How long should online classes be? Four questions to ask

After today’s Power of Story in the Virtual Classroom event, Angela asked, “What do you believe is the longest learning session can be in a practical sense, and still keep learners engaged? Can virtual training happen in a 4-hour class? Or all day?”

Angela, there’s no magic answer, and even offline we’ve all sat through 1-hour meetings or training sessions wanting to poke ourselves in the eye with a fork.

And there isn’t a perfect answer online either. By analogy, some movies keep us captivated for 2 1/2 hrs and others make us want to run.

I follow four guideline questions when I consult with clients on this:

Offline, what is or isn’t working for you?

If it’s painful offline, it’ll only be more painful online.

Online, you shouldn’t go longer. Could you go shorter?

Often the impetus for doing a longer session in-person is because it’s costly to get everyone in the same room. Online you might be able to take a typical training day and break it up into 2-hour segments, spreading them out over a few days.

Are you willing to instructionally RE-design?

When people move training online, often the first thing they do is talk (no problem) and show PowerPoint…without adapting the other things we do as humans.

Beyond that, how you design and deliver exercises, invite participation, have learners work together, schedule breaks, and everything else can all be done online, but it helps to de-construct and then re-construct your sessions?

Are you willing to up your game as an entertainer?

Just like the point we made in the storytelling webinar, we respond better to content that is accompanied by compelling delivery. You don’t have to move to Hollywood, but will you commit to growing in your delivery skills (I know a good coach! :))?

How long is too long? With most clients I strive for three hours or less typically, and that’s very interactive. Otherwise go shorter. Then cut it in half.

And I’m only half joking.


3 thoughts on “How long should online classes be? Four questions to ask

  1. Angela

    Great thoughts, Roger. We have an upcoming half-day “experiment” session and your advice will be well utilized, as we certainly can’t have slides up for 3-4 hours with someone talking. Poking eyes out is right!
    One thing I was thinking about as a possibility was having them break up into groups of 2-3 (it’s a small, known class size – 15 people or so) for parts of it and working on problems using the Chat window, and then sharing back with the group. Would definitely have to think about a lot of logistics and timing with that. Either that or (this might be simpler) having them share homework with the rest of the class online.

    1. TheVP

      You’re headed in the right direction Angela. When I developed a course for American Management Association we had 12 curriculum hours broken up into four 3-hour sessions (with homework in between). Each of those sessions had multiple breaks of various sorts…small group interactions, balance between lecture and discussion, get-up-and-stretch-and-check-your-email breaks, etc.

      It CAN be done. And you’re using your thinking cap…you’re on the right path!

  2. Angela

    Good to hear – I’m glad to hear others have figured out ways to make this happen. And thanks for the additional ideas!

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