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What's critical when virtualizing leadership development programs

By Grace Chang, Ph.D. - September 02, 2020

In the age of COVID-19, companies are being compelled to virtualize their leadership development programs, adapting quickly to new constraints in attempts to “lift and shift” their programs on tight budgets. But in this rush to virtualization, are we focusing on the wrong things?

We need to rethink what “good” virtualization means. I’ve observed that most of the focus is on the timing of the program—that the solution to transform an in-person learning program is to drastically shorten participants’ time spent learning rather than focus on content and engagement. A common refrain is that the length of the program needs to be shortened to 2-3 hours a day to keep participants engaged. While we all recognize that it is difficult to keep participants engaged during long days of virtual workshops, I’d like to challenge our thinking about what makes a good virtual learning experience. We can all agree that having people sit at a computer for 8 straight hours is not ideal, but it doesn’t mean that the best or only solution is to cut the learning down to 2-3 hours a day.

Here are some issues to consider when making design decisions about virtualizing:

  • Participant drop-out. If the number of daily hours is shortened and the learning is spread over more days, it’s likely that more participants will drop out over time.
  • Loss of impact. If the number of hours is cut without spreading the learning across more days, important learning experiences may be lost.
  • Loss of attention. If too much of the daily commitment is removed, it could lead participants to feel the program is less monumental than a typical full-day in-classroom program, and therefore less deserving of their focused attention. Without focused attention, the learning will suffer.
  • Loss of immersive experience. If the learning period is too short, it can be difficult to get fully immersed in the learning, especially when participants know they will have to shift their attention to daily work tasks the rest of the day. This leads to more shallow engagement with the material and makes it more difficult to engage in the critical thinking that is needed to make connections for deep learning.

Although regular breaks are important so participants’ brains can function optimally, it is really the quality of the content, overall experience, and the facilitation that drive engagement, not necessarily the amount of time spent learning. This is true regardless of whether you are developing an in-classroom program or a virtual program. In fact, when someone is immersed in an engaging learning experience, time should seem to fly by, whether virtual or not.

While there are some special considerations and accommodations that should be made for virtual learning, the basic foundations of good design hold true regardless of modality. As our industry focuses on how best to develop and deliver virtual training, it is also an opportunity to re-examine the design and delivery of in-classroom programs. For example, if your first thought is to shorten 8 hours of in-person facilitation to 3 hours of virtual delivery to maintain engagement, then you should be asking yourself if the 8 hours of in-person facilitation is an engaging and effective experience to begin with.

There is no silver bullet to how programs should be designed and facilitated, but there is experience. Over the next several weeks, my colleagues and I will be sharing our experiences developing and delivering brain-friendly, engaging, and impactful learning experiences. We invite you to join us to explore what makes good leadership development training regardless of modality and to discuss what is different about the virtual environment and how that influences design and delivery of virtual programs.

Dr. Grace Chang is a cognitive neuroscientist focused on applying research to the business world. As Chief Scientific Officer for The Regis Company, she is driving initiatives in learning and assessment to enhance their neuroscience-based business solutions.

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