Using Elements Of Improv Theater For Virtual Onboarding: An Interesting And Effective Learning Tool

Using Elements Of Improv Theater For Virtual Onboarding: An Interesting And Effective Learning Tool
Summary: Face-to-face meetings, meeting in time-displaced blended settings like blogs, or meeting in virtual real-time like through video chat, or immersive 3D environments, all have their advantages and challenges. In virtual environments the non-verbal elements are limited. Whenever you don’t meet in real person, the lack of personal face-to-face communication is a gap that has to be overcome in all other virtual variations of get-togethers. So, organizations are now facing new challenges to virtual onboarding where it is essential to emphasize the interpersonal dynamics of virtual collaboration and establish practices for team building. This can be achieved by adopting some elements from Improv Theater.

Improv Theater For Virtual Onboarding: How Improv Games Can Be Utilized For Effective Learning 

With the development of technology, virtual collaboration has become more and more popular in the recent years, especially at the workplace. According to a report published in 2011, around 79% of the U.S. workers prefer to work from home and are comfortable holding a job where at least part of the time they work within a virtual workplace. The time is ripe to take advantage of this mind shift, and many forward-looking organizations have started adopting different approaches for efficient group work and best practices of collaboration into virtual settings. But just like face-to-face meetings, meetings in virtual workplace have their own advantages and challenges. In virtual environments, the non-verbal elements are limited. The lack of personal face-to-face communication is a gap that has to be overcome in all types of virtual workplace environments. So, organizations are now facing new challenges to get virtual teams onboard where it is essential to emphasize the interpersonal dynamics of virtual onboarding collaboration and establish practices for team building.

Improvisational theater games are traditionally used as an ice-breaker for theater actors to feel comfortable with other actors as well as the script of the play. The skills and processes of this technique can be introduced at the beginning or at the end of a team setting in a virtual environment to initiate communication and encourage collaboration. This can be an educational tool to develop communication skills, creative problem solving, and supportive teamwork abilities. The rules of improvisational theater, or “Improv” as it is often called, are:

  • Don’t hesitate.
  • Pay attention.
  • Never block or negotiate.
  • Always add something positive.
  • Don’t be scared of silence. 

Following these rules, elements of Improv can be successfully transferred from real-life settings in to virtual team sessions.

Case Study: Berlin School Of Economics And Law

An interesting experiment to adapt the elements of Improv for increasing interactivity and communication of a group of learners was conducted by the Berlin School of Economics and Law for learners who were given internships all over the world.

  • A 3D learning environment was created and students met on a weekly basis for 90 minutes live in the virtual environment in form of avatars, which digitally represented the participant’s body.
  • Their new area of work forced them to enter not only geographically but also professionally, interpersonally, and intercultural uncharted territory. They were required to report on their work experience and reflect on one topic of the class like dealing with difficult people, networking, culture at work, dress code, and so on in a weekly blog post using the Learning Management System.
  • The virtual environment presented a classroom situation with very familiar-looking avatars that learners could relate to. In the virtual class, each student presented their internship in the form of a few slides.
  • A major part of each virtual session is to practice role play with the students. The students picked one situation they had observed or wanted to solve, and described the role play situation at the end of their presentation. On account of the immersion effect, role played work really well in 3D environments; students felt less embarrassed to slip into roles.
  • The concentration on the spoken word is a big advantage of playing roles with avatars. Students focused on the conversation, built arguments, and learnt to deal with problem situations in an assertive way.
  • Before launching the virtual session, instructors decided to identify the Improv games suitable for each weekly supervision topic. Technical limitations were taken into consideration. The conditions of the virtual room and the movement limits of the avatar were accounted for. For instance, the body of an avatar could walk, run, jump, clap, use voice, and chat. But more complex expressions could not be included: For instance, it was impossible to smile, look grumpy, move arms, or take a bow.
  • The instructors could include and successfully implement a number of Improv games:
    • Animal Associative Circle: Learners take up the role of an animal they most associate themselves with and share adjectives common between the individual and the animal.
    • Childhood Dream: Wild dreams of the childhood are shared, and this was a free-wheeling exercise to explore the many possibilities for us as individuals.
    • Disaster And Solution: Learners are paired, and one of them is asked to share some disaster situations faced in the course of work. The other agrees and tries to find a solution to the problem.
    • Fairytale Storytelling: A learner is invited to start telling a story  – preferably one that all others know in the group. Fairytales work best for most learners, as they are entertaining and well-remembered. While the learner is telling the story, the instructor calls out the name of another learner who has to continue it, to the best of ability.
    • ABC Story: A work-related topic is identified, and learners are asked to share a line each – the first one starting with A, the second with B, the third with C, and so on.

The overall learning outcomes of the practice sessions were definitely enriched by the improvisational games. The learners were able to evaluate their own learning experiences during the internship, along with their peers. They were able to understand the value and communication rules of professional feedback. It was a great place to practice presentation skills to share the learning experiences in a virtual group and environment. Through interesting games, they were also able to hone problem-solving techniques. But the icing on the cake was evidently the fun they had while at it! This experiment, while being a totally new concept, was a resounding success.

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