Head of Virtual Learning Hemsley Fraser
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Six critical components for success in virtual learning

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The past year has given us all a practical insight into how virtual learning can work, but now it’s the time to build on what we’ve learned and hone in on the most effective measures for success.

18th Feb 2021
Head of Virtual Learning Hemsley Fraser
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While virtual learning isn’t a new concept, the conditions created by the past year have elevated its importance, as organisations have sought to offer continued support and development to their employees. Recent research from Fosway Group shows:

  • 93% of organisations are now using virtual learning.
  • 53% per cent report virtual classrooms as their most successful learning platform during Covid-19.
  • 95% per cent of learning professionals said that L&D will never be the same again.

Clearly, virtual learning is having an impact. Many organisations are planning on continuing this learning approach even when lockdown restrictions are no longer a consideration. Despite this, research from Gartner showed that, in isolation, virtual learning is the least effective training method.

So, why the disconnect? As with any other learning method, there are vital elements that will affect its impact. Fosway Group calls these ‘influencers of success’. Here, we’ll expand on these points to create six critical components for success in virtual learning.

1. Collaboration

Before anyone had ever become familiar with the term ‘Covid-19’, we had 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 that’s 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.

What may have been seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ pre-pandemic, is now absolutely essential for success. 

Learning facilitators should consider how they can use the given technology to inspire and encourage teamwork and participation and include this within the instructional design of the session(s). 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.

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. 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. Using 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

Currently, 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. We know, however, 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.

learning strategy hub link

4. Professional production values

What may have been seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ pre-pandemic, is now absolutely essential for success in online learning. This is driven, in part, by the increase in virtual learning application for high-value development programmes. It must be emphasized, however, 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 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 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 varying 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. As HR and learning practitioners will know, however, 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 in your belt.

Interested in this topic? Read The future of learning: online training in a post-Covid world.

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