The problem with virtual training: instructional design, not distance


Training at a distance is more hassle than it’s worth, several CEOs have warned. But when we recently reported their cautions against onboarding new employees virtually, a senior analyst at training consultancy Bersin & Associates named Janet Clarey took exception with their point of view in the comments. Not that training at a distance isn’t without its pitfalls, she wrote, but:

I talk to organizations (Fortune 100s, 500s, SMBs) every day that ‘train at a distance’ and many are seeing excellent, real results both in terms of effectiveness and cost. Those that don’t do it (orientation or other) well tend to not do it well face-to-face either.

So what sets those organizations that struggle with remote training apart from those who do it well? We called up Clarey to find out, and she boiled down the distinction between the two groups to one main difference: appropriate instructional design. Those that struggle with onboarding and developing talent at a distance, she explained,

Oftentimes try to take something that has already existed that they’ve taught in a face-to-face classroom and simply put it online, not understanding that it’s an entirely different way of teaching. You don’t have body language. You can’t tell what people are actually doing. Are you reaching people? So a lot of times organizations fall down and that really points to not approaching it with any sort of sound instructional design process.

And while a bevy of new e-learning tools make it easier than ever before for non-training pros to share their skills and knowledge at a distance, this very simplicity of use sometimes contributes to the lack of carefully designed materials, says Clarey.

The tools have become easier to use, and that’s a good thing in that you can have someone who’s not in a training role that’s still able to create content. But with that trade-off of simplicity comes perhaps some problems in how content is delivered. People who don’t have any sort of instructional design experience don’t understand how adults learn, and you can run into some very bad e-learning that way.

There is a middle way, Clarey goes on to explain, where area specialists create content and learning specialists support them and vet the materials they produce. “Typically, the companies that are doing better with supplying e-learning authoring tools to people right in the field are able to give them direction, to serve in a supervisory role, giving them the tools they need to properly deliver the training,” she says.

What else are companies that have success with training at a distance doing differently? Employing “blended learning solutions,” according to Clarey:

So let’s say it’s for orientation. Today it would include something like a community or expertise matching, some way a remote employee can stay connected. It might also involve some instructor-led training. It might involve some self-paced e-learning that you complete on your own, so usually where it’s very successful is when it’s part of an integrated program.

There have been a couple of organizations who have taken some of the more mature technologies that have a lot of advanced features that might mimic the classroom a bit more, like break-out rooms, and have done some incredible things with those. But still there’s always some other form of connection with others involved.

Do you agree that the trouble with training at a distance isn’t the distance itself but the lack of thought that is sometimes put into how content is delivered?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Hermes


Paul Angileri

I agree with most of the both the article, and the comments posted thus far. The how of the process is alway the key to the good or bad outcomes.

I think that the point about the lack of the visual aspects of ILT and their absence in distance training is perhaps more limited than is often claimed. If we think about how much business is done via our phones every day (or Skype as the case may be), and how effectively much of it is accomplished without seeing people, I think this tempers that dynamic a little. There are surely more important and subtle differences when it comes to an on-boarding program, where one or more people are finding their way into a foreign setting, but if the question is routine company training, I think the in-person aspect may be less of a factor, and culture can fill some of the gaps.

Think about the work-at-home movement as well, of which I happen to be a member. I talk to an increasing number of people who spend most of their work hours at home rather than in the office. I think that there are growing expectations on the learner side for training to be available and robust at any time, from a distance. And the learners themselves may not even realize they are missing out on the in-person aspects of training. So, I think effective distance training needs to draw the learner’s awareness to the difference in setting, and guide them through an in-built assumptions and how to manage them effectively for learning.

But then, in-person may remain a factor, if telepresence technology becomes more widespread, and we become more accustomed to seeing our co-workers from our home offices each day. Collaborative virtual telepresence spaces are likely in our future as well, and we’ll virtually meet clients and colleagues face-to-face.

Stephen Raney

It is so common to see death by Powerpoint, and that now extends to easy to use online tools put in the wrong hands. Why short sighted management demands this is a different topic, but the widespread problem is well known. One way I found to fight this is peer review- in the rush to mass produce “15 minute garbage in garbage out”, partner with someone who has a clue what design is and just maybe you can get some instructionally sound content produced in the heap. You gotta believe…

Alex Watson

I think its depends on what is being delivered and how…and in some cases by whom. Many organisations take the attitude that they’ve delivered, so job done. The sad fact is…many people within organisations have barriers up to change and technology. This isn’t helped by poorly executed learning strategies. We know face to face training can be just as ineffective…but introducing alternative delivery channels as a panecea to all our problems, then making the same poor design and dissemination choices is bound to end up in tears.

Phil Montero

I agree with the main argument of this article, and especially with Mr. Mass’ observation in his comment below that the richness of the communication across distance is not always directly a function of technological functionality, but rather with HOW the platform is being used or applied.

I believe, however, that another path to success may lie in the direction of less rather than more facilitation. I am discovering that a clearinghouse approach: where the material is available in digestible pieces and consumable at a self directed pace – may be better suited to certain training goals.

Attendees of virtual training may in fact bear a larger responsibility to play an active role in the learning than their co-located counterparts – but then they may also indulge in the rewards like open scheduling.

Further, as a developer of virtual team training materials directed toward executive and leadership level change management – I have discovered that it can be difficult to monopolize individual’s attention for large chunks of time, and often times too much ‘hand-holding’ during a training or strategy session can be interpreted as ‘fluff’; so again, the clearinghouse method also may prove effective for certain sectors of an organization, or even certain personality types.

Ultimately, I believe virtual training, just like virtual work, is an inevitability and it will be those who are willing to change and adapt – as it always is – who will thrive in the transition.

Justin Mass

Yes, totally agree. But virtual instructional design (VID) isn’t automatically transferable from ILT/classroom teaching models or ID practices. So even the most experienced instructional designers must go through the same re-learning curve when designing for the virtual, synchronous experience. You have to know what your technology platform can and can’t do, what it can do well and what to avoid. Each platform is different, so you have to learn many “don’t do’s” along the way. Even after you get comfortable with one platform, you quickly realize that you can’t just build an instructional activity because the platform has that feature and you think you should use it.

We have been experimenting and iterating with our virtual model for almost two years and are now rolling it out globally, after a very successful NA pilot in 2011. It’s not about the technology, it’s all about learner engagement in virtual learning. Alternating between content “slides” and chat discussions, polls and other novel virtual features can help chunk the virtual experience. We have learned that it’s not just about our expert facilitator, but each student (employees, managers, etc) bring a vast set of experiences and learnings from their own daily practice. We try to ask compelling questions that help surface their best practices and get them discussing with each other vs. the standard teacher-student model. Just a few ideas here.

Happy to share more if anyone’s is interested in our model. jmass at adobe dot com

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