Virtual classroom learning is going through the roof during these times of social distancing, restricted travel, and working from home. So, is it as effective as in-person learning? Why don’t we switch to this modality entirely? Afterall, it saves money, time, and facilities.
Inevitably with a topic like this there are those who will argue strongly on both sides of the question. I try to adopt a position of reasonableness and pragmatism, not underestimating the fact that seismic events such as the one we are now experiencing can change the paradigm.
Let’s examine the “Yes” answer to the question.
A lot of the impact of virtual classroom learning is dependent on the artistry and instructional design of the solution. Tools such as Adobe Connect and Zoom provide excellent platforms. But the existence of a good tool does not guarantee a great learner experience. A lot of thought needs to be given to the interactivity of the learning in order to not only keep the learner engaged, but to ensure that learning takes place. A challenge for all learning and development is, “does it add value and make a difference?” If it doesn’t, why spend money on it!
Great learning solution design is essential. It is also vital that virtual learning integrates elements of application – much the same as in-person learning. So, including actual learner experiences and examples is important for relevance, as well as creating a bridge to apply the learning directly to work and behavior change. For example, pre-learning might include learner analysis of how current performance is delivered and measured. The learning program can then overlay principles and models that outline best practice. The learner can appraise present state against a desired state by applying learning principle taught in the virtual classroom. This can then translate into an actionable plan on return to the workplace.
One of the biggest questions raised with virtual learning is “what about behavioral-based learning?” I would argue that virtual experiences can still impact behavioral change. Engaging the learner through virtual break-out discussions, reflection, assessments, and action planning, all help with this. Accompanying any virtual classroom experience with feedback, coaching, manager check-in, and strong application opportunities, can only strengthen the opportunity for behavioral change. Of course, this change to behaviors requires personal accountability, and this can often be supported if virtual learning programs have more than one module. Multiple modules can facilitate practice and report backs.
So, what about the “No” arguments.
Despite the skills and ingenuity of virtual content designers, as well as the charisma and professionalism of facilitators, there will always be arguments as to why virtual learning doesn’t deliver the impact of in-person learning. I would prefix the argument by “it depends on the learning.” There is no doubt that skills and knowledge transfer can be accomplished virtually. I also know that behavioral change can be stimulated using virtual learning, if the support mechanisms are implemented as mentioned in the last paragraph of the “Yes” argument.
There are some in-person learning experiences that are however difficult to replicate in a virtual way. For example, programs that include high levels of senior leader interaction, simulations, practice, project collaboration, and experiential or immersive activities. Each of these on their own can be done in a virtual way, but there are inevitable compromises in the depth and concentration of the experience. Asking people to learn through their laptop screens for hours on end, regardless of the mix of virtual experiences, is different to the diversity of focal lengths and interactive experiences they experience in-person.
The type and temperament of individuals who learn well virtually also plays a role. Some people may not find they can be as expressive as they would like, or their interactions are more transactional. Of course, the reverse might be true for those who find in-person learning a challenge to their introverted nature. Either way, virtual learning changes the dynamics of human interaction purely because it is through an electronic medium.
It may be that our world is changing irreversibly through current events. It is almost inevitable that the demand for virtual learning will increase, as will the skill levels at designing and delivering it. Can virtual classroom learning be as effective as in-person? Yes and No. That’s the ambiguous and changing world we live in.