I’m one lucky technical trainer. My company knows the value of training and has designated a conference room strictly for internal classes. We’ve set up 10 workstations, and someone is teaching something in there almost every day.

Recently, we moved the training room, and there were several days when no other facility was available for training. During that time, I needed to teach a short class that absolutely required the students to be in front of their computers.

Instead of postponing the class or “making do” in a conference room with a whiteboard (but no computers), I improvised and taught the class by telephone. The results were amazing, and now we are scheduling a regular series of “phone-based” training sessions. Here’s the scoop.
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“MeetMe” for class at extension 6644
In “Roll out your IP phones with minimal IT time,” I told you about my company’s cool new IP phones (Cisco model 7960). One of the most useful things the Unity telephone software does is offer MeetMe conferencing. In general, this feature lets you select one of a special group of extensions for your conference call. After you initiate the conference call as the host, anyone who dials that special extension immediately joins the conference call.

I reserved extension 6644 and sent an e-mail to everyone who needed to be in the class that said: “Be at your desk and dial 6644 at 11:00 to join the session.” Then I conducted the class over speakerphone! I had placed the sample files in a folder on a network drive where everyone could get to them. Then, I asked everyone to mute their phones except when they had a question. That way, the students could hear me, but the whole group wouldn’t hear their keyboards and mice clicking away during the lesson.

If your telephone system doesn’t support MeetMe-style conference calls, you can still conduct a class by phone. You just have to establish the conference call the old-fashioned way—by calling-and-connecting everyone who needs to be included in the meeting.

The pros of listen-and-learn training
I was frankly surprised at how positively the students reacted to this kind of training session. In their feedback, they identified three main benefits, including:

  • Convenience. The students loved the fact that they didn’t have to go to the training room and that they could learn in the friendly environs of their own offices, using their own PCs.
  • Virtually unlimited capacity. Depending on how many concurrent connections your phone system allows for conference calls, you can “fit” a lot more people in a conference call than in most training rooms.
  • Anonymity. Several of the students enjoyed being “voyeur learners.” They listened to what I had to say and followed along with the lesson, and they liked not having to worry about being “called on” by the teacher!

The cons
Although I liked conducting conference-call training, I wouldn’t want to use that approach to teaching all the time. Some of the problems I encountered included:

  • Lack of face-to-face contact. For the instructor, the most obvious problem with this kind of “distance” learning is that you can’t spot the furrowed brows or the puzzled looks on your students’ faces. In the classroom setting, you can give immediate help to those students without drawing untoward attention to the fact that they need help. With conference-call training, students are less likely to raise questions because they feel self-conscious about everyone hearing them talk over the speakerphone.
  • Voice interruptions. You have to be on your toes when you teach by phone. One chatty student with a lot of questions can monopolize the conference call and ruin the experience for everyone else.
  • E-mail interruptions. Instead of raising a question over the speaker, several people sent me questions via e-mail during the session. When my e-mail alarm went off, it was audible over my speakerphone, which was a distraction to the other students, so I muted my system’s speakers. Taking time to read those notes also distracted me from my lecture. In the future, I’ll probably ask students to save their e-mail questions for after the class (much like Bob Artner wants to outlaw Instant Messages during meetings).

If your training facilities are nonexistent or temporarily unavailable, try training via conference call. One last note: I recommend keeping your conference-call training sessions short and sweet, just 15 to 30 minutes.
To comment on this tip or to share your experiences training under less-than-ideal circumstances, please post a note below or follow this link to write to Jeff.