This is a time of drastic change in adult learning; the way learning is conceptualized and put into practice is quickly evolving. It is likely that many adult learning and development professionals were already preparing for this shift in workplace learning delivery. Perhaps they thought it would be caused by corporate sustainability measures constraining training logistics, or by the influence of Generation Z demanding more flexibility and autonomy in their workspace. Regardless of the reasons, we believed like many other practitioners that these changes would be gradual and evolutionary. In the span of a few months, however, we were forced to adapt remaining learning programs to a virtual format due to COVID-19.

Synchronous virtual learning

For organizations with the infrastructure to support instructor-led training, synchronous virtual learning emerged as an attractive way to connect virtual employees to learning. The appeal lies in the shorter turnaround times for development in comparison to asynchronous approaches and the ability to leverage existing resources, such as trainers, presentation materials, and meeting software.

Synchronous virtual learning comes with challenges as well. These challenges include, but are not limited to, technical access, internet stability, the complexity of the content, the number of participants, employee technical proficiency, participant engagement, and social learning. Cognitive load is a threat to the integrity of a learning program and can be difficult to gauge in a virtual setting.

Cognitive load considerations in virtual classrooms

Design that is not properly adjusted for a virtual context and infrastructure that cannot support a virtual classroom are two significant contributors to cognitive load. Research shows there are several ways inadequate design can undermine the success of a learning strategy by contributing to extraneous cognitive load. For example, graphics or presentations that use transient information effects like animations to call out information have been less effective than static visualization due to the strain of transient information on working memory (Ayers & Sweller, 2005; Hatsidimitris & Kalvuga, 2012). Additionally, technological issues in virtual classes may contribute to cognitive load by creative distracting environmental stimuli (Choi, Van Merriënboer & Paas, 2014).

Fortunately, many professionals and organizations are equipped to handle the changes. Some of the most meaningful tools to support the shift to virtual learning are already in their toolboxes. One such resource is the moderator. The moderator is the trainer’s “second set of hands” in the virtual classroom and is responsible for the technical success of virtual training.

Instructor and moderator roles

In a virtual instructor-led context, delivery may be composed of a trainer and moderator. Within this structure the trainer focuses on delivering the content, whereas the moderator may be supporting the technology, supervising activities, managing administrative tasks, or serving as a host. The moderator can also remedy technological issues, another obstacle to learning. The moderator can mitigate and proactively resolve these issues through technology checks, management of technical delivery, and technical support to individual learners. Some organizations may not have a fully built moderator role but may have a learning and development professional assist with facilitation.

The support of the moderator allows the trainer to focus on delivering the content. From our experience with trainers, a common complaint is that they reach capacity balancing all the responsibilities of a virtual classroom. The moderator supports the virtual classroom by increasing the capability for interactivity. For example, while a trainer facilitates content, a moderator can progress through the slides, manage the chat for questions, prepare polls, monitor hand raises, and oversee technical interactive elements.

In our experience, when implemented correctly, the moderator is critical to the flow of content and to enhancing participant engagement. Facilitator guides should include facilitator notes and moderator-specific notes and cues to pose questions to participants in the chat or verbally during delivery. These notes should also outline when to engage with the trainer around a real-world example. Moderators can also be employed in delivering activities and knowledge checks. These types of engagements enable the trainer to do just-in-time prep, such as getting a system loaded for a demonstration. Additionally, this allows time for a trainer to take care of other needs, such as taking breaks and prepping content. When the trainer and moderator share delivery tasks, they have more capacity to document notes for course maintenance and additional learning solutions, such as a frequent asked question document or a quick reference guide.

The moderator can be leveraged to employ strategies that directly counteract cognitive load. For example, it was mentioned that transient information has been shown to increase cognitive load. One way to overcome this kind of cognitive load is through the Human Movement Effect, which maintains that transient information in the form of human movement has superior learning results to static graphics (Ayres, Marcus, Chan & Qian, 2009; van Gog, Pass, Marcus, Ayres & Sweller, 2009). The moderator can support human movement in the classroom by completing the tasks in a demonstration. This frees up the trainer to facilitate discussion and answer questions. To facilitate interactivity, the moderator can assist or manage breakout rooms, media sharing, discussions, demonstrations, and activities. For these reasons, the moderator plays a critical role in supporting and facilitating the interactivity of virtual learning.

Research shows that interactivity in a virtual learning setting can contribute to engagement (Chatterjee, 2010). This engagement, in turn, can increase knowledge gained and reduce cognitive load (Nkhoma, Sriratanaviriyakul, Cong & Lam, 2014). The inverse of this is also shown to be true; lack of engagement in a virtual classroom can lead to inadequate learning outcomes (Chatterjee, 2010).

Moderator solutions

The success of the learning program, however, does not solely depend upon aspects of implementation, such as the trainer, moderator, and interactivity. A design process must be used to leverage content, context, audience, and logistics. The appropriate interactivity for a class or program will depend upon a variety of these factors, but may make use of functionality for polls, chat, whiteboard, breakout rooms, and media sharing. To support this process, we have put together guidance for how a moderator can be leveraged to increase interactivity and reduce cognitive load. (See Table 1.)

Table 1: Moderator Solutions to Common Virtual Infrastructure and Design Issues

VILT Infrastructure/Design Issue

Extraneous Cognitive Load Impact

Moderator Solutions

Classroom Technical Issues

Misdirects Attention

• Performs technology and systems checks with trainers before class.

• Manages the technical delivery of the class.

Individual Technical Issues, Off-Topic Questions

Misdirects Attention

• Creates breakout rooms and chats for individual attention that does not disrupt class.

• Manages the question parking lot and cues trainers to answer questions when topic arises.

• Creates “office hours” for technical and non-technical support.

Reliance on Animation and Static Presentations

Split-Attention Effect

• Uses human movement instead of static images or animations to convey information.

• Enables facilitator to provide voiceover instruction instead of text.

Lack of Feedback for Learners

Lack of Scaffolding and Cognitive Aids

• Administers assessments.

• Provides grading support and explanatory feedback for quicker results.

Lack of Feedback for VILT Program

Difficult to Determine Where Supplantive Strategies are Needed

• Administers surveys and interviews.

• Gathers evaluation data for

Lack of Social Learning

Heavy Cognitive Processing Responsibility on Individuals

• Creates breakout rooms.

• Facilitates discussion forums.

• Assists with role-play.

Too Many Learners for Activities

Unintegrated and Uncoordinated Group Learning

• Runs content rehearsal to practice timing and technical delivery of interactivity.

Facilitator Fatigue

Motivational and Emotional Cost

• Provides support for media sharing, discussions, demonstrations, and activities.

• Interacts with trainer and participants as needed.


Ayres, P., Marcus, N., Chan, C. & Qian, N. (2009). Learning hand manipulative tasks: When instructional animations are superior to equivalent static representations. Computer in Human Behavior. 25, 348-353.

Ayres, P. & Sweller, J. (2005). The split-attention principle in multimedia learning. The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning. 135-146.

Chatterjee, P. (2010). Entertainment, engagement and education in e-learning. Training & Management Development Methods, 24(2), 601-621.

Choi, H., Van Merriënboer, J. & Paas, F. (2014). Effects of the Physical Environment on Cognitive Load and Learning: Towards a New Model of Cognitive Load. Educational Psychology Review, 26(2), 225-244.

Hatsidimitris, G. & Kalyuga, S. (2013). Guided self-management of transient information in animations through pacing and sequencing strategies. Education Tech Research Dev, 61, 91–105.

Nkhoma, M., Sriratanaviriyakul, N., Cong, H. P. & Lam, T. K. (2014) Examining the mediating role of learning engagement, learning process and learning experience on the learning outcomes through localized real case studies. Education and Training, 56(4), 287-302.

van Gog, T., Paas, F., Marcus, N., Ayres, P. & Sweller, J. (2009). The mirror neuron system and observational learning: Implication for effectiveness of dynamic visualizations. Educational Psychology. 21, 21-30.