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


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