Today, more than ever, it’s critical to ensure that virtual learning helps improve organizational outcomes. Because of the work-at-home and travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 crisis, most learning programs have shifted to a virtual format. This shift requires program owners to design and implement virtual learning with desired outcomes in mind — and demonstrate that the virtual format works.

Studies show that virtual learning often breaks down when measured at the application level (whether participants use what they learned) and impact level (whether learning impacts the business). However, it’s possible to avoid this breakdown. To secure the support and funding that virtual learning needs, it must deliver business results.

This article explains how training designers, developers, providers and program owners can ensure that technology-based learning will deliver desired results by applying design thinking principles that focus on delivering application and impact with virtual learning.

4 Challenges for L&D

Unfortunately, learning and development (L&D) organizations have faced challenges when delivering results that executives appreciate and understand. Practitioners repeatedly find the following statements to be true based on the perception of these practitioners. To deliver the value that executives need from L&D, each of these statements should be false:

1. Most Learning and Development Is Wasted, Because It Is Not Used

Unfortunately, there is still a training transfer problem, as individuals learn content but do not then use what they learned. There are many barriers to this transfer, and the most important is a lack of management support. This problem is exacerbated with virtual learning.

2. Organizations Rarely Measure the Learning Outcome Desired by Executives

Most studies will confirm that executives want to see the business connection to learning, whether it is face-to-face learning, virtual learning or mobile learning. If learners don’t use it, they lose it, and there is no business value to the organization. The challenge is to make sure that the learning is used and delivers impact.

3. Learning Providers Do Not Have Data That Shows That They Make a Difference

To make a difference, training participants must use what they have learned, and that application must have a corresponding impact. Without use, there is no impact. Unfortunately, many learning and development practitioners do not measure at this level.

4. Most Executives See Learning as a Cost and Not an Investment

If executives see learning as a cost, it will be cut, reduced, paused, minimized and/or controlled during uncertain times. If they see learning as an investment, they may protect it, enhance it and support it, even in downturns.

The challenge is to show executives that learning delivers a positive return on investment (ROI). The best way to do so is to measure the ROI on a major program using an ROI formula from the finance and accounting literature.

4 Reasons Virtual Learning Fails

Virtual learning typically breaks down at levels 3 and 4 of the Kirkpatrick Model for four key reasons:

1. Multitasking Inhibits Learning

The research is clear that multitasking diminishes actual learning. There is a myth that people can multitask and still absorb deep learning, but it doesn’t happen. With instructor-led training (ILT), multitasking is controlled in some way — not only by good design, activities and engagement but also by managing the learning environment to remove the opportunity to multitask. With virtual learning, multitasking runs rampant, as we have all witnessed in virtual conferences, virtual meetings or virtual learning programs. The reality is if learning is inhibited, then application will be inhibited, and impact will be inhibited — significantly decreasing ROI.

2. Managers’ Support Is Missing

When participants attend an instructor-led program, they typically leave their work area to do so. Their manager knows they are involved, and there is a good chance that he or she was involved in the decision for them to participate and created expectations. After all, the person is leaving the job, and the organization is missing his or her work. It is in the manager’s best interest for the learning to translate into something useful and worthwhile for the department. As a result, managers are often involved before the program in setting a goal and then after the program in follow-up.

With virtual learning, managers are typically not involved and often don’t even know that their employees are involved. With the manager absent, the most important influencer for transferring learning to the job is missing.

3. Success Is Based on Learning, Not Impact

Instructional systems designers create virtual programs to deliver learning but often don’t design for application and impact. They think their work is finished when a person has learned. However, senior executives, who provide the budget, want to see the business connection when people actually use what they’ve learned.

It is rare to find a virtual program that’s designed for impact. Few virtual learning programs have impact objectives. Without impact objectives, stakeholders do not fully understand why the program is happening in the first place. With impact objectives, the L&D team can design the program for application and impact. Unfortunately, designing for impact occurs more frequently in an instructor-led program.

4. The Role of the Facilitator Is Missing

Yes, there may be a recorded or live facilitator, administrator, host or coordinator, but what is missing is the power and influence of great facilitators to inspire the participants, encourage them and support them to use what they have learned. Sometimes, a group of participants will bond to deliver the required results. The designers must not only design for the delivery of application and learning but also replace the role of the in-person facilitator.

7 Steps to Make Virtual Learning Deliver a Positive ROI

Building on the reasons for failure, here are seven steps to design virtual learning to deliver a positive ROI:

1. Start With “Why,” Defined as a Clear Business Need

The first step is to make sure that the program has a clear business need by asking questions, analyzing data and exploring what will occur when this program is implemented.

2. Make It Feasible by Choosing the Right Solution

Make sure that learning is the right solution and that virtual learning is the right learning solution to improve the business measure.

3. Expect Success

Define program success at the impact level, and set objectives for each level (reaction, learning, application and impact). Provide those objectives to all stakeholders to make sure that they design for application and impact.

4. Design for the Desired Outcomes

Make sure that all stakeholders develop tools, templates and processes, and provide support and encouragement to make the learning deliver success at levels 3 and 4. Essentially, with this step, you are designing for those outcomes.

5. Measure Application and Impact

Sample a few virtual programs to make sure that application and impact are there. Use simple, easy-to-provide application and impact data to understand how it’s working.

6. Think Process Improvement

Make sure that anytime something is not working, it is adjusted quickly. Focus on dynamic adjustments throughout the process.

7. Use Blended Learning Whenever Possible

Recognize that while virtual learning is effective, the results are often enhanced when virtual learning is combined with instructor-led learning. Blended learning is one of the best options.

There you have it: seven ways to make sure that virtual learning works and delivers the success that you need. Together, these steps can make a difference in achieving a positive or a negative ROI on your virtual learning programs.