The sudden shift to remote work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has opened opportunities to explore new learning modalities for learners of all ages. Online learning for grade schools, universities and technical learning platforms grew at a “staggering” rate in 2020. Although the catalyst for this remote learning surge was the pandemic, it’s clear that remote learning is here to stay, especially for non-degreed, upskilling-focused programs.

This switch to online learning may sound daunting, but research has shown that online learning can be just as — if not more — effective than in-person, classroom based learning. Additionally, online learning is even more impactful when it takes a blended approach that marries live, instructor-led training (ILT) with asynchronous learning opportunities. For technologists looking to upskill in key proficiency areas, this type of virtual learning can be particularly beneficial.

Despite the advantages of virtual learning, it comes with one significant challenge — it often suffers from a lack of hands-on learning opportunities. In Pluralsight’s 2021 State of Upskilling report, which surveyed more than 600 technology leaders and practitioners, research showed that 81% of technologists surveyed indicated that hands-on learning solidifies tech skills.

Some of the best learning opportunities are the ones that allow technologists to learn through doing. Here’s why hands-on learning is crucial to any upskilling effort.

Why Hands On?

The term “hands-on learning” can seem a bit vague. It has been most commonly defined as a learning style that is project-based and allows learners to “do it themselves.” But hands-on learning is simply the process of learning actively through experiential learning practices. Just as the term suggests, hands-on learning should allow the learner to have tactile interaction with the subject matter, getting their “hands dirty.”

It can be hard to shake the image of learners staring at a computer screen, passively absorbing information with little meaningful interaction. Indeed, digital-first instruction often results in passive learning because the onus is on the instructor — not the learner — to guide learning. Webinars and podcasts can fall into this category if opportunities for kinesthetic learning are not provided alongside these learning resources.

Hands-on learning has been scientifically shown to be more effective than purely lecture-based teaching. This is because hands-on instruction methods promote deep learning that forges connections between material and practice. For technical proficiencies, the need to learn by doing is especially pronounced. Imagine reading books, watching YouTube videos and listening to podcasts about how to ride a bike. You may think you know everything about biking, but unless you get on the bike and start pedaling, you’ll never be sure.

Overcoming Virtual Barriers

The State of Upskilling report made it clear that hands-on learning is the preferred learning modality for those seeking to sharpen their tech skills. Those surveyed indicated that hands-on learning reduced the amount of time needed to learn a new skill. Additionally, 76% of technologists reported a higher level of job satisfaction alongside hands-on learning opportunities within their organization.

So, what does hands-on learning mean in practice? For learning tech skills, it involves a mix of participatory, instructor-led training, lab-based learning and on-demand skill building opportunities. It also involves assessing learning comprehension to see skills growth in action.

ILT is a natural entry-point into many types of learning. This doesn’t have to mean one-way communication, though. For virtual learning, the often asynchronous nature of instruction can lead to a disengaged learner. In certain situations, ILT can help to overcome this distance — if it’s done right. An ideal instructor-led virtual session will allow learners to engage in two-way dialogue with the instructor and their peers, following along with guided activities in real time. This provides the opportunity for instantaneous feedback, collaboration and connection.

Though the asynchronous nature of virtual learning can be a challenge, it’s also one of its greatest strengths. For learners who are focused on upskilling, flexibility is everything. Virtual labs and sandbox environments can be the answer to self-paced, hands-on learning. These types of learning opportunities provide learners interaction with real-world applications of tech skills. Whether it’s packet sniffing to find a new security flaw or refining your code to match the newest design pattern, strategically crafted virtual labs can promote critical thinking. Sandbox environments can similarly encourage deep learning while also giving learners the space to build things, break things and push the limits of the environment’s capabilities.

A hands-on approach to upskilling must also rely on self-assessment to gauge growth. Investigating your proficiencies as a learner allows you to see the gaps in your skills so that you can most effectively customize your learning experiences to close those gaps. This principle is somewhat reminiscent of traditional pre- and post-tests that you may have taken in grade school. But in the world of virtual learning, these assessments are often tied to certifications that can take your career to the next level.

 Building Empowered Learners

On an enterprise level, upskilling your workforce has never been more important. A McKinsey report revealed that 87% of executives and managers believe their organizations either already face skills gaps or expect gaps to develop within the next five years. But ultimately, upskilling is in the hands of the learner, which is why it’s so important to meet learners where they are and generate instructional opportunities that work for them.

It is imperative that technology leaders empower teams to achieve their personal and professional goals. Continuous learning is a huge part of that. This can provide a sense of empowerment that is derived from feeling capable of learning the skills necessary to adapt to changing roles and responsibilities. Often, employees who are ready to tinker with new technologies and have a zeal for learning consistently perform the best.

It’s incumbent upon technology leaders to recognize this enthusiasm for learning and provide opportunities that satiate the desire to upskill using hands-on methodologies. Because upskilling is a lifeline for both individual technologists and broader enterprises, it’s not enough to absorb new information passively. In this continuously evolving remote learning environment, both learners and leaders must take an active — not passive — role in the success of their upskilling efforts and build confidence in their new capabilities.