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The 4 questions you should be asking about virtual learning today

By Steph Tuttle - June 11, 2020

A Q&A with learning expert Mike Vaughan on achieving leadership development goals in the virtual environment

As the business world has shifted to “virtual-only” interactions, learning and development departments have had to play catchup – and fast. Leaders in this space are naturally turning to virtual solutions to update or replace existing leadership development programs, and this is understandably driving a lot of anxiety about program impact and efficacy. In fact, we’ve found that learning leaders share four key questions around virtual learning.

I asked our resident learning expert Mike Vaughan to help break down these questions and explain how to address them. 

Q: How has the current crisis affected learning leaders and their plans for future programs?

A:  In addition to the anxieties and fears associated with the ambiguity of the current crisis, our customers have shared other fears regarding online learning. Most are anticipating that there will be little, if any, in-person events for the remainder of this year. Thus, everyone is preparing for online learning, and that seems to be adding to the list of concerns. The four questions I hear most surrounding online learning are:

  1. Efficacy - Does virtual learning work? How do we know it’s effective?

  2. Time - What is the optimal length of time for online learning?

  3. Content - How much content can you effectively teach online?

  4. Social - What’s the best way to use video conference software?

Q: Let’s look at each of the four questions more closely. First, tell us how you can determine if virtual learning is effective for participants and the business.

A:  Learning leaders always ask two great questions: “ Will it work? Is it effective?” These questions don’t just apply to online learning; they are the right questions to ask of any type of learning experience. To answer these questions requires the right tools to capture a unique type of data: specifically, data that gives insight into how a participant’s thinking and behavior change over time. Better still is data that shows if the thinking and behavior are aligned with those who are considered experts. 

The specialized data and the tools necessary to analyze this data is referred to as Advanced Learning Intelligence (ALI). ALI defines both a methodology for capturing the right data and the tools for making sense of the data. When selecting an online solution, or any solution for that matter, it’s important to understand what type of data is being captured and if that data can be used to examine the patterns and trends of thought and behavior over time. When you have this type of data, not only can you determine the efficacy of the program, you can be much more targeted with how and where you spend your limited training dollars. 

Q: What is the optimal length of time for online learning? 

A: We all multi-task to keep up with competing priorities. The number one issue with online learning is getting the participants’ full attention. Emailing, texting, and slacking all compete for the participants' attention. Whenever attention switches, even momentarily, it significantly impacts learning. Switching between tasks causes our brains to halt any processing of the current rule sets and load a new set of rules. This happens quickly – but halting, unloading, loading, and restarting take their toll on productivity and our mental and emotional energy to learn. The continuous partial attention we apply to tasks not only results in subpar performance, but it lessens the effectiveness of the learning experience.   

From our research, eLearning modules should not be any longer than 10-15 minutes at a time,  behavioral assessments should be kept to 10-12 questions, micro-sims at 15-20 minutes, team-based simulations at 30-45 minutes per round, and virtual instructor-led sessions at 90-minutes. If you plan to convert an existing course, keep these in mind. You can still get an 8-hour course converted; just curate it down to the essentials, be sure to create breaks and allow people to attend to their other tasks so they can focus when it comes time to learn.

Q: How much content can you effectively teach online?

A:  Short-term memories take up only a small portion of our brains – an area about the size of a walnut. It follows that as new information is added, old information is pushed out. Many learning programs fail because they pack too many objectives and too much content into a learner’s head without triggering long-term memory. This is a common mistake when converting an existing workshop to online or building one from scratch. Too much is packed into slides and talk tracks, and people tune out or retain little. The simple rule, especially for limited budgets, is to determine if you’re trying to teach people ‘what to think’ or if you are educating them on ‘how to think’. What-to-Think content should be short, modular, and tied to one concept or learning objective. Since short-term memory is limited, more information does not equate with more learning and the primary goal of What-to-think is to provide a foundation to build from.  How-to-Think learning on the other hand, should have little or no content. Rather it must have a realistic narrative that evokes deep thinking and requires the participant to make decisions with no-clear outcomes. Organizing the learning objectives or mental model shifts by What and How will save you money and time (and it will make the learning much more engaging).  

Q: What’s the best way to use video conference software?

A: The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of video platforms. The problem with video calls is they require our brains to work harder than when we are face-to-face. Our brains are in constant sense-making mode. When we are face-to-face, it is much easier. When online, it is harder to interpret non-verbal cues like facial expressions, tone, body language, and eye contact. To make sense of what is being conveyed online requires the brain to kick into high gear, which consumes mental and emotional energy.   

Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead described the experience by saying, “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we're not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally.” 

Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University says, “When you're on a video conference, you know everybody's looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform.” 

Andrew Franklin, an assistant professor of cyberpsychology at Virginia’s Norfolk State University brings yet another perspective. “Prolonged eye contact has become the strongest facial cue readily available [online], and it can feel threatening or overly intimate if held too long.”   

For a virtual instructor led session of 90-minutes, the simple rule to remember is 2-1-1. Two (2) plenaries, so everyone can see everyone else. This creates community and the feeling that they are part of something bigger. One (1) for at least one break out, so people can connect on a more personal level. And the final one (1) denotes the need to have at least one activity that participants are off camera to practice a skill or reflect on their own thinking. If you are planning longer sessions, then we highly recommend adding individual micro-sims (for the off-camera time) and team-based sims for the break out rooms. These not only significantly improve engagement and reduce the Zoom-effect, these additional will dramatically improve learning, motivation and retention.  

Q: Are there any other things learning leaders should be thinking about to develop informed thinking around virtual learning? 

A: There are many other factors to consider when evaluating a virtual learning solution. What comes to mind are: relevant content, technology limitation, confidence using technology, time to complete the experience, practice and reflection, and the spacing effect. We believe the best way to answer these concerns and deliver impactful learning today is the Massive Multiplayer Virtual Platform. 

To help you find a virtual learning partner that answers these questions best for your organization, we’ve built a checklist for evaluating virtual learning solutions.

We promise that we won't SPAM you.