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The Evolution of Virtual Learning

(May 10, 2010)

I conducted my first virtual learning session almost 15 years ago. I chuckle a little when I think back to how limited the technology and my experience was back then. About all you could do was show your slides, maybe conduct simple quick polls that you had to create on the fly, and maybe let the participants write on a whiteboard (why did they all use the upper left-hand corner?).

My, have times changed—or have they? I attend a number of these sessions every month and in my experience, not much has changed in participant or facilitator behaviour. Yes, there are more interaction options—pre-set polling, raising hands, breakout rooms, even technology that lets the facilitator know if I am multi-tasking. But, these technologies are not being used to their fullest effectiveness. Yet, used correctly, virtual learning can be as effective as, and in some cases more effective than, classroom training.

In discussing virtual learning, I have observed various terms used interchangeably—terms like webcast, webinar, web-seminar, web-shop and virtual learning. If you have a group of people on the web at the same time, experiencing the same material, you will use one of these terms. However, not all experiences are the same; and without shared understanding, often confusion occurs and expectations are missed. I believe it is time to adopt some common terminology that clarifies what is what. To that end, I offer the following suggestions.

Webcast: A webcast is delivered to hundreds or even thousands of people. Think “-cast” like in “broadcast.” The purpose of a webcast is for a presenter (or group of presenters) to communicate to a very large audience. Interactive technology is limited; think of quick polls as analogous to asking a live audience to respond in unison. But you would never get 1000 people into breakout rooms.

Webinar: A few years ago, I cringed every time I heard this term, but over the years have learnt to accept it (OK, I have learnt to tolerate it). But, a webinar is different from a webcast and different from virtual learning. A webinar is delivered to a small group. The focus is still on the presenter/instructor. If 70 to 80% of the time is focused on the presenter, and 20 to 30% involves polls, Q&A, whiteboards etc. with participants, then it is a webinar.

Virtual Learning: True virtual learning is only now starting to emerge. Virtual learning differs from webcasts and webinars in two critical ways. First, the objective of virtual learning is to provide participants with new skills or behaviours. While webcasts and webinars are mostly about information, virtual learning is about behaviour. Second, virtual learning is at most 50% presentation. At least half of the time in virtual learning should be participant focused. The leader is truly a facilitator of learning, not a presenter.

Well, I have set a stake in the ground. What do you think? Do you share my belief that we need more consistent language to describe these different types of events? Do you agree with my terminology?

I welcome your thoughts.

About the Author
Michael Leimbach

Michael Leimbach

Michael Leimbach, Ph.D., is Vice President of Global Research and Development for Wilson Learning Worldwide. Dr. Leimbach provides leadership for researching and designing Wilson Learning’s diagnostic, learning, and performance improvement capabilities. He has managed major research studies in sales, leadership, and organisational effectiveness, and developed Wilson Learning’s learning transfer, impact evaluation, and return on investment models. Dr. Leimbach has consulted for a wide variety of global client organisations, serves on the ISO Technical committee for development of ISO 29999 Standard for Learning Service Providers, and is Editor-in-Chief for Advances in Developing Human Resources. Dr. Leimbach has authored six books, published over 100 professional articles, and is a frequent speaker at national and global conferences.

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