Virtual classroom learning hero

What We’ve Learned About Virtual Classroom Training in 2020

Stop doing what you are doing and the way you’re doing it. You must quickly learn and get comfortable with some new technology. Your content needs to be reworked for the new reality too. We need to provide the same value, meet the same need, but in a very different way. By next Friday. Do the best you can, and we'll iterate and improve as we go.

Many things changed rapidly in early March of 2020. For organizations' learning and development functions, a significant amount of agility, focus, determination, and more were needed to adjust to the new reality caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Training programs that had been delivered via in-person instructor-led training (ILT), had to transition to become virtual classroom programs (sometimes called virtual instructor-led training, or vILT) delivered via Zoom, WebEx, or other such platforms.

The good news was that this training approach was not new to the industry—it had been around for two decades. Established experts and authors had long shared via their books, articles, and conference presentations the best practices for making virtual classroom training interactive, engaging, and ultimately, effective.

The bad news was that as a training modality, virtual was only used on average for 10-15% of training, with in-person instructor-led training being the most common, and even self-paced e-Learning more commonly used at many firms. So, while some organizations were well-prepared in terms of skills, technology, processes, etc. to ramp up their existing vILT operations, far more were caught flat-footed and had to pivot quickly.

We know this shift occurred because in early April the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) asked in a pulse survey: "To what extent has your organization increased its use of virtual classroom training because of the COVID-19 pandemic?" 60% of respondents said significantly, and another 31% said somewhat. From March to May, this pivot to vILT was a frequent topic during i4cp's Learning and Development community action calls, weekly gatherings where learning and development leaders discuss pressing issues of the day and hear from special guests from companies such as McDonald's, Microsoft, Visa, Chase, Walmart, Google, Starbucks, and others.

In time, discussion of virtual classroom training on this call series died down, giving way to other pressing matters such as L&D's role in diversity, equity, and inclusion; L&D’s role in return to the workplace planning; maintaining company culture during the pandemic, and more.

But all the while, virtual classroom training was being leveraged at companies around the world: trainers and instructional designers were discovering (or rediscovering) this learning approach, lessons were being learned, best practices discovered and leveraged, and ultimately, employees were gaining knowledge, learning skills, and changing behaviors.

At i4cp's October 29 L&D community action call, I facilitated an active discussion on virtual classroom training to learn how it has been going since March. Here are some key highlights from that conversation:

There has been growth and maturation in the virtual classroom approaches used.

While many organizations switched programs from in-person instructor-led training (ILT) to the virtual classroom in March and April, it took time for some to experiment and gain experience with more advanced approaches, like breakout group discussions or leveraging third-party tools. But by now, many weekly call participants agreed it has been a significant period of learning and growth for both their L&D teams and their learners. Breakout rooms in particular have become a standard technique used when beneficial to the learning objectives, just as small-group activities are often used during in-person ILT programs.

One participant shared their organization’s practice of providing an overview at the top of the session on how the breakout technology and experience will work, as this will reduce the technical challenges when it's time to do the activities. Another tip is to use a breakout activity early in a program as it gets more people interacting quickly and sets that expectation for when all are together for the rest of the event.

Whenever possible, partner with producers to help manage the technology and the learner experience.

Whether called producers, facilitators, moderators, hosts, proctors, or something else, this role is important so that the trainer can focus on the content and the ultimate learning outcomes. Helpful for webinar-style, knowledge-sharing sessions when the audience is large enough, producers are critical for skill-building programs that use more advanced platform features such as annotation and the aforementioned breakout groups. Even having a producer just to help for the ten minutes before the program starts and the first ten minutes after start time can make sure audio connection and other tech issues are kept to a minimum so the experience will begin smoothly.

One call participant shared the tip to pair up two trainers, with one performing the role of producer for a session, and then switching roles for a future session. This not only makes for a better learner experience in each session, it also improves each trainers' facilitation skills, can be an efficient use of resources available, and keeps them utilized during breaks in their primary facilitation schedule. At large companies with a sizable volume of virtual classroom programs, having dedicated producers might be a better approach, or even outsourcing your production tasks to outside vendors.

Reimagine programs when designing virtual classroom training.

Back in April, 55% of respondents to i4cp’s survey said they primarily redesign in-person ILT materials for use in the virtual classroom, with 20% indicating they start from scratch, and another 22% saying they re-use materials as-is and do their best to just "make it work" online. There remains a mix today, but the consensus among those on our weekly call was that switching to virtual classrooms is a great time to, as one participant said, "reimagine" each training program. In particular, any content or objectives that don't benefit from being learned together, with a live instructor, are candidates to be removed from the program and provided in some other way, e.g., documents, videos, e-Learning modules, job aids, etc. Afterall, some in-person ILT programs are longer than necessary in order to justify the time away from the office, travel time, etc., or to fill-out a pre-ordained number of "days of training."

In some other cases, the reverse occurred: in-person training programs ended up having far too much content crammed into a limited number of days under the guise of needing to "make the most use of the time" given the cost of participants flying into the training location. The opportunity to redesign such programs for the virtual classroom means you can eliminate bloat where it exists and/or spread out the necessary content through time-spaced approaches that optimize learning results.

Smartly leverage the features of your virtual classroom platform.

Don't create rigid rules such as mandating that every training program must use breakouts, videos, polls, annotation/whiteboard tools, or any other particular feature. Instead, map the features available to each program's objectives in an intentional way that will bring about the best learning outcomes. Participants on our weekly call noted the chat feature can be used in structured activity moments and more generally to encourage peer-to-peer learning that is more difficult to achieve during in-person ILT programs. This is actually an advantage that the virtual classroom has over in-person ILT, and is important enough for program designers and trainers to understand that it helps to give it a name like "chatversations," a term I first introduced in the book I co-authored with Kassy LaBorie, Interact and Engage! 50+ Activities for Virtual Training, Meetings, and Webinars (ATD Press, 2015).

Accountability for pre-work continues to be a challenge.

As is the case with in-person ILT programs, making sure participants do the necessary pre-work (e.g., readings, assessments, etc.) continues to be a challenge for the virtual classroom. Several L&D leaders have said that they are focusing on this issue of learner accountability, including the use of nudges and technology to help, but don't yet have a full solution.

Content needs to be customized, now more than ever.

Although not specific to virtual classroom programs, the context of 2020 including the pandemic, racial injustice, economic uncertainty, natural disasters, etc., requires that many programs be customized so they don't come across as out of date or out of touch with current realities. Making such adjustments takes effort, but can be done a bit more easily by trainers on the fly in live programs, versus the need to redevelop content created in static videos or e-Learning modules.

As some people return to offices, hybrid online events will increase, but they will introduce challenges.

Even when more employees currently working from home have returned to a traditional office (either full-time or part-time), some on the call suggested they plan to continue to deliver training virtually, so that all participants can attend equally and so they can take advantage of features like chat. See the i4cp article Considerations and Best Practices for Hybrid Meetings, many of which are also relevant for attempts at hybrid training events.

Thomas Stone
Tom is a Senior Research Analyst at i4cp, with over two decades of experience as a writer, researcher, and speaker in the learning and development and broader human capital industry. He is also author of multiple books, including co-authoring Interact and Engage! 75+ Activities for Virtual Training, Meetings, and Webinars (second edition from ATD Press, 2022).