The new possibilities of virtual learning

It’s time to reconsider how virtual learning can help you achieve your learning objectives, says ​Nick Mongan.​

If you think virtual instructor-led training is a last resort option when budgets have been slashed, it’s time to think again. This is a vibrant, effective and increasingly popular medium which can help you achieve your learning goals.

Unlike some webinars, which predominately feel like a one-way presentation of information, virtual instructor-led training replicates the classroom learning experience and it can involve group discussions, peer-to-peer coaching, video content, actors and role plays, interactive polls and one-to-ones with the facilitator.

The format has distinct advantages, in addition to the obvious saving of the traditional costs associated with training. For a start, it’s convenient, accessible, and you can reach a much wider audience. With virtual training, depending on the objectives of the session, large groups of people can attend at the same time.

You can have a globally-diverse audience in the same ‘room’, bringing together different people who may never normally meet due to their location. This can enhance engagement and foster a sense of collaborative working much quicker than rolling out learning programmes across different locations one at a time.

Recordings are essentially ‘reusable assets’ that people throughout your organisation can access on-demand.

A virtual platform can be used for communication as well as training. For example, stories and examples of best practice can be shared and powerful messages can be delivered across the organisation, in a format that has considerably more impact than simply sending out an email.

Recordings of virtual training sessions can be made available as offline resources. Anyone who misses a session can therefore catch up, without having to wait for it to run again. Recordings are essentially ‘reusable assets’ that people throughout your organisation can access on-demand.

These ‘live environment’ resources can support a 70:20:10 approach. This is particularly valuable if senior leaders or subject matter experts from across the business are involved in presenting the session. With a recording, their attendance – and the learning – isn’t lost.

Virtual learning sessions can be used as part of a blended programme to complement face-to-face and on-demand learning methods. Some employers use virtual learning to support the roll-out of global face-to-face programmes, either by replicating these programmes for staff in remote locations or by providing additional before-and-after sessions, to further engage the audience and reinforce the learning.

One-to-few or one-to-many sessions can run virtually, after a face-to-face programme, to allow people to share experiences and discuss what worked and didn’t work when applying their learning.

Using virtual training

To achieve these benefits, it’s easy to assume that you can create a virtual learning session simply by putting a webcam in front of a trainer who is delivering a traditional classroom programme. But that isn’t the case. Here are four areas where subtle differences apply:

  • Instructional design. Virtual learning is applicable for any topic area but, like face-to-face training, it needs to be designed specifically to make it engaging and practical for learners. This means changing how you interact with the audience, how you use exercises, how you hold attention in a virtual classroom and how you manage breaks in the learning.

With poor design, your virtual sessions will feel like an unnatural, technical environment. With organised design, the technology will support the learning and the participants will feel they’re having a one-to-one conversation with you.

  • The role of the facilitator. Although the goals of imparting knowledge and providing a rich experience for the participants might be the same as with a face-to-face session, facilitating virtual programmes requires different skills. 

You have to portray energy, excitement and enthusiasm in front of a camera, as opposed to being in front of people, and you need to be very good at multitasking, to manage the interactions and questions all at once.

It helps to have a ‘host’, who can monitor the flow of questions, and a technical producer, who can coordinate aspects such as changing whiteboards, sharing polls and collecting responses.

  • The expectations of learners. Ground rules and guidelines should be provided for learners, so they know what to expect from a virtual session and how they can make the most of the experience. As with any training, the participants should liaise with their line manager before and after the event.

However, they’ll also need to ensure that they’re not disturbed during the session (even though they might be in the office), nor should they be answering emails while they’re in the ‘room’. Contracting upfront with the participants can also help a session to run more smoothly.

  • The learning content. As in face-to-face training, when you have a large, culturally-diverse audience attending, you need to be sensitive to ensure that your messages, examples, visuals and materials will appeal to – and not alienate – the different participants. You’ll need to give special consideration to how your content will come across in a virtual environment.

The new possibilities of virtual learning are changing the perceptions of this medium within the L&D community. Now is the time to consider the role that virtual training can play, as part of a modern blended approach, to help achieve key learning objectives.


About the author

Nick Mongan is a Virtual Learning Consultant at learning and development specialist Hemsley Fraser. He can be contacted via 


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