Virtual training programmes are the future of learning

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Published by
Jan Hills
August 24, 2015

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The more we talk to clients the more we realise that the future of learning and leadership development programmes is going to be changing, radically. Our belief is that virtual programmes will become much more common and much more acceptable, even demanded by business. The trouble is virtual learning got a bad name from the early elearning programmes that were little more than a book or manual put on line with a test at the end. Why do we think this? Well a number of reasons. Some are circumstances that are pushing leadership and learning professionals to change. Some are things that are pulling them towards a more effective way of delivering learning and development.
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Push factors

On the push side there is the never ending pressure on cost and may be even more important is the pressure on leaders to do more. Taking days out to go on workshops is just too much of a luxury for most executives. Virtual programmes or virtual elements also allow people to learn when it suits them. This also honours differences in learning preferences and attention. Another aspect is a generational difference where younger executives are used to ‘just in time’ learning rather than the traditional method of ‘just in case’ programmes. Virtual programmes can provide a variety of channels and types of material which is available when people want it and available over and over again if people want to revisit it.

Pull factors

But it is the pull side that we believe will create the biggest difference to leadership and learning programmes. We have studied the neuroscience of learning and behaviour change and there are many elements that point to greater benefits from virtual programmes over traditional learning programmes.

How people learn

The neuroscience is telling us that people learn best when they have control over when and how they consume material. When that material is designed to create insight not just impart information. When they learn in a community and have interaction with others and importantly when the learning engages emotions and speaks to how it will help them personally be more successful.

For long-term behavioural change people need to embed the learning by applying it and using it in a number of ways until it becomes habit. Part of how they automatically work.

We have made a brief animated video that covers these points and you can watch here.

Getting the best results

You can of course build all of these elements into a more traditional programmes. But the push elements mean we need to become more creative about achieving learning and behavioural change. The final part of the puzzle is that technology is helping us to produce virtual programmes that engage and mange learning more effectively. For the last few years we have been experimenting with this method and have found that for best results you must:

  • Position the programme with participants and their managers or sponsors. Communication about the programme needs to enable participants to identify the ‘what’s in this for me’ features of the programme. This means they come to the programme with a sense of responsibility for their learning. Something we have found that works well is to ask them to select a sponsor from within the organisation and to include a Personal Learning Agreement to support them to keep on track with their learning. Part of communication is introducing people to the technology, which itself needs to be simple, engaging and intuitive.
  • Design the programme to be virtual, don’t just compress the face to face programme. There should be three elements to each module of content: knowledge, processing, and application.

Knowledge takes place during the learners own time and is usually a video, some reading or it could be some research such as interviewing leaders from other organisations or other parts of the business.

Processing is usually a webinar when the group comes together to process the learning. They may be asked to present back insights and their views on the material, discuss how they can apply the learning and what it means to them personally, during the webinar. This deepens understanding, hearing others applications also creates additional insight and often motivation. This helps to build relationships across the cohort, maintains the personal connection to the programme and ensures the webinars are interactive and deepen the learning.

Finally, application takes place in the workplace and is where the learning is applied and put into practice. Once the programme is underway participants work with others in pairs or small groups to coach each other or apply the tools and insight to business issues and day to day work. For this we use our social learning site which also houses the materials. Other methods which can be used include action learning sets, business projects and monitoring application through journaling. Part of the by-product of this stage of the programme is that people begin to learn from each other and as the future modules roll out different individuals are able to contribute aspects of their expertise and experience. Research by matt Lieberman has found that people learn more effectively when they are learning to help others. Learning from each other also builds confidence and commitment and ensures the programme immediately pays back to the business.

Keeping this stage social also builds in pressure to meet the expectations of the group in applying and sharing results as well as providing group support.

Active facilitation

An important role of the facilitator is to monitor the activity of the group seeing where their interest and curiosity is taking them and where they are struggling and might need more input. Again a good social learning platform helps here. One of our other learnings is to keep cohorts small, no more that 12 to 14 people for each webinar so that they receive focussed attention throughout the programme.

Maybe the biggest block to virtual learning is the attitude of learning professionals themselves. That is why for our experiments we started with our own learning group, tested ideas on ourselves before using them with clients. The other thing we have done is look to other areas of learning like education for ideas and confirmation of our own discoveries. One of the most inspiring is the Khan University. You can see Salman khan talking about their method here.

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