Defy the conventional: make virtual a reality

Fresh thinking on virtual training shows how we should all challenge our assumptions about learning, says Todd Turner

Bringing people together for a learning experience provides a valuable benefit on top of what they’ll actually learn. It enables participants to network and share experiences with colleagues they wouldn’t otherwise meet, and has long been regarded as a great advantage of face-to-face training. But if your business is multinational, or spread across different locations, ‘bringing people together’ can seem an expensive luxury, with the time and cost of travel. Or at least that’s the conventional assumption.

We’re working with Norwegian-based global media company Schibsted Media Group to deliver virtual instructor-led learning sessions for their divisional leaders in 40 countries. These are a far cry from standard ‘knowledge transfer’ webinars, which usually last up to 90 minutes and generally consist of a mostly one-way monologue from an expert. Instead, we’ve partnered with Schibsted to create four-hour virtual learning experiences, which feature many of the accelerated learning principles that are normally reserved for a classroom. Yes, that’s right: we keep virtual attention span for four hours!

Admittedly, it’s a challenge to create a virtual learning programme that can keep people engaged for that length of time. We’ve opted to do this by focusing on the whole experience, replicating in principle many of the learning techniques that are commonly reserved for a classroom. Participants engage in virtual break-out sessions for small group discussions, and they benefit from one-to-one skills practice with an actor-facilitator. But they do it all at their laptop or tablet, without any need to travel.

The whole concept of virtual learning is, of course, nothing new. Many years ago we saw the advent of ‘virtual learning environments’ and these have continually evolved to support distance learning and provide virtual access to classroom content, either synchronously or asynchronously. The trick is to design effectively for virtual delivery in the first instance. Here’s how to make effective virtual learning an absolute reality: 

Consider the whole learning experience. Today, webinars are often delivered in real time with the participants contributing either through a microphone or via a chat function. However, many are essentially ‘virtual PowerPoint presentations’ that don’t fully take advantage of the available technology. Leveraging technology as a vehicle to enhance the learning experience – not just a cost effective and speedy delivery platform – is a far greater outcome. But one that must be contemplated from the onset of programme design.

Engagement is even more important. Trainers are typically quite adept at reading body language, assessing the pace of learning, and checking for energy levels in a physical classroom. But reading the ‘room’ is more difficult in a virtual classroom. The sessions we’ve developed with Schibsted actively involve the participants from the very start, setting an engagement tone that is deliberately unexpected for a virtual programme. We don’t waste time telling them what to do. Participants gain necessary knowledge and theory through pre-work, while the virtual sessions move directly into skills practice – a far more engaging use of four hours.  

Make it specific and business relevant. Sadly, virtual is often code for ‘boilerplate’. The very nature of virtual programmes means they may have been designed with an eye toward mass consumption. While fine for some topics, most learning programmes benefit from a greater connection between real life and learning outcome. Schibsted’s goal from the start was that participants would bring their own specific challenges to virtual break-out sessions, and they work on these one-to-one with an actor-facilitator in the virtual world. Other participants observe these interactions and share feedback and suggestions from their own experience – exactly as they would in a face-to-face environment.

Schibsted’s experience of virtual instructor-led training offers a new template for best practice, and is a far cry from the days of passive eLearning. The benefits are clear. They’ve been able to address the training needs of leaders who are located throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America – and the participants have been able to network with colleagues from different parts of the world whom they wouldn’t normally meet. And, as a side benefit, they’ve gained these benefits without incurring the cost of extensive travel or having to take their leaders away from the workplace for long periods of time.

Most importantly, the relevance, content and delivery of these programmes have all proved positive. 91 per cent of the senior leaders who participated said that the virtual learning experiences were highly relevant to their business and leadership needs.

This move to a more engaging virtual reality is a classic example of how learning is changing. And while the pace of technology is also changing, it’s important to remember that it’s ultimately about putting the technology to work for us, not the other way around.  

As we’ve seen with Schibsted, a winning combination includes a facilitator who is well-versed in virtual audience engagement, and a design that is purpose-built with virtual delivery in mind. Keeping participant needs as top priority will drive us to challenge assumptions about virtual learning and to think more holistically about how it might improve our learning, not just our bottom line.


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