Optimizing Virtual Classroom Training: What the Research Says (i4cp login required)

Productivity

The events of 2020-21 helped to normalize, for many employees, holding meetings and conducting training online. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic led millions of employees to start working remotely, and even for some who did not, gathering for training together in a traditional classroom was at times not allowed due to health and safety protocols.

In the spring of 2020, learning and development teams mobilized to convert programs from in-person instructor-led training to the virtual classroom. Additional programs were also created to meet the need for upskilling in timely topics such as leading virtual teams, using collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack, maintaining holistic well-being during difficult times, deeper learning in diversity, inclusion, and belonging topics, and more.

In particular, trainers who weren’t already skilled in online facilitation took crash courses to get as comfortable as possible before going-live. And everyone else involved—instructional designers, graphic designers, producers, administrators, managers, and more—all went into overdrive to keep required and valuable training going throughout 2020 and 2021.

But as 2021 comes to a close and we look ahead to 2022, where do things stand with virtual classroom training as a learning modality? The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) conducted a survey of over 300 learning leaders in October 2021 to determine the current state, what is working well, where there are opportunities for improvement, and what is coming next.

Many drivers of a massive and sustained shift

The shift to virtual classroom training has been enormous: among survey participants from organizations with 1,000 or more employees (see Figure 1), 51% indicated that such online training comprised 20% or less of their organization’s instructor-led training during pre-pandemic 2019. But 83% indicated that during 2020/2021, online training comprised 80% or more of their instructor-led training.

How far will the pendulum swing back in the direction of in-person instructor-led training as offices reopen and it is deemed safe to gather learning cohorts together again? The answer is somewhat—but not as far of a swing as some might have expected, as 69% of survey participants think that 60% or more of their organization’s instructor-led training will remain virtual, and another 19% think that 41-60% of it will.

The stickiness of virtual classroom training as a modality choice is backed by a consideration of the drivers behind its use. During 2020-2021, the top drivers (see Figure 2) were of course concerns for safety, health, etc., or simply not having any other (instructor-led) delivery option. But when asked about the primary drivers of their organizations’ use of virtual classroom training, survey participants indicated a wide range of other considerations, all of which should be long-lasting into 2022 and beyond.

Not surprisingly, cost savings, most notably from savings on travel, classroom space, etc., was indicated by 58% of respondents as a driver of opting for virtual training. But a close second with 54% of responses was the perceived effectiveness of virtual classroom training at meeting learning objectives. In fact, when asked to directly compare the effectiveness of virtual and in-person instructor-led training, 41% of participants said they are about the same, with only slightly more favoring in-person (32%) over virtual (26%).

Half of survey participants indicated that scalability of virtual classroom training as another major driver. This approach is often seen as existing in a happy medium between the very scalable alternative of self-paced e-Learning, while retaining the more robust learning effectiveness that a live, instructor-led experience provides.

Virtual Training drivers chart

Areas for improvement and barriers in the way

Virtual classroom training is here to stay, and at a high-level of use. So, it’s essential that organizations take a step back and make sure that barriers to effectiveness are identified and either minimized or eliminated.

Interestingly, survey participants said the number-one barrier (see Figure 3) was not something unique to the virtual classroom modality at all: lack of time for learners to devote to training. Part of the issue is the need to develop and maintain a learning culture, something i4cp has done extensive research on over the years (i4cp members: see our Six Essential Actions to Build a Strong Learning Culture.)

Virtual training effectiveness barriers chart

But when asked to describe the biggest areas for virtual classroom improvement, several dozen survey participants noted that learners can become distracted during virtual classroom training, and in ways that don’t arise as often during in-person training. This is because learners typically participate online from their office (at a worksite or at home), as opposed to a classroom setting that is physically separate from where they do their work (not to mention their laundry, housecleaning, parenting, etc.)

There also remains bias regarding online training—with some believing that virtual training is not as effective or critical to attend, especially since recordings of the sessions are often provided. Such misperceptions must be challenged and a comparison with in-person training can be helpful here: if a recording of a traditional classroom event were available, how many employees would think that was just as good as participating live and in-person? Clearly it isn’t, and the same is true for the virtual classroom, where the recording is passive rather than active, lacking any opportunity for coaching, learning by mistakes, and more.

The second-most often cited barrier (44%) to virtual classroom effectiveness was the lack of producers (sometimes called hosts or moderators) to assist trainers in the delivery of virtual classroom training sessions.

Fortunately, there are several ways to leverage producers: 75% of survey participants from organizations that use this model reported that they have trainers pair up, taking turns in the lead trainer and producer roles. Forty-two percent said they have internal employees who perform the role of producer as part of their job, and another 8% indicated they have full-time internal producers. There are external production vendors that provide this service; 3X as many participants from high-performance organizations (30%) said they use vendors as those from low-performing organizations (11%).

The area of needed improvement cited most often was the interactivity and engagement of the training. Some more specific areas of improvement mentioned would help to achieve this:

  • Upskilling of trainers
  • Leveraging platforms designed for training and not just meetings
  • Better preparing learners to use the technology ahead of time
  • More intentionally designed content and materials (e.g., using a wider range of activities during each training event)

Other areas of improvement frequently mentioned include having shorter programs to avoid screen fatigue, designing moments for practice outside of the virtual event, and including activities to build relationship, connection, and networking between learners.

Blended vs. hybrid

While many simple one-off virtual classroom training events exist, 86% of survey participants said their organizations offer blended learning programs. For example, those that leverage a combination of learning modalities, typically including some live instructor-led approaches, whether in-person or virtual, as well as some self-paced approaches, such as e-Learning content, reading materials, video recordings, discussion forums, etc. Such programs are often spread out over weeks or months, with time for practice, coaching, reflection, and additional networking and relationship-building occurring between the live, virtual training events.

There is potential for confusion between this longstanding approach to robust training and a newer concept: hybrid training. Clearly many organizations plan to adopt a hybrid work model, allowing some employees to work in an office or worksite some days each week or month, and work remotely the other days. This will affect a great many things in organizations, from culture to management best practices (i4cp members can leverage our Getting Hybrid Work Right: A Guide for Managers) to training scenarios as well.

How will each organization handle a situation in which a training cohort is comprised of some people who are together in an office and others who are working remotely? After all, you can save money and aggravation by not having the latter travel to be with the former, but then how will you handle the delivery of the training in an effective way?

When we asked this question, 38% of survey participants said they will most often hold a virtual classroom event for all participants, by having everyone attend individually via their computer even if some people could have gathered in a classroom. Comments from survey participants make clear why this is a strong approach. For one, it equalizes the experience for all learners. It also allows for the unique benefits of a well-designed virtual classroom program, such as the use of the chat feature—something missing from in-person classrooms. There are pros and cons of both virtual training and in-person training, but for many the balance tips in favor of having everyone in a hybrid cohort attend a well-designed virtual program.

This response was not universal however, as 19% of survey respondents said their organizations’ primary approach will be to offer two versions of the program, one for the in-person participants and one for the online participants. This would allow for the strengths of both modalities to be leveraged, but will increase design and delivery costs, and could lead to inconsistent experiences and learning results.

Another 16% of participants said they will most often hold a truly hybrid event, with some people gathered in a classroom or conference room, while others attend remotely online. This often leads to one group or the other having a sub-par experience: in the past it was the online participants who were frequently ignored/etc., but given the experiences of the past year, we might see the in-person participants feeling they are missing some of the benefits, such as peer-learning from the chat or other digital components. As technology continues to improve, so too will our ability to deliver effective hybrid learning events, but for now, the number of challenges of doing so are high.

The past two years have certainly taught us the folly of confidently making too many predictions about the future. The results of this i4cp survey, however, make clear that virtual classroom training will at the very least remain a more prominent learning modality than it was prior to the pandemic.

More focus and work is needed to optimize the results that virtual classroom training can deliver. The technology involved will of course continue to improve, but more organizations need to leverage best practices such as using producers, providing time for practice and coaching, and intentionally designing online events that work in a hybrid environment, with more activities to drive interactivity and engagement.

Tom Stone is a Senior Research Analyst at i4cp, and co-author of Interact and Engage! 50+ Activities for Virtual Training, Meetings, and Webinars (second edition coming in 2022 from ATD Press).

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