in the classroom with only onsite students, and one online with only remote students, then please, please do it that way, for the benefit of everyone involved. The point of training is for students to learn what they need so that they can apply it in real life later, so as many obstacles that we can remove to that effect, the better. And being in a class with two separate audiences is going to be an obstacle to learning, for the reasons I’ve mentioned.

OK, since I mentioned fairness, I’ll be fair—I’ve been a student in a combined-audience class that I think was done the right way, and that worked for both audiences. I was one of the remote students.

Here’s how it worked: there was a classroom where the onsite students sat at desks with computers, the instructor had a projector up front, and basically was what you’d expect a computer classroom to be. But there were also computers set aside for the remote students to log into. That is, we were basically “ghosts,” in that classroom—we were each logged into a classroom computer and controlling it, but we were not physically there. The instructor used a high quality audio device, had a camera aimed at the front of the room from where she presented, and we could also see her screen shared over the conferencing software. (This conferencing software was the training company’s own proprietary software, so they designed it specifically for mixed-audience class use.) Thus, we could see the instructor if she was within the camera’s field, we could hear her and the other students just fine at all times, and she could actually walk over to our computers and see what we were doing (and correct us) at any time. And she did. I doubt the onsite students felt slighted when she was paying attention to one of us, because it was no different for her to deal with our “ghost-selves” in the room than with the onsite students. And I never felt like I was not fully a part of that class. Except that they had donuts and coffee in the room, of which my ghost-self was unable to partake.

But do you see the difference? A whole lot of thought went into the technology and arrangement of that classroom, as well as into the software used to connect remote students. So it can be done, but if you want to do it the right way, you’ll need to invest both time and money into the classroom infrastructure. And use trainers who obviously know how to use it all smoothly, as that particular trainer did.

Author Danielle Strom-Virtual/Classroom Instructor and Curriculum Developer at Elert & Associates