Article: Towards a brave new virtual world of learning

Learning & Development

Towards a brave new virtual world of learning

The shift towards online learning has been in itself a learning experience for many. Lee Wee Chee, the Director for Learning & Professional Development at the Institute for Adult Learning Singapore, shares some of the key areas that need further consideration.
Towards a brave new virtual world of learning

In this new normal of remote working, staff development has made a big shift towards virtual solutions. For a long time, enterprises have been ambivalent towards embracing virtual learning despite the availability of technological solutions. 

The pandemic has made the advantages of virtual learning apparent—greater scalability, non-localized training, the ability to customize learning, the possibility of asynchronous learning, lower costs and zero risk to employee health. But to some extent, the move to the virtual sphere was a stopgap measure as enterprises scrambled to ensure continuity in training and business under lockdown. Now that the dust has settled: what’s next?

The limits and challenges of online learning

Much has been said about the benefits of virtual learning and less about its limits and challenges. Early this year, the Institute for Adult Learning (IAL) made a full migration to online learning, and this journey has given us insights into three key areas requiring further thought.

First, there is a tendency to think of virtual training as an online version of traditional classroom training.

The problem with this thinking is that it does not account for significantly different learning behaviors and dynamics in a virtual environment. A recent Full Online Learning Adult Educator Survey by IAL reveals that learners’ attention span is reduced online and the quality of attention is poorer due to physiological factors such as screen fatigue. 

During instructor-led video sessions, we observed that the absence of immediacy and access to body language and non-verbal communication pose difficulties. Instructors find it more challenging to identify learners who are lagging behind as well as slower learners who find it harder to surface their concerns. Virtual learning has to be more than merely transferring classroom training via an online platform. We need to relook every aspect, from the training duration and the design of online activities, to developing solutions that cater for disparate learning experiences and engage learners in different ways. 

Secondly, the virtual format does not lend itself easily to skills-based training, especially in industries such as food and beverage, security and retail.

Local SME Vedure Face, Body & Nail Medispa, for instance, shares with us the importance of tactile learning and practical application in their line of work, highlighting that theoretical knowledge comprises an estimated 10 percent of staff development. Even though their training has been fully virtual since the pandemic, the company acknowledges that they will need to return to face-to-face training eventually. 

Similarly, the SingHealth Alice Lee Institute of Advanced Nursing has incorporated more e-learning solutions such as e-assessment and video learning. However, dexterity in clinical skills is crucial to the nursing profession, and face-to-face training is still necessary.

Going online is not an end in itself and the authenticity of learning in-situ and in-person cannot be fully replaced by virtual solutions. 

Lastly, the digital divide is a real challenge that keeps coming up in our surveys.

We continue to see learners whose virtual experiences are detracted by their anxiety to either use technology skilfully or by their accessibility to quality technology, such as instances of poor Internet connection.

As such, the online drive can potentially disenfranchise workers who are intimidated by unfamiliar technologies, and those who cannot afford up-to-date devices.

While the digital divide needs to be addressed on a national scale through more inclusive policies, enterprises and training providers can do more to consider the needs of these workers through thorough onboarding efforts and the loaning of equipment which will reduce these barriers. 

Recognize the distinctiveness of the virtual format

The virtual medium is radically distinct from the traditional classroom and recognizing this will help us to leverage the advantages of virtual learning. 

With the Internet, access to training expertise does not have to be localized or expensive. There are high-quality materials developed by experts worldwide and innovative learning platforms available online now. This is especially relevant for resource-strapped SMEs such as Vedure Face, Body & Nail Medispa, whose digital training efforts have been significantly facilitated by readily available platforms such as Google Meet as well as online training materials. Local training provider, Identi3 International, is another example—its trainers are trained and accredited fully online with the help of apps such as NearPod, an interactive teaching platform. 

The virtual environment also offers us the possibility to reimagine learning design and modes. For example, e-learning can be asynchronous and individualized. It can be supported by resources in a variety of formats and of varying depths. It can be delivered in different modes, from video instruction to  games. Much of our knowledge in adult learning revolves around in-person training. It is time to boldly review what can be adapted, and what new methodologies, pedagogies and tools should be developed. 

Multinational hotel chain Accor, which employs some 30 full-time learning managers and trainers in Asia Pacific alone, has gone fully digital for staff development. During lockdown, the company directed their training teams to develop resources to support their colleagues. This saw their trainers experimenting with the virtual format, creating engaging content on topics such as mental wellness and using creative means of delivery such as podcasts. Likewise, Identi3 has moved to facilitate self-directed e-learning, having recognized that its trainers and clients are increasingly digitally savvy and sophisticated. Training content was reworked to be highly modular with clear learning targets, so that users can choose modules tailored to their needs. 

But what fundamentally excites us most about the virtual medium is ongoing innovation. Gamified learning, for example, offers a profoundly different approach to engaging and interacting with learners. EdTech company Playware Studios has been developing such solutions for clients, which span the public sector, education sector, non-profit organizations and corporate entities. Over the years, the company’s patented game creation tool 3DHive has upgraded to expand the modes of learning possible, which includes multiplayer games, role-playing games, interactive simulations and virtual worlds. The company tells us that they are adding new features to further enhance learning, such as adaptive artificial intelligence assisted analytics. Such ongoing innovation in EdTech is set to push the boundaries of virtual learning even more in the near future.

Build an ecosystem of online learning

For virtual learning to truly flourish in Singapore, we need to build and sustain an ecosystem of stakeholders. The Singapore government has laid strong foundations for a digitally ready workforce, with SkillsFuture programmes in place to bridge the digital divide and Skills Frameworks for industries to help enterprises navigate the reskilling of their workers. These government-led initiatives provide a crucial backdrop for virtual learning to proliferate.

Enterprises will need to play their part, by integrating virtual learning with staff development efforts, and by providing resources to onboard workers of varying digital competencies.

Since the pandemic, there has been a palpable shift—most of the enterprises we spoke to have plans to go largely, if not fully, digital for training.

Founder of Playware Studios Siddarth Jain shared that the company’s revenue growth has grown fivefold from 2019 in just six months this year as demand in gamified learning spikes. 

Next, trainers, adult educators, training providers and technology solutionists will have a turnkey role. Their work is manifold—to experiment and innovate in virtual learning solutions, to design and create new training methods and contents for the virtual environment, and to guide and facilitate the e-learning journeys of their trainees. 

Finally, the shift to virtual learning will only be complete when learners embrace the new format. No longer should learners rely on their employers to determine their learning paths and provide training opportunities. Instead, learners of the future will take ownership of their respective learning journeys, gearing up for continuous upskilling and reskilling, and ever ready to explore the merits of the virtual world of learning.

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Topics: Learning & Development, #PMLnDSEA

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