Last reviewed 25 August 2020

Judith Christian-Carter takes an initial look at providing virtual learning with those working remotely both now and in the future.

In March of this year, people started to work from home and since then more and more have joined them, and continue to do so. If workplace training was not cancelled altogether, it quickly shifted to delivery via virtual classroom tools — a shift described by some as “crisis learning via technology” and “emergency remote training”.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, a massive number of employees started to work remotely, usually from home. Even now with the opportunity provided by many organisations for people to return safely to their normal place of work, many have chosen not to do so, meaning that remote working or working from home is starting to become the “new normal” for an increasing number of people.

Surveys (Evidence-based idea for virtual classroom experiences, The Learning Guild, 2020) conducted in March and May of 2020 showed that the majority of face-to-face (F2F) workplace training if not cancelled altogether, quickly shifted to delivery via virtual classroom tools, such as Zoom, WebEx and Adobe Connect. In the spring and summer of 2020, this change frequently looked like hours of video-only meetings or events, with trainers reading slides used on F2F courses. For many in Learning and Development (L&D), it was a matter of trying to get by, but given that in the future F2F instruction is unlikely to regain its prominence, particularly if remote working becomes the norm for more people, and is replaced by a virtual classroom environment, then the time has come for all L&D professionals to use this environment far better than it currently is being used.

What is virtual learning?

In a nutshell, virtual learning is any learning that takes place at a distance, ie remotely. “Content is delivered via online technology to groups or individuals in their own environments. At its core, virtual learning is synonymous with eLearning.” (Obsidian, 2020). So whether employees are now working from home due to the current pandemic or because organisations have reduced or eliminated travel, virtual learning has become a must for all organisations.

Often, when virtual learning is mentioned, people only focus on a part of it, which is known as virtual instructor-led training (VILT). VILT typically sees a live instructor delivering content via a remote presentation, using video conferencing technology with the focus being on replicating traditional classroom experience. In the early days of the pandemic, many organisations, including academic ones, took this approach because it was relatively quick and easy to convert a traditional instructor-led course to a virtual one. However, these reasons are unlikely to be in the best interests of learners!

VILT overload

People are now talking about being “zoomed out” as a result of having so many virtual meetings. If this isn't already an unfortunate situation, to exacerbate it further by overloading people even more through the predominant use of VILT is unforgiveable!

Traditional instructor-led training delivered in a classroom has already been proven to be often ineffective as far as learning outcomes are concerned. There are several reasons why this is so:

  • the delivery method is not appropriate for achieving the desired learning outcomes

  • courses are too long making concentration difficult

  • the content is decided and structured by the instructor regardless of whether it is relevant or required by all those present

  • there is often minimal interaction with and by attendees

  • the length of sessions and the timing of breaks is usually determined by the instructor.

Therefore, to convert a traditional instructor-led course to a virtual one, not only do the above deficiencies remain but in many cases they are made worse. Attendees are all in different locations and environments, so for 20 attendees there is likely to be 20 different environments, not all of which will be conducive to instructor-led training. People will become distracted at different times and in different ways and, no matter how skilled, the instructor will find it difficult to see who has “switched off”. There is often a lack of social presence, ie a feeling of connectedness among and between the instructor and learners. However, everyone will still be expected to learn at the instructor's pace! Gaining the instructor's attention to ask a question or to check on their understanding of a concept are even more difficult at a distance. In short, many of the techniques used by an instructor in a F2F environment are often ineffective in a VILT environment.

Making the most of virtual learning

Putting VILT to one side for the moment, there are many other ways in which virtual learning can be used. For example, virtual learning can consist of online simulations, interactive web-based courses, collaborative forums, self-paced mobile learning, gamified content, performance support tools and reference-based learning.

To use virtual learning effectively, a blended approach is required as well as rethinking what content is required and how it can be covered most efficiently. It is vital for instructors and facilitators to think differently and to start from a base of sound instructional design in order to make virtual learning an experience that achieves the desired results. Above all, the temptation to fall back into pushing slides and doing little more than talking for hours on end must be resisted!

Thinking differently

“It is critical that a learning experience provides learners with tasks and decision-making opportunities that are relevant, authentic, and meaningful.” (Thalheimer, 2006). This applies to all learning experiences, including those in a virtual classroom. Techniques such as realistic practice, spaced learning and feedback all support the foundation of good instructional design.

One way of thinking differently is to turn what needs to be learned upside down or to flip it over. This means thinking about what actually has to be delivered or covered live and in person, as opposed to what can be dealt with remotely on an individual basis. Instructors often used to refer to “pre-course reading”, where learners were asked to read pre-set work before attending a F2F course in the hope that everyone would be at the same starting place. Taking this idea further is very helpful, as a lot of content does not need to be presented either F2F or in a virtual classroom. The objective is to keep the “classroom” part of the virtual learning experience down to an absolute minimum. This can be achieved by flipping the learning design over by making the most of the content available and accessible online. Not only does this allow learners to choose when they want to learn but also it allows them to learn at their own pace. This is particularly important when people are working remotely.

There is no time like the present!

No one wanted the current pandemic, but as it is here and has already had a major impact on the way many people are now working, it has provided L&D professionals everywhere with not only many new challenges but also many opportunities. “Emergency remote training” has taken place but there is now the opportunity to evolve that training into something far more effective.

It's not a matter of making the virtual classroom experience just as good as F2F but of finding ways to make it better than the traditional live event.