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Virtual Learning

What's the Real Scoop About Making It Both Virtual and Effective? (April 15, 2010)

Clients are asking a lot of questions about virtual learning these days, and it’s not surprising. There are so many ways that virtual learning makes sense. Instead of bringing people to a common location for training, why not bring the training to them? Instead of paying a big travel bill and disrupting work schedules, why not integrate the learning right into the work environment? Why isn’t everybody doing it more often?

For many of our clients, the barrier isn’t a lack of interest, but a lack of confidence that the same quality of outcome can be achieved. It may be that you, or some of your internal customers, have had a poor experience with so-called virtual learning—possibly just a “talking head” presentation, illustrated with too many boring slides. Or you might have observed a tendency for people to tune out of web-delivered presentations, looking at e-mail or doing other things rather than being engaged and attentive. And of course the technology can still be daunting for some. Any of these common pitfalls can get in the way of real learning.

So, if you want to deliver great virtual learning experiences, what does it take?

First, let’s distinguish true virtual learning from other types of web-delivered presentations such as webinars, web meetings, or webcasts. A virtual learning session is an interactive experience for a small group, with the objective of learning new skills and behaviors. To ensure this objective is met, there are two critical factors necessary for the delivery of high-impact, truly effective virtual learning.

Those are:

  • Excellent design, adapted specifically for the virtual classroom
  • Expert facilitation, using techniques appropriate for unique virtual learning requirements

Let’s take design. You need to keep people from tuning out when they are sitting in an office in front of a computer. This is a much bigger problem than in a traditional classroom. Your design needs to build in a continuous flow of engaging, interactive activities that keep people on their toes, involved, and challenged. If they’re busy with relevant work, they won’t even think of dropping out to multi-task on something else. Include applications and practice in your design. One advantage of the virtual environment is that you can deliver learning in smaller chunks, allowing people to practice and apply their new skills on the job in between sessions.

What about facilitation? How is that different in a virtual environment? Keep in mind that you need a true facilitator, not a presenter. A successful facilitator of virtual learning sessions understands the nuances of keeping participants involved even though they are in dispersed locations and can’t visually connect with the session leader and their fellow learners.

Expert facilitators use all the technologies available in the contemporary virtual classroom—interactive white boards, breakout rooms, quick polls, and “hand raising”—to get people interacting with each other and with the facilitator throughout the session. This facilitator also has the experience to notice when someone is not engaged and is able to re-engage him or her. Keeping a fast pace and continuously changing types of activities also helps to keep participants from checking out.

What has your experience been with virtual classrooms? What questions or misperceptions have you heard about virtual learning? What tips would you share with someone beginning to explore virtual learning in his or her organization?

About the Author
Nancy Frevert

Nancy Frevert

Nancy Frevert, Masters International Management, is the Director of Solution Development for Wilson Learning Worldwide. For over 15 years, Ms. Frevert has provided leadership for solution creation of both client programs and Wilson Learning brand offerings. She has managed and contributed to a wide variety of global client development initiatives. She leads the development efforts in sales, leadership, and individual effectiveness offerings at Wilson Learning. Ms. Frevert has been critical to the development of Wilson Learning’s approach to learning transfer.

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