Virtual training experiences have rapidly evolved to meet the needs of dispersed teams and new training technologies. Yet, many questions remain unanswered about the future of learning and development, including: how do we deliver human-centric virtual training?

In the simplest of terms, the answer is to know that:

  • Learning mediums have changed; core adult learning principles have not.
  • Many existing learning activities are already human-centric and are suited for the virtual environment. Seven of those ideas are listed below.

Core Adult Learning Principles vs. Changing Learning Mediums

In “The Adult Learner,” Malcolm Knowles introduced six core adult learning principles over 50 years ago that have shaped adult learning experiences ever since.

While all the principles play a part in adult instructional design, these three have a significant impact on influencing human-centric design:

  1. Learner’s need to know — motivation to learn.
  2. Self-concept of the learner — degree of autonomy and self-direction.
  3. Prior experience of the learner — provides context for new knowledge.

In other words, adults want to know why they need to learn, they are experiential in their learning approach and they call upon their prior experience to find relevance for new knowledge.

These core adult learning principles explain the adult human psyche and maximize learning, regardless of training topic or setting (e.g., in person vs. virtual).

As a result, if learning experiences are designed with adult learning theory in mind, human-centered experiences will come with ease. While virtual training mediums will continue to change for the benefit of learners, adult learning principles remain a steadfast guide to human-centric design.

7 Practical Human-centric Design Ideas

Here is a list of practical design ideas that can be trusted to be effective in a virtual platform and increase learner engagement, while also being centered on meeting adults’ need to have an experimental approach, know “why,” and call upon prior experience.

1. Socratic discussion

The art of Socratic questioning (asking thoughtful, open-ended questions that guide discussion) is beautifully aligned with adult learning theory, giving participants the space to deeply explore concepts and their own thoughts.

In virtual trainings, be sure to employ these virtual facilitation techniques during discussion to intentionally invite participation:

  • Indicate who will share first (instead of sitting in silence as participants nervously decide).
  • Call participants by name to invite participation and guide who goes next.
  • Invite written responses in chat first, then ask a specific individual to verbally expand upon their written response.
  • Spotlight: Once a person shared, they (instead of the facilitator) “shine the spotlight” on someone else, inviting another learner to share.
  • Allow participants to say “pass” if they are not prepared to share when called upon.

2. Engage the human senses

Virtual platforms give us an opportunity to engage not only with the learner’s mind, but also the body through the three primary senses of sight, sound and touch. Here are some examples of how to stimulate the senses in a virtual environment:

  • Sight: change the screen frequently with animations or images, use short videos, regularly stop and start screenshare to switch between images and participant faces.
  • Sound: bring in multiple voices, ask participants to verbally share in large and small groups, add music during breaks.
  • Touch: utilize virtual platform features, such as chat, polls, or white board to invite participants to physically touch their device. Alternatively, use third party learning tools, like a quiz app, to invite physical touch.

3. Simulations

Delivering training through simulations or gamification is an excellent way to put the learner at the center of the training experience. These platforms use technology to simulate real-world tasks, truly engaging the learner and putting them in control of their training. The benefits of simulations hold true in the virtual environment. For simple topics or behavior, such as demonstrating a project management application, simulations could be uniquely created by an internal learning team. For more complex topics, such as demonstrating decision making or business acumen, look for an external partner that can provide an interactive, professional simulation.

4. Case studies

A case study provides an in-depth exploration of a singular circumstance. Working through real-world case studies with remote learners helps to make abstract concepts more tangible. The discussion that unfolds around case studies allows learners to make connections to prior experiences, as well as self-discover lessons that are most relevant to their individual work.

5. Cohort-based learning

In cohort-based programs, groups of learners take virtual courses together, at the same pace. Sharing a learning experience with a set group of people builds connection and trust, thereby creating space for honest conversations where challenge might be more welcomed, and accountability might be more vulnerably shared. This opens the door the basic human need for meaningful connection.

6. Self-assessments

Reflective self-evaluations are another great tool to put the learner at the center of the learning moment, increasing self-awareness and calling upon personal, prior experience. Incorporating self-assessment surveys in virtual lessons keeps the learner engaged in the content and serves as an informal indicator of their progress.

7. True facilitation

No learning experience is complete without the influential role of the facilitator. In a virtual learning setting, the instructor should take the role of true facilitator rather than lecturer. Leading and guiding conversation for self-discovery learning enhances the human-centric design of virtual learning.


When the learning landscape, technologies and general rhythms of the world are evolving, the ability to produce human-centric virtual training is pivotal for quickly responding to changing skill needs. Human-centric design can be accomplished by focusing on core adult learning principles and many proven learning activities that put learners at the center of the experience.