Online training - the future of learning or a short-term panacea to an industry in turmoil?
Virtual training will be virtually the only form of learning and development most of us will able to access for the foreseeable future. More than that - the way we learn may well have changed forever. The COVID-19 crisis marks a fundamental shift in the importance of online learning - and many experts now believe this will only serve to accelerate an inevitable paradigm shift in corporate learning and development. After decades of development, virtual training may finally have come of age in weeks.
But this begs a very real question. Does online training really work? Is it really better than traditional face to face learning?
In reality, learning and development budgets have been moving online for some time. In Linked In's Learning’s 3rd annual Workplace Learning Report it highlighted that 59% of talent developers spend more of their budget on online learning and 39% say they spend less on instructor-led training since 2017. People leaders and professionals have already started to really embrace the virtual learning revolution.
The reasons are obvious. Generally virtual training is more cost-effective, scalable and more convenient. Learners can absorb content over time, at their own speed and to fit around their jobs and commitments. Learners haven't had to spend significant amounts of time out of the office to attend courses, which means that online programmes cost a fraction of face to face courses, especially when the price of travel, accommodation and time away are fully factored in.
Quite apart from cost, virtual training can come top of the class in many other ways. Short, effective micro-learning modules help break up learning into more bite sized, palatable, and appetizing chunks. Gamified solutions can stimulate stronger engagement and ongoing participation. Immediate expert, peer and social feedback can support and encourage learners (and act as self enforcing carrot and stick). Not to mention reducing corporate carbon foot prints in environmentally critical times.
The way the world sees virtual connection and engagement will never be the same again. Now the learning industry has a lot to learn - and fast.
Over the years there have been numerous studies about how online training is as effective as face to face learning*. Blended learning, combining online learning with human interaction, can achieve even better results according to recent research.**
This said, online learning has, at least until this crisis, had many critics and some research has suggested learner satisfaction is mixed for many online course and programmes.
This is a key point, but online or blended learning itself is not the culprit. The real guilty parties are the learning companies and corporates who stick un-interactive and unattractive materials online with little thought about how learners would actually use them. The learning journey is just as important as the destination. So many companies have sucked the fun out of online learning by offering boring and functional e-learning and virtual learning materials, served up in an uninspiring way. That is why so much of it has failed to stick and why so much money has been wasted.
Successful learning has always been about the experience. And if you have experienced a standard face to face course delivered online you will know why it doesn't work (and let's face, it can be excruciatingly boring to sit through!). As the panic around us has spread, so many traditional learning companies are panicking about how to deliver traditional learning online - and in the rush to retain revenues many will create a virtual mess.
Rather than trying to ram a virtual square peg into a round hole, the learning industry now needs to focus on the very real benefits intuitive, interactive, engaging - and, yes, fun - online learning and development programmes and experiences can offer.
* Research has regularly shown that online learning can be as effective if not more effective than traditional learning in for example for corporate, graduate, medical and software learning: Johnson, Aragon, & Shaik (2000), Coppola & Myre (2002), Neuhauser (2010), Dimeff et al. (2015), Brady et al. (2018).
**Hewett, Becker, & Bish (2019), Reavley et al. (2018).
We've spent so much time learning how to present and engage in an online world that we need to think about how our skills have transformed. Are the human abilities we haven't used in a while still able and ready to influence people?
Finding the balance between what is suitable for your people and what business as usual might look like isn’t an easy task.