Last week I had a new experience on a job that I’ve had since 2007. I presented a full two-day training on Suicide Prevention entirely online. Not only was this presentation fully online, it was presented in real time, in a virtual environment. I have attended workshops as a remote participant watching what amounts to a video of the live training, and I have presented workshops where my voice and a still photo of me were broadcast to the live audience (like a phone call with a photo on the computer), but this was an entirely different experience. In this new training format, I had an avatar (how cool does that sound?), as did each member of the audience. The attendees entered a virtual auditorium, took their seats, and watched my avatar teach (with my voice), complete with PowerPoint slides on virtual screens. From the comforts of our own homes or offices, those of us participating in this training had the experience of a typical live class without the rigors or expense of travel.
I went into this experience a bit anxious and maybe a little doubtful about this being a good training venue, but all doubts vanished somewhere along the way. Putting on a virtual training is a bit different that teaching in front of a live class. The first difference was having to register to use the Second Life platform. I’m not a huge video game user, so arriving in this virtual world was a new and unusual experience for me. I had to choose and avatar from a small selection of free ones available to anyone. This was challenging as I wasn’t able to choose any of the many animal, zombie, or vampire avatars. Already the preparations were diverging from those typical of preparing for a professional workshop! Once I learned how to make my avatar walk, run, fly (because who doesn’t want to fly while they are working?), and talk I was ready for the next step. I had to schedule a training session with the CDP online team to teach me how to get into the CDP’s Second Life training center.
This is similar to the process for attendees at our courses who are invited to a Second Life “open house” where our staff teaches them how to get professional looking avatars, move in the environment, talk, mute their microphone, text chat with others at the class, and navigate to the training location. In my training as the presenter, I was also given the tools I needed to make my PowerPoint slides advance, change the camera views of what I was seeing in the auditorium, and how to move the participants into breakout rooms for doing small group exercises. This initially seemed overwhelming, but the online staff attends the entire workshop assisting the presenters in the background making the entire workshop run smoothly. Next, I had to schedule an additional training with one of our online experts at CDP to help me purchase things like hair, feet, hands, skin, and eyes for my avatar to make her look distinct and professional. We also purchased several outfits for her, which allowed my avatar to appear each day in different clothes, just like I would if I were teaching in person. It also helps make the experience a little more genuine and visually interesting. I’ll skip all the details on the multitude of small changes that were made to this avatar to make her walk, talk, move, and gesture in a more natural manner. The end result was rather fun to see and hopefully created a visual representation of me that was not distracting (except for the moment that she appeared to be standing on a chair while teaching, or when she was briefly floating rather than standing on the floor).
On the first day of the training, I was impressed to see the attendees smoothly appearing in the back of the auditorium, just as in an in-person training. They each chose where they wanted to sit in the room, and just like an in-person training, most of them avoided sitting in the front row and one person even stood in the back of the room. Unlike an in person training, if someone arrived late or left early there were no doors creaking and no disruption to the room. Another major difference was how easy it was to regain the audience’s attention after completing a group exercise or break. At times I have wished for a whistle or megaphone in live workshops when trying to get the group to refocus their attention after a break or lunch. When there is really someone standing beside you, the temptation is to continue the conversation you were enjoying on break and ignore the presenter requesting that you return to your seats and resume the workshop. This does not happen in the virtual training environment. Participants can still chat through typing at any time, but as the presenter, it’s not distracting. I’ve never given a training like this – when we said that the practice exercise was over and participants should return to the auditorium one of the online staff pushed a button and all attendees were immediately teleported back to the auditorium and the exercise ended promptly. It really was like magic. No waiting five extra minutes for the noise level to die down enough for me to be heard! It was a little less magical to realize that I needed to actually take action when I wanted my avatar to move. Several times I realized that I had been presenting for over an hour with my avatar lazily sitting in a chair at the front of the auditorium where I had parked her while my co-presenter was teaching. Note to self, make her stand and move to the center of the stage when it’s time to teach.
I learned a few additional lessons beyond adjusting to the technology and having myself represented by an avatar as a presenter in a live on line format. The most important lesson I learned was to be myself. This took some time and practice. My initial inclination was to be uber serious and professional. My rational (admittedly, not well-thought out) went something like “because the audience cannot actually see me they will not appreciate any personal warmth, genuine use of humor, stories, examples, or connection with me.” I initially presented the material in the training as if I was being recorded for a static audio recording to be delivered to an audience of computers and robots – there was no humor, no variation from my notes, and little effort to engage the audience in a real exchange of ideas and information. Sometime midway through the training I realized that when I was in Second Life talking to other CDP staff without the audience I was relax and spoke as I would to any of them if I were on the phone or in person. That was when something clicked for me that I know how to talk to people I cannot see. I grew up as a teen in the ‘80s and I know how to talk on the phone (and talk and talk and talk…). It occurred to me that I should relax and be myself – be the “me” that audiences typically like. I began by asking if anyone had a good snack during break and joked that I had chocolate and tea (not something I get when teaching in a real conference center usually). That got people talking. Then I began sharing some of the stories that I often use to illustrate my points and concepts when I’m teaching – and the audience responded positively. Next, I added some humor and got positive responses in the chat window. I realized that I had finally relaxed and started presenting the material I am familiar with in the manner that I would with an in-person audience and I was getting the responses I wanted from my audience rather than radio silence. Presenting in a virtual environment doesn’t require becoming stiff and formal, it is well suited to using one’s natural training style (or if you are the attendee being your natural self as a participant as long as you don’t typically sleep though workshops). This was a revolutionary concept for me!
I loved presenting in Second Life. The auditorium was clean, polished, and professional looking with better audio-visual technology than many of the venues I have visited. The tech support was triple what I am used to, and the audience members could each speak with me directly through the chat. Furthermore, I had full access to all my presenter notes and was able to use them to my heart’s content, which is very difficult to do in-person, without looking like you have no clue what you are doing. It was such a luxury. During the lunch break I had the entire time to do what I wished. There was no driving to a local fast food establishment and rushing through a meal in order to return to the classroom on time. I enjoyed a meal from my own kitchen at a leisurely pace, and still had time to review my notes and mentally prepare for the next phase of the workshop. I even had time to reflect on how to be natural and myself for the remainder of the training. Sign me up for any trainings in Second Life, either as the attendee or the presenter – I’m in!
Dr. Elizabeth Parins, Psy.D. is a project developer and trainer in military and civilian programs with the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.