Clearly, virtual learning is having an impact. Many organisations are planning on using this learning approach even when COVID-19 restrictions are eased, and some face-to-face contact can resume. And yet, research from Gartner showed that, in isolation, virtual learning is the least effective training method.
So, why the disconnect? Why is virtual learning so effective for some, and less so for others? As with any other learning method, there are vital elements that will affect its impact. Fosway Group calls these ‘influencers of success’; here, we expand on their points to create six critical components for success in virtual learning.
Before anyone had ever become familiar with the term ‘COVID-19’, we at Hemsley Fraser have endorsed the view that virtual learning can do as much – if not more – than face-to-face learning. This includes finding ways to work with others in the virtual environment, as would happen more naturally in a physical setting. Sessions should always include some form of live collaboration, whether through whiteboards, breakout room discussions, or chat panels. In fact, the chat panel is an example of where virtual learning can go beyond traditional classroom experiences, because it allows for multiple responses to live collaboration at once.
When carrying out the instructional design of a session, learning facilitators should consider how to use the given technology to inspire learners, encourage teamwork and stimulate participation. As working from home becomes ever more common, most of us are now more comfortable with appearing on a webcam from our personal spaces, but the facilitator should still set expectations at the beginning of the session. This creates a psychological safety net for participants, who now know they do not need to worry about external disruptions.
2) Face-to-face experiences and personalisation
In a classroom setting, participants may often be encouraged to turn to the person on their left and discuss a given topic. With virtual learning, this can be replicated in a similar way through the use of virtual breakout rooms. Participants are still able to learn together, speaking face-to-face with fellow attendees. This approach can also create a valuable coaching experience between mentor and mentee, with Fosway Group reporting a 19-times increase in virtual coaching sessions.
One-to-one experiences can easily be personalised for participants, as per physical learning sessions, so that the learner gains as much from the session as possible, in a way that is right for them. Facilitators can also adapt virtual sessions in the moment to better suit the group of participants.
3) Defined expectations
At the current time, almost all of our meetings are virtual. This makes it especially important to distinguish between learning sessions and other virtual events. Effective learning experiences depend on a different mindset from learners, compared to other virtual events. This requires a different approach from organisations.
Pre-session, participants should be given the relevant information and access points to enable them to come to the event with an understanding of what will take place. The facilitator should then set the learning etiquette at the beginning of the session, defining expectations for learners. A physical learning experience may have included a presentation or lecture, meaning participants may expect to join the virtual session and receive a one-way transmission of information. However, we know that virtual learning events are more impactful when they feature collaboration. Preparing learners for these experiences helps to create the right mindset for a successful session.
4) Professional production values
Professional production values, which may have been seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ pre-pandemic, are now absolutely essential for success in virtual learning. This is perhaps driven, in part, by the increase in virtual learning application for high-value development programmes. But it must be emphasised that all virtual learning experiences will be more effective if they are produced professionally.
Much of the producer’s work will happen before the session begins. They will work with the facilitator to ensure that everything is working correctly and that the design suits the given technology. During the event, they will be on hand to resolve any live technical difficulties (which typically happen within the first five minutes) and will help the facilitator to manage the session. They might manage the flow of the group chat, for example, while the facilitator manages other parts of the session. This can help the session to be more interactive. Following the event, they will oversee evaluation and follow-up actions.
5) Ease of use
Virtual learning experiences begin from the moment the participant receives an invite – whether this is a direct invite or self-enrolment. Every step along the way, until the participant, joins the session should be easy, ensuring a positive experience for the learner. When technology goes wrong, it can be the thing that learners remember from an event, but when it works correctly, it supports the learning and allows participants to focus on the content of the session.
Learners will be accessing the event from several different devices – perhaps different from those they are accustomed to – and will have different levels of technical knowledge. The technology should be easy to use, with the facilitator explaining key features at the beginning of the session.
6) Blended programmes remain key
The Gartner research suggested that, when taken in isolation, virtual experiences were the least successful training method. However, as HR and learning practitioners will know, all learning events should take place within the context of an overall programme, supported by additional learning tools.
Understandably, organisations have pivoted to virtual throughout the past year, but this kind of learning event (as with all others) should only be chosen if it is the right approach for the learner and the given learning objective. Virtual learning should be a vital part of your L&D toolkit, and by relying upon these six components can be very powerful, but it shouldn’t be the only tool on your belt.
This article references research from the Fosway Group and Gartner. Please follow the links below to access these resources.