The future of work: Can virtual learning ever match the power of the human touch?

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Written by Dr Benedict Eccles on 22 June 2021 in Opinion
Opinion

Dr Benedict Eccles reflects on the digital shift in L&D approach over the past fifteen months, and his key considerations for the future.

For somebody who was expelled from school for basically being an idiot, the irony of me sitting here today as a learning and development specialist, reflecting on what I have successfully learnt and re-learned during the pandemic, is not lost on me.

But according to the phrase ‘when the student is ready the teacher will appear’, I have found that my love of learning has grown exponentially over the last fifteen months.

That said, and if truth be told, I would have to say it is very much an intrinsic part of who I am to want to find out more about what makes me tick, what are my passions, what are my strengths and how do I improve them, and what gets in the way of me achieving my personal and professional goals – arguably, my weaknesses.

All things for me to consider as I ruminate on what the priorities are, both for us as individuals and for our organisations, as we move towards what many insist on calling the ‘new normal’.

As a psychologist, it is at this point that I could go off on a long tangent about the concept of normality and the challenges that surround the use of the term in this context...but back to learning!

‘I don't do zoom’ will no longer be an option. And it is here that, as providers, we must make sure our skills and presentations are on point.

The three things which make us human; curiosity, learning and connecting, acknowledges that humans are fundamentally ‘developers’: leave us alone and we pick up tools and objects, and make and learn things in order to master them - ultimately to help us survive and thrive. And this past year’s challenges have certainly proven this in spades, unlocking that primordial human nature in all of us.

Following the disruption to formal programmes of learning due to the pandemic, my own work has been impacted upon significantly: how we assess learning, the activities we use for learning and the fact that our resources, particularly our human ones, have been subject to illness in many cases.

Yet surprisingly, much of this has provided a positive opportunity to reassess our approach to L&D. It kind of reminds me of the athlete who picks up an injury – it is a good opportunity to reassess their training programme. So, the main things I have been reflecting on include:

  • Our innovation and how we rapidly adapted to the provisions of L&D online as the only medium available for many of us
  • The importance of digital skills in helping us learn and connect
  • Learning of the future now looks different than it did just two years ago
  • The importance of CPD for each of us

In the first instance, I have been blown away by the speed at which many providers and organisations embraced digital media, as face-to-face sessions became impossible for most of us. This situation highlights several things that we need to focus on, such as our facilitation skills, which are very different online then in person.

 

Learner support, communication through body language and the use of presence and social learning were all interrupted by having to work through online platforms. However, in turn, access to learning was promoted because it is more flexible (than say having to travel to London for a half-day session).

Plus, the use of recordings meant we had a permanent resource for reflection, and we were able to review whether the learning was actually necessary or could be postponed, thereby saving money.

The use of digital skills as a foundation for all employees is now apparently ‘non-negotiable’. Indeed, ‘I don't do zoom’ will no longer be an option. And it is here that, as providers, we must make sure our skills and presentations are on point.

Only last week I attended a half-day training session that was basically a ‘chalk and talk’ around a PowerPoint pack - not good enough in my opinion. There is no reason not to integrate learners online through breakout activities, polling, message boards, and software that enables visual creativity.

I believe that organisations now have to build this into a minimum digital skills competency framework for all staff. If I had £1 for every time I have heard ‘I don't know how to share my screen’, I would be rather wealthy by now.

This migration to digital skills and online delivery also has significant impact for how we hold learning into the future. While we all need to be acutely aware of strategic aims of the learning and how it helps the business, I do not believe it is acceptable to just push the learning out to participants and expect them to be expert self-developers.

We need to remember that engagement happens on a social, emotional, and cognitive level, and we all have a different level of self-awareness. Some of us are introverts and love working on our own, while others of us are extraverts and enjoy social interactions to help us stay energised and motivated.

It is important to appreciate that everyone is having a very individual experience, based on our own unique set of challenges, plus we all need a motivational ‘nudge’ every so often. But as individuals, we do have to take more personal responsibility for making sure we seek motivational factors, rather than waiting for leaders to motivate us - working on things we enjoy and find purpose in.  

So, whilst it is true that ‘there is no blended learning now, only learning’, providers and organisations must provide facilitators, coaches and/or mentors, to help top and tail the learning programme so that we all, as individuals, can ensure we achieve the aims and standards. If we were all expert self-learners, there would be no need for L&D departments...because we would have done it ourselves already.

Similarly, the value of CPD must be recognised across the entire workforce. Why, for example, would health staff have a professional obligation for minimum annual CPD, whereas police officers, arguably, do not? Even if it is just honing our strengths, to go from good to great, it is a no-brainer that we all need to keep busy ‘being born’.

Some organisations were already on their game when the pandemic hit. In our own organisation, I am pleased to say that we were already working significantly online as a learning provider and as an employer.

 

We immediately set up an online facilitation skills programme for our deliverers, and our marketing and events team worked very closely with us to make sure we were offering a professional experience.

Our communications have also increased in frequency and, arguably, we are much closer than we were before Covid-19 emerged, but we still believe that certain activities need holding - or at least top and tailing - with expert support.

I am convinced that our developmental programmes of the future (rather than content-led instruction activities) will incorporate a range of delivery mechanisms, including face-to-face. Where possible we must push transactional content out through digital media, such as rote learning, context material and certain learning activities.

However, in my opinion, you cannot beat ‘a live show’ with a great trainer or facilitator, so I hope we do not dump all in-person connection. After all, I am human, curious, in need of connection and I love learning, albeit 36 years too late…

Skills for Health and Skills for Justice are currently encouraging all L&D professionals to take part in their national biennial workforce research that will gauge how skills and training needs have been affected by the pandemic, to better equip both employees and employers to meet future challenges.

Contribute your thoughts with their short survey here before June 30 and help shape the future of your work. The research findings will be published in a fully accessible report in the autumn.

 

About the author

Dr Benedict Eccles is a chartered psychologist specialising in learning and organisational development, and Head of Consultancy Practice at Skills for Health and Skills for Justice.

 

 

 

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