In the first part of the blog, we covered three forms of online learning – elearning, virtual training and webinars, and how they differ from each other in terms of delivery and suitability for different purposes.

There is one more type of online learning which despite its considerable scope, flexibility and suitability for developing people in the workplace, has not yet been widely adopted by organizations.

This online learning format can cater for foundation or advanced levels, it can leverage collaborative learning in functional or cross-functional teams, it can address learning needs that are business critical and require a change in work practice fast, and it can accommodate large cohorts and geographically distributed groups.

TEAM-BASED DIGITAL LEARNING – refers to a digital program of lessons that are scheduled to run over a number of weeks and are hosted on a platform which provides a virtual learning environment or classroom. Each week consists of an agenda featuring a number of synchronous or asynchronous learning tasks. These might involve any combination of online learning, such as self-directed elearning, video lectures, live webinars, collaboration projects, online group work, virtual workshop sessions or forum discussions between participants and trainers, delivered through a range of appropriate technology. Participants are supported throughout the program duration and their progression tracked by a team of tutors or e-moderators. Trainers can be drawn from external subject matter experts or involve inhouse senior managers and mentors.

While such a program can be created for a group of participants who engage in self-directed learning, the real benefits of such a digital program emerges when participants study together, collaboratively or in teams to achieve learning outcomes that are closely aligned with business needs. Running the program over a period of weeks, also means there is more opportunity to embed the learning into practice as participants are encouraged to apply what they have learned, reflect on it and bring it back to their peers and trainers for further input, discussion and review.

What to look out for – Because of the format’s versatility it can cater to many different training contexts, but it is particularly well suited to situations where there are larger numbers and geographically distributed participants, or where there is a business critical need that participants need to get to grips with and quickly. For instance, a conventional face-to-face program takes 1-2 years of roll-out to reach 400 people. A digital program is able to reach double that figure or more in its first cohort alone. The development of digital program costs as much as a classroom based program, but once delivery costs such as travel and expenses are factored in, together with the opportunity cost and disruption of prolonged absence of participants from the workplace, a digital program can cost up to 70% less than a conventional face-to-face program.

Making online learning fit for your purpose

 What are the questions you should consider when you turn your classroom-based programs digital?

  • Synchronous or asynchronous learning – Should you commission live, virtual training sessions or elearning courses that can be worked through, self-directed and self-paced? If your learners are spread across many time zones, or they are heavily engaged in their day job, it will be better to design asynchronous activities. Forums, messaging, and group-based activities can still support interaction and peer exchange. If learning outcomes are better supported through a rich exchange between peers and a trainer, then synchronous training will be better suited.
  • Fit for purpose – Is the aim of the training knowledge acquisition or peer learning? Is the subject focussed and relatively bounded or broad and multi-disciplinary? If it’s a focussed topic best acquired through knowledge transfer, elearning and self-directed learning are probably the most effective way. If the subject is broad, multi-disciplinary and involves many interfaces – learning will best be generated through interaction with peers, across different functions and with tutors. In this case, virtual training and workshops are best, as long as the delegate numbers are relatively small.
  • Cohort size & geographical distribution – if your target audience numbers hundreds of participants who may also not be co-located, and depending on the training purpose, either elearning courses or a digital team-based program would provide the best fit.
  • Learning outcomes – Where learning outcomes are tightly defined and focussed, webinars or elearning might be best. Where they are more loosely defined, for instance, because they are made up of a number of interrelated competencies, virtual training (for smaller cohorts) or digital team-based programs (for larger cohorts) would be the best choice.
  • Training philosophy – Do your participants need a prescriptive and instructive approach, or do you want them to generate their own solutions, aided by their peers and trainers? Elearning, webinars or virtual training can suit the former, whereas digital team-based programs or virtual workshops are a match for the latter.

Even before the pandemic, many organizations have started to think that classroom-based learning, while often considered the ‘gold standard’ of training, can no longer be the only model of delivering training. Now that social distancing is driving online delivery, and providing that online training providers do a good job, organizations will discover that for the right purpose online learning can be equally effective, often cost less and even achieve results that face-to-face training can’t.

Gabriele Burian – Managing Partner Kingsfield Academy