Is virtual learning overrated?

Can leaders make the experience more effective and engaging for employees?

Is virtual learning overrated?

Let’s face it, online meeting rooms and video platforms are not entirely conducive learning environments, Dr Robert Coles, CEO at Roffey Park Institute told HRD. He said that many corporate leaders as well as university students have been complaining about how the pandemic has led to screen-based learning sessions where the “level of dialogue and inquiry around the topic has reduced a lot”.

However, he acknowledged that the old days of sitting in a classroom for hours and reading off flip charts or presentations were no better. What both examples were missing is a social and interactive element that’s crucial to engage participants and ensure they process and contextualise the lesson.

Read more: Will we finally get to return to offices this year?

Digital versus in-person training

So what does the future of learning and development hold for us? Dr Coles believes it’ll likely be a blended version that includes both virtual and physical classes. Each medium has its merits and are good for different things. Digital learning is quick, easily accessible, and can offer “informational means of learning and an essential transfer of functional skills”.

“The advantage if you’re learning something tools-based or process-based is that you can go it over and over and over again in your own way and speed, which is great,” he said about learning skills online. “But I think there needs to be better design of content. Sometimes it’s horrifying, so we really need to think about the course design.”

But there’s also a time and place for in-person learning. For example, the training of individuals involved in complex decision making or change management strategies. These sessions aim to help individuals develop ‘judgement-based’ skills such as the ability to think outside the box, challenge the status quo and come up with creative and unique ideas.

“Judgement-based skills require interaction,” he said. “The best way is if we’re sitting in a room talking to each other.” Honing the skill requires a keen understanding and psychology of managing other people – and most times that can only be learned through organic, interactive and situational circumstances. Currently, digital learning is lacking in that social element but the industry is working on ways to enable tech-based solutions, including the use of avatars or robotics.

Read more: Is L&D ‘impossible’ to sustain for remote workers?

The future of learning

Therefore when you’re deciding whether virtual or classroom learning is best for your organisation in the long run, it’s best to avoid taking rigid or extreme positions. “We have clients still waiting for classrooms and refusing to do it any other way,” said Dr Coles. “We have had others who’ve [called it] the end of classrooms. And they just bought [L&D program] licenses and distributed them. I don’t think either of those extremes are sustainable.”

One promising ‘blended’ solution is to have some of the learners physically in class and the remaining connecting to the session electronically. To ensure that everyone gets to interact in class, programs can use robots that carry screens with a ‘live’ feed of the remote participant and allow them to “move around” the class and talk to the other learners.

The possibilities are endless, but whatever it is it’ll require a multi-faceted approach, rather than just about choosing one medium over another. “It’s about integrating different pieces of the jigsaw to make sure that the learning experience is as holistic as possible,” he said. “And I think that’s where L&D will end up.”

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