COVID-19 has put a stop to physical classes, but virtual learning has proved more taxing than expected, as the experience of schools and teachers shows. And this problem is affecting adult learners as well. People Matters asked Marc Remond, vice president of meeting and learning experience solutions for Barco APAC, and a trainer himself, what implications the last nine months have had for workplace learning. Based on the conversations he and his team have had with educators and trainers, here are some points he shared.
Expectations around the learning experience have changed a lot in the last 6-9 months. What gaps have you seen emerging?
A lot of organizations have felt that the past few months was the best time for employees to upgrade their skills, since they were unable to meet partners, customers, or colleagues—it was the best use of their time at home. But now, we are seeing indications that trainers and educators are suffering. They have had to move very quickly to a fully virtual model, without much preparation, and in a virtual learning environment, it's much harder to maintain engagement and interactivity. First, they had to redesign their program and their content, and adapt it for the online experience. Second, they had to adapt their teaching style to the virtual environment, which is much more demanding.
One major gap trainers face is that when they begin to share their content—their PowerPoint slides—online, they can only see their own screen. There is no way to know what's happening with the rest of the room. That is one of the key limitations of Zoom, or Teams, or other platforms. You cannot read facial expressions or body language, cannot tell whether or not you have the level of engagement required. Even tools such as chat, or raising hands, are not ideal—because these solutions are designed for meeting, not for teaching and learning. But most organizations have already implemented these technologies because it was the easiest option—just buy the licenses and you are good to go.
How would trainers need to adapt their content and presentation to the online environment?
During a physical class, trainers would use a wide variety of materials, from PowerPoint presentations to sharing websites and screening videos, to holding quizzes and polls either on paper or verbally. Now, you need to take that to an online environment, and it becomes much harder simply because people are not in the room with you. You may not have their full attention, or if you do, their attention span is shorter.
So firstly, trainers need to break their content into shorter segments. Then they need to make sure that the flow of the class is not monotonous, which means changing not only the content, but the speed. They need to inject pauses, take breaks and ask questions, or insert polls and quizzes and offer the ability to discuss the results of those polls. And certainly they would need to pay much more attention to the tone of their voice, because that has emerged as a very important factor when people are connected remotely.
I foresee the role of the trainer becoming more that of a coach or mentor, someone who will guide the students or trainees, rather than simply delivering content that actually could be pre-recorded and made available through e-learning prior to the class.
For many corporates this would also be a way to scale their training capabilities—by having a large selection of e-learning content that must be completed before the live instructor-led class.
In education, there is the concept of synchronous and asynchronous learning. Asynchronous learning is content that you can consume on demand, which is what technology can provide. And synchronous learning is content that involves real-time interaction, live instruction. This is where we will see the shift towards blended learning in the future: a mix of remote asynchronous learning, and on-site synchronous learning.
On the issue of synchronous versus asynchronous learning, what skills or training would work better with each type of learning?
Asynchronous learning can be applied to standardized, mass training—think of classes such as compliance or basic cybersecurity, or training for back-office functions. These have fixed content and very little variation, and employees can go through the material on their own time.
Instructor-led training, on the other hand, would be more suited for executive programs such as leadership development programs. A video meeting solution will not work for such cases: you want to have the best tool available for that population within your organization, to provide a more immersive and more engaging experience. Executives are probably using routine meeting tools every day, so when they come together for training, they will need something that performs better.
Another group that benefits from instructor-led training is employees in more technical industries. Think oil and gas, aerospace, or even healthcare. You can't train a nurse from home; you can't remotely train a technician to repair an oil rig, or to carry out aircraft maintenance.
We have actually developed a studio setup that allows trainers to access multiple displays—putting all the learners in the front row, so to speak—and also allows remote participants to access various different views of the room, the trainer, and any physical content. That is actually ideal for such hands-on training—if I want to use a electronic microscope to look at cells, I can inject that video directly into the virtual class, if I want to teach someone how to repair an aircraft turbine I can use different mobile cameras to look into the turbine and show them the actual defect, live. There is so much value in exploring a range of options.
How can the trainers and educators themselves adapt, perhaps upskill, to keep up with these changes?
It certainly requires some training of trainers, so to speak, to make sure that they are comfortable with it. As a trainer myself, I would first of all try to understand the voice of my audience and make sure the content is relevant to them. I would design my content to be more visual, more interactive, more flexible—with the ability to move freely between sections, to inject questions and discussions. And I would practice it before the class, not just to be better prepared, but also to ensure that the flow of the session works well with the technology and there are no unexpected technical issues.
So yes, it does require a little more preparation than a physical class. And there is a small learning curve, but we are trying to reduce that as much as possible, because technology should be a help, not an annoyance. It should accommodate the trainers and not the other way around, as much as possible.
Where do you see technology bringing learning in three to five years' time?
The future is about hybrid learning. We expect employees to go back into the office, but with some restrictions due to social distancing or business continuity policies, and that means workplace learning will be similarly affected. It will not be possible to have participants from overseas or even have the same number of local participants as previously.
So we will see the rise of a hybrid virtual classroom model, where the trainer can face some students physically but also see some who are connected remotely.
Technology will enable interactivity for the entire class, both local and remote. It will collect data on the level of learner engagement and make that available to the trainer on a real-time basis, so that the trainer can adapt the teaching style on the fly to cater to both the local and remote participants. It will be a very, very different setup from the video conferencing tools that we are used to.