Technology has enabled us to work, live and play in dramatically different ways. We can now easily and instantly communicate with others around the globe and gain access to a wealth of knowledge and information anywhere and at any time. This allows us to deliver training in dramatically new ways. No longer do we have to hold our learners hostage in a physical classroom. Instead, we can deliver training to them over the web anywhere and at any time. However, most people find that it is almost next to impossible to engage a learner in a live virtual classroom when they have so many distractions, demands on their time and nobody physically present to “motivate” them to stay with the program. In some instances they try to spice up their webinars with techniques and approaches to gain some level of interaction. Even then, many still find that the virtual classroom is a poor and distant cousin to the traditional physical classroom. As a result, many organizations have decided that virtual training really won’t work. There are, however, two very significant faults in this conclusion.
First, the physical classroom is rarely a highly effective environment for learning. Ironically, the biggest benefit to the classroom is its ability to hold the learner physically hostage as the mind can still wander just as quickly as when the learner is participating in a virtual class. More importantly, people have become highly tolerant of poor training, whether physical or virtual, as the benchmark is so low. They may sit for an hour or more listening to information that is only marginally relevant to them. They may be asked to participate in an exercise that is not really applicable to their own roles or needs. How often have your heard someone share that from a day in a training class the best they could hope for would be to pick up one or two good ideas? Finally, consider how quickly the content of a training program decays, and the extent that a participant ends up actually changing their behavior and/or applying new knowledge or approaches due to a training course. The bar is indeed set very low.
Second, the seemingly logical conclusion that you can’t gain someone’s attention when you are remote and they can so easily become distracted is totally flawed. The broadcast media has been doing this for years. It is quite easy to flip channels or walk away from the television set, a purely one-way media, yet we stay glued in front of the television happily watching anything from historical documentaries to the most inane of reality shows.
When faced with the opportunity to provide training in new ways, (perhaps moving a program that was previously delivered in a physical classroom to the live virtual classroom), it is not a simple case of doing what we have always done. It is not a case of moving content from the physical to the virtual classroom and using flashier PowerPoint with some polls and questions. Technology has enabled us to do what we haven’t done before so why do we continue to use technology to do what we have always done?
We must rethink, redesign and rearchitect our training programs like never before. Previously, when designing training for the physical classroom we had massive constraints. Constraints that were so obvious we now take them for granted, such as:
- The fixed number of participants in the class
- The duration of the program
- The very high costs and time constraints of including multiple facilitators and subject matter experts
- The necessity of delivering all that was required in one shot
- The inability to observe and work with participants as they apply new knowledge and skills in the workplace
When designing training for the virtual world these are no longer constraints, and indeed become opportunities. For example, we can now work with participants over a matter of weeks as they now not only learn, but apply and then share their own real-world experiences.
The rearchitecting of our approaches to training in the virtual world has very little to do with flashing up our PowerPoint and introducing some polls. We need to rethink how we will achieve our learning objectives with many, many more approaches that we ever had when constrained by the physical classroom. At the same time we can learn a great deal from the broadcast media and start making our learning programs far more relevant and engaging to our learners. We should also be using the time we do have with learners to engage them in ways that spawn collaboration and truly do move from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” Our live virtual classroom should be an environment where there is a high degree of collaboration, sharing of ideas between learners and experts, and discussion about what the learners are finding as they implement new ideas and approaches in the real world. This is a very long way from an individual presenting PowerPoint over the web.
If your L&D organization is still asking, “How do we engage learners in a webinar?” they may be asking the wrong question. The question should be, “How do we architect learning programs that create results?” By using technology, we have the ability to architect programs that are continuous in nature versus bounded by the time we have people captive in a classroom. Learning should be blended in terms of delivery modalities and integrate new knowledge, application, coaching and reflection. We should also consider the aspects of change management that will enable our learners to move through their learning experiences in a motivated and supportive fashion. If we are simply focusing on how to deliver a better webinar we are missing the big picture and the real opportunity to do something truly impactful for the learner and for the organization.