We have all heard the complaints about remote learning. It’s not surprising that many learners prefer in-person learning because humans naturally are social beings. We are also prone to familiarity bias, so we tend to prefer in-person learning because it is more familiar and comfortable. Learners also, unfortunately, have experienced a lot of subpar remote learning, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when learning programs had to quickly be shifted to virtual platforms.

But are there other reasons driving this preference? Is remote learning less engaging or less effective? It doesn’t have to be!

In fact, remote learning has a lot of benefits over in-person learning. It is easier to include experts from any location and makes scaffolding and spaced repetition of learning material more feasible and cost effective than when learning requires people to travel to the same location.

Given these benefits, why does remote learning have such a bad rap? Most remote learning is not designed specifically with the virtual environment in mind. Even great in-person learning programs can fail if we simply “lift and shift” the material to a virtual environment. Remote learning is different from in-person learning, but when thoughtfully designed and facilitated, it can be very engaging and effective.

It’s clear that virtual learning is not going away, so here are three tips to improve it:

1. Make Sure Learning Is the Right Solution

First, make sure that learning will address the issue you are trying to solve. This seems obvious, and yet, organizations often invest significant time and money developing learning programs without first identifying the area of need. For example, if the goal is purely networking, learning can teach people how to do this, but it is not the appropriate vehicle for facilitating actual networking. There is a tendency to throw a learning program at any gap within an organization in the hope that something fruitful happens, but learning is not a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem.

2. Design With Cognitive Load in Mind

The cognitive load of learners, instructors and facilitators must always be at the forefront of our minds when we develop courses, especially virtual ones. Interacting through technology adds to everyone’s load and can contribute to cognitive overload.

In a virtual environment, instructors/facilitators have to work harder to monitor and maintain their audience’s engagement. They also have the added complexity of monitoring and managing the technology while teaching if they are not receiving help with that.

Learners must work harder to actively participate and may often be asked to engage in ways that add to their load. While the many features and tools available for online learning (e.g., chat, polling, breakout rooms, hand raising, drawing tools, ability to attach documents, online whiteboards) can increase interest and interaction, these must be thoughtfully used. There is often too much going on for learners to be able to focus on what’s truly important.

Because of all this, we need to design the learning experience to be simpler. That doesn’t mean that we want to make everything about the learning easy, though! People are more likely to learn if they engage deeply with the material and exert some cognitive effort. We just need to minimize any extra cognitive load that doesn’t contribute to learning.

3. Take Deliberate Steps To Increase Virtual Engagement

Traveling to a venue for in-person learning can make it seem more momentous than remote learning, which starts and ends with the simple click of a button. Learners clear their schedules ahead of time so they can dedicate time out of the office to learn in person. During the program, learners are surrounded by instructors and other learners who are all focused on the learning, making it difficult to become distracted.

In contrast, learners in a virtual environment have less accountability, physical separation from the learning experience, and interruptions from work and home life, making it harder to focus and more tempting to multitask. This is a problem because people need to pay attention in order to learn.

There are several things the learning team can do to improve engagement:

  • Encourage learners to prioritize remote learning like they would in-person learning.

Before the learning experience, encourage learners to clear schedules, alert others in advance that they will be away, and turn on away messages so they have dedicated time to focus.

  • Make multitasking less tempting.

Ask learners to exit all non-necessary applications (e.g., email, IM) to reduce the temptation to multi-task. Be explicit about why focused attention is necessary for learning. Learners often multitask because they don’t understand how our brains work. We aren’t truly multitasking when we try to do multiple tasks that all require conscious thought; because of how our brains process information, we are just quickly switching between tasks. Learners don’t realize how costly this is. We make more mistakes, take more time to complete tasks and/or experience more stress.

  • Encourage learners to take real breaks.

We all know that regular breaks should be planned, but we don’t usually focus on how learners spend their time. Because remote learners are already on their computers, it’s very tempting for them to try to answer emails and squeeze in some work during breaks. This prevents our brain from getting the type of rest it needs to recharge. Encourage learners to do something they enjoy that is not cognitively taxing (taking a brisk walk outside, playing with their pet, etc.). Learners will come back to class more engaged and able to focus.

  • Create opportunities for meaningful engagement.

Be very deliberate in designing meaningful interaction opportunities (e.g., discussions, interactive activities) throughout the course. This is about more than checking a box; these interactions need to add to the learning by provoking learners to think more deeply about concepts and help them connect the learning to real-world application. When creating these opportunities for meaningful interaction, avoid putting learners through uncomfortable interactive activities where the value to the learner is not immediately clear because learners will likely disengage. Always ask yourself if you would find an activity valuable and would want to participate if you were a learner.

Although we may be tempted to develop remote learning similar to in-person learning, we must always remember that in-person and virtual learning are uniquely different. Remote learning can be extremely powerful, but the design and facilitation has to be intentionally planned for the virtual environment. By keeping these three key tips in mind, you can ensure that you are building the right solution and that you are taking deliberate steps to develop and deliver an effective and engaging virtual learning experience.