'Virtual' Moves to the Head of the Class

Here are five practical tips for teaching professionals in a virtual environment, in the COVID-19 era and beyond.

When it comes to education, there’s no such thing as one size fits all. That may seem obvious, because teaching spelling to a first grader is way different from teaching philosophy to a college student. 

The nuances increase when we start talking about continuing education. Professionals who are years into their careers have practical goals; they’re seeking knowledge to help them advance in their companies or do their current jobs better. Many of them will earn CE (continuing education) credits by completing a course. To say that they have a lot at stake is an understatement. Their ultimate success depends greatly on the quality of the teaching. 

So let’s talk about teaching industry professionals in a virtual environment, which has become necessary — even in vogue — in the era of COVID-19, and will likely increase in importance as the distributed workforce continues to grow.

Case in point: When the Network of Vertafore Users (NetVU) had to cancel its annual conference this year, staff restructured the entire course curriculum to an online format, and the “Summer of Accelerate” was born. It offers more than 100 courses, which are taken by thousands of independent insurance professionals tuning in from their dining rooms and home offices all over the country.

Based on our experience with our volunteer instructors, here are five tips for successful CE teaching in a virtual setting:

1. Move beyond the lesson plan

You have to prepare yourself differently to teach in a webinar format than in a classroom. Creating a good lesson plan will only get you so far. Yes, it’s always important to develop a solid outline of what you’re going to teach, but it’s also wise to consider that your students won’t be in the room with you. Instead, they’ll be at their computers and likely in their homes, where there are distractions. It may not be possible for them to raise their hand to ask a question or make a comment on the spur of the moment. The technology for virtual learning is good, but not that advanced yet. Which leads to our second tip.

See also: Building a Virtual Insurer Post-COVID

2. Make it practical

There’s no time for theory in a virtual setting. You have one hour to transmit a lot of information. That’s it. When you only have one shot at teaching the material, you don’t have the luxury of wading into the “whys” and “wherefores” of what you’re doing, like the college professor who gets to lecture a class once a week for a whole semester. Create snippets of information that are actionable and repeatable. Give step-by-step instructions, and create your PowerPoint slide or live demo accordingly, like a YouTube how-to video.

3. Adapt your materials to the technology

You probably won’t be able to interact with your students, and there won’t be that lively discussion you can get in a classroom setting. But you can still inject your presentation with personality and relevance. For example, a good way to lead in to a demonstration is, “I had a student just last week sharing with me that she was able to save 15 minutes a day using this technique.” Or, “I got a note from Sara Jones this morning saying she hoped we would dive a little deeper into this topic.”

4. Recognize the objectives

The sooner CE instructors understand a fundamental difference from teaching in an academic environment, the better off everyone will be. In grade school, high school, college and graduate school, the school sets the objectives. By contrast, the desired outcome of continuing education is improved performance, so the student sets the objectives. They are driven by the student’s career aspirations and the firm’s pursuit of happier customers and financial targets. This is true regardless of the classroom setting — at a distance or in person.

5. Understand your students

Because your students drive the curriculum, it’s important to ask them in advance why they’ve chosen your session, as well as their expectations for the session and even career goals. A short survey will open up a world of insight. Remember, you will be imparting practical knowledge, not abstract theory. In our member organization of more than 20,000 insurance agencies, carriers, MGAs and compliance organizations, our “students” usually want to know more about a specific feature of their firm’s Vertafore management system and how to use it more effectively.

For example, numerous times a day a customer service representative, or CSR, needs to engage in a conversation with an insured about that person’s needs while working in the ACORD application. The CSR has to listen, answer questions, give advice, even empathize with the customer while simultaneously looking at a screen full of questions, digesting the information and completing a number of fields. That's a skill that has to be taught and practiced. 

Rewind and Review

Before I begin those five steps of creating a successful CE course, I like to take a minute and go back to where it all starts: the customer. Remember, the customer doesn’t choose an agency because its CSR is an expert in the technology, but because he’s qualified to give sound advice.

The tool or technology can never become more important than the conversation with the customer.

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