Last reviewed 20 October 2020

Judith Christian-Carter, individual learning consultant, takes a look at how virtual learning can be used to meet the needs of both learners and organisations in today’s restricted and “lock-downed” environment.

In today's Covid-19 riddled world, virtual learning has never been more important for all organisations, regardless of their size. But what is, exactly, virtual learning? Is it just an alternative to face-to-face or classroom-based training, or is it something much more?

Perhaps there is no better time than the present for organisations to think seriously about the provision of virtual learning. With employees continuing to work remotely and likely to continue doing so for some time to come, it makes perfect sense to allow them to learn remotely as well. As virtual learning is any learning that happens at a distance, ie remotely, where content is delivered via online technology to groups or individuals in their own environments, it goes nicely hand-in-hand with remote working.

Previous articles have looked in some depth at virtual instructor-led training (VILT), which is a subset of virtual learning. However, there is much more to virtual learning than using it to stimulate a traditional classroom experience. Virtual learning can consist of online simulations, interactive web-based courses, collaborative forums (such as chat rooms), self-paced mobile learning, gamified content, performance support tools and reference-based learning. In so doing, virtual learning has the most impact and can reach the widest range of learners through the use of a blended approach, which includes many different types of delivery to keep it fresh for the learner.

There are four important virtual learning needs to consider when providing for people who are working in a remote environment: functional performance support; focused learning; effective training delivery and organisational support.

Performance support

Working remotely means that more than ever people need to have the information they need, when they need it. In practice this means:

  • that all documented processes and procedures are up to date, and are easily accessible and in suitable formats (eg as PDF files)

  • encouraging remote workers to participate in communities of practice (eg chat rooms) by sharing their specialised knowledge and asking for help when they need it

  • asking people if they see any gaps in knowledge-based provision and then making sure that their input is taken into account.

The more remote workers feel that the organisation is being responsive to their needs by providing appropriate performance support, the less likely they will feel isolated.

Focused learning

While focused learning has always been important, the need for people to learn new skills and behaviours is more important than ever. The changing working environment has meant increased responsibilities for many due to a reduction in staff numbers, new behaviours in order to limit the spread of coronavirus and planning for an eventual return to sharing the workplace with other people.

This means that what is provided must be focused on the here and now. In other words, it must be fit for purpose, communicated clearly and easily accessible by everyone.

Tools for delivering training

It is all too easy when thinking about the tools needed to deliver effective training to focus on a particular software solution, or to spend time deciding between conference software or virtual classroom software. Instead, it is better to look at the tools the organisation has already to deliver training, and to think about how effective training is designed and delivered, such as:

  • providing people with short, digestible chunks of information

  • using a variety of delivery methods

  • reinforcement over time.

Using these basic learning principles as a guide, the possibilities are considerable, for example using:

  • short, low production value videos that can be sent by email or put on the organisation's website

  • simple animated pieces that communicate important messages

  • text messages to reinforce desired behaviours.

The three key words when it comes to making training effective are frequency, variety and relevancy to what people need.

Organisational support

It is often difficult to know for sure how many employees are anxious about having to work and learn remotely; however, it is relatively safe to assume that not everyone will be enthusiastic about such changes. For these people it is vital that organisations help them by making the transition to working from home easier by showing them that the organisation is right there supporting them, by:

  • stressing the advantages of working from home, such as benefits to them in the form of cost savings, better work/life balance, reduced commuting times, as well as the benefits to the planet and organisation, such as the positive environmental effects, and decreased maintenance and utility costs

  • providing helpful tips on how to work and learn from home effectively, such as setting up a dedicated, ergonomic workplace, to agree as a family how to manage competing schedules and responsibilities, as well as the importance of having a degree of flexibility with work schedules and completing tasks

  • maintaining the culture of the workplace, which should be an organisational priority with any dispersed workforce. People need to feel that they are working within a shared culture and toward common goals, which means that opportunities for social engagement (eg Zoom happy hours, working lunches, virtual fun runs, participation in various forms of volunteerism) allows employees to engage with their colleagues and reduces considerably any feelings of isolation.

It cannot be overstated that in a remote working environment, it is more important than ever that employees feel connected to both the organisation and to one another, together with the sense of belonging to a virtual learning community.

Success v failure

An important part of any organisation's virtual learning strategy is the requirement to transform the remote workforce into a virtual learning community. There are two key aspects to achieving a virtual learning community:

  • creating a communal place

  • creating a feeling of fellowship and belonging.

To create a communal place, everyone needs to:

  • be aware of the existing infrastructure (digital assets, their intended use and a functional understanding of their use)

  • know how to use the existing infrastructure by ensuring they have a minimum level of knowledge for each digital tool they use

  • be given opportunities for social or soft interactions by using rules of engagement for tools and applications that will substitute for physical interaction.

To create a feeling of fellowship and belonging, organisations need to:

  • be honest, frank and always clear and constructive

  • create and encourage the right environment for social interaction

  • challenge their learners

  • connect people and ideas.

On the opposite side of the coin, the following signs all indicate that any attempt at virtual learning is doomed to fail:

  • a thorough analysis has not been performed of the available technology

  • employees are not prepared for the shift to virtual learning

  • facilitators do not know how to deliver training virtually

  • the organisation thinks that virtual training means VILT

  • the training to be delivered is not learner-focussed.

Making virtual learning work

As remote working becomes more and more the norm for many people, all organisations need to find flexible ways to communicate with and to develop their remote workforces. Virtual learning is a practical, affordable and effective way of helping learners in quite personal and individual ways. However, in order to be effective, virtual learning does need a strategy and deliberate intention in its application.