A New World of Virtual Learning

The title is deliberately provocative and misleading. HR and Learning and Development people are hailing a new world of virtual learning driven by lockdown and the number of people who are working from home. The first thing to say is this is nothing new. Perhaps it has become more ubiquitous, but virtual learning has a long history. In 1728 Caleb Phillips offered lessons on shorthand sent weekly so they would ‘be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston.’ The term ‘distance learning’ was first used by the University of Wisconsin in 1892. In 1953 the University of Houston offered the first televised classes. IBM developed ‘Coursewriter’ in 1965 that included most of the functionality seen in present day learning management systems. The first web-based course was taught at Penn State University in 1995. It isn’t new.

What may be new is the realisation that whilst it will never be as good as face-to-face learning, it can be good enough. Indeed, studies from IBM and the Research Institute of America claim that it is better – with 25-60% better learning retention. I am skeptical but there are clearly advantages. We can deliver flexible, just-in-time learning, directly to people in their workplace where learners can learn at their own speed. It is clearly cheaper, especially when you take into account cost-savings in travel and accommodation, let alone the opportunity cost of taking people away from their workplace. In addition, there are environmental savings. The Open University quotes figures of 90% energy saving and 85% for CO2. Again, I am skeptical about the exact numbers, but the principle is obvious, and this should matter to us.

Adult Learning Principles

If we are to move beyond cost-saving to deliver effective learning, we must remember this is more than sticking content online. I remember when I first came across e-learning in the 90s. It was flat, un-engaging and more like reading a book than proper learning. Whoever developed it had forgotten the principles of adult learning. Neuroscience has advanced our understanding of how people learn, but once again this isn’t something new. Indeed, I would observe that many people who deliver face-to-face learning have not applied these principles. All you need to do is think back to most of your university lectures – dull, dull, dull! In my day it was chalk and a blackboard, but I think PowerPoint has if anything made it even worse. Presenters think that reading a hundred PowerPoint slides, each with twenty bullet points, at people will result in them learning, let alone be encouraged to actually do something different back at work.

What are the principles of adult learning and how can we apply them to virtual learning?

  • Connect to the why – the danger is we rush to the what and how before people understand why they need to learn. ‘How many psychiatrists does it to take to change a light bulb? One. But the light bulb has to want to change!’. Learning isn’t just about learning, it’s about changing what the learner does. They will only change if they understand why; the WIIFM factor – what’s in it for me? We must spend time in all learning creating the desire to learn by exploring why it matters not just to the organisation, but to the learner. In a virtual learning session, plan to start by exploring the why with them rather than rushing to the content. If their inner voice is thinking this isn’t relevant, they will be doing their e-mails and unlike face-to-face learning, you won’t see them doing it!
  • Participation – people will learn by being involved, doing it with them not to them. In the virtual environment this means using polls, the chat facility and virtual breakout rooms where people can interact, discuss and make sense of the learning.
  • Relevance – people aren’t interested in pure theory – they want to understand how to make it relevant to their day-to-day jobs. It is critical, as with face-to-face learning, to understand the context within which people operate and to make the learning and examples relevant.
  • Transference – if it is relevant the next stage is to challenge people to transfer the learning back to the workplace. The danger is we are so fixated with content we don’t give time and space for people to reflect. Just as in face-to-face learning, less is more. Less content, more time to reflect – especially if the learners do not share a common language. In the virtual environment this means using assignments and discussion boards to encourage people to apply the learning to their work.
  • All senses – Confucius said, ‘what I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand’. The challenge in virtual learning is to use all the tools available to us to move beyond a two-hour webinar to vary the pace and delivery. There is a place for webinars and video but once again we should explore the functionality of our delivery platform to create interactive and engaging learning.

The Platform

This is where things have moved on. The number and capability of online delivery platforms has grown over the last few years, almost as if they were preparing for the last three months. In the last month I have delivered over Zoom, Teams, Adobe Connect, Saba and GoTo. I am sure there are more. Some are better than others, but the best are more than a meeting tool. They are designed by learning, not communications, people. They have some core functionality that we can use to apply the principles of adult learning:

  • Webinars
  • Video
  • Chat facilities
  • Breakout rooms
  • Polls
  • Whiteboards
  • Quizzes
  • Self-assessment
  • Note taking

In addition, they go beyond these delivery tools to provide:

  • Pre-work
  • Links to additional asynchronous content
  • Assignments
  • Discussion boards
  • Faculty ‘office hours’
  • Registration
  • Completion monitoring
  • Recording
  • Certification
  • Various background admin and analytics tools

One learning point is the importance of ensuring your users understand how the platform works before you start the session. Another is to understand that some platforms are aimed at corporate users but some at universities. In my experience, the latter aren’t as suitable for a business.

Another point I have learned over the last month is there are three critical roles:

  1. Deliverer
    People who are great face-to-face educators don’t always make great virtual deliverers. It is tough delivering virtually as you don’t get the same interaction. You should make your slides engaging. You should vary the pace. You should slow down. You don’t see the audience and can’t sense how what you are delivering is landing. It is critical that you find a way of interacting. I ran a one-hour webinar last week with 70 people from all over the world. I used the chat facility regularly to get people to give me feedback and to ask them questions, so it is possible. Deliverers also need to think about their space. You need a proper microphone. You should not rely on the in-built mic on your computer. You need ‘soft box’ lighting in front of your face above the camera so people can see you. Avoid back lighting, for instance presenting in front of a window, as it will darken your face so people can’t see you. Avoid jazzy clothing as it can interfere with the video feed. Look at your background. There are virtual backgrounds, or you can make your background go fuzzy. There is nothing worse than a cluttered background that people are exploring instead of listening to you. Finally, you should check it is all working before the session so plan to log on and test at least fifteen minutes before the start. If you are a corporate, you should consider whether you should enforce standards to enhance the experience for the end user.
  2. Designer
    I first came across instructional designers at Arthur Andersen in the 90s. I learnt then how important they are in connecting your content to the organisational context and applying adult learning principles. They have become even more important as we go virtual. The problem is there aren’t many of them. If you have them, hold onto them. If you don’t, how can you access them – perhaps as interims, consultants or contractors?
  3. Producers
    The third role is about ensuring the technology works. I mentioned how important it is that users understand how the platform works, but it is also critical that deliverers do. Many of my corporate clients have put me through training to ensure I know how to use their platform. However, with technology it sometimes doesn’t work as intended, so it is critical during the session to have a producer running the technological backbone. Deliverers need to focus on interaction and engagement, so having someone to run the session – for instance dividing people into groups, putting them into a chat space and then bringing them back to the main webinar, is critical to ensure things go smoothly. I have seen numerous cases of technology hitches, broadband issues so deliverers suddenly disappear, end users trying to access on mobile when the session isn’t designed for mobile, or end users not muting so everyone can hear kids screaming in the background. The producer has a critical role in ensuring the smooth running of the session and being able to connect to IT help if needed.

It is probably even more important to measure the outcomes of virtual sessions for two reasons.

  1. If this is new, you need to be learning and improving. After Action Reviews are critical not to measure whether you are meeting a standard (4.5 out of 5 on a happy sheet – so what!), but to drive learning.
  2. Never forget you measure outcomes, not processes, so it is important that you evaluate whether the programme is delivering the desired changes in behaviour and performance, not whether people enjoyed it. This requires disciplined follow-up after the programme as you won’t know whether it was achieved till weeks or even months later.

Virtual learning isn’t a new world. It has been around for decades, but it will become the main way we deliver learning to the majority of our people. Face-to-face will have a role to play but we will be cost constrained. We have to engage with virtual learning to make sure it is good enough.


Relevant Resources:

Learning – The Foundation for Agility and Sustainable Performance

Post Meeting Notes – Leadership & Learning: Peer Exchange Forum

Post Meeting Notes – Leadership & Learning: Peer Exchange Forum Two

Webinar: Transforming the Learning Function

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