How does your organization view virtual instructor-led training (VILT)? As a cost-effective replacement for instructor-led training (ILT)? An alternative to e-learning? Learning centered web-conferencing? Or something else? You can think of VILT in these ways, but thinking of VILT as just another learning modality is selling the concept short. How we conceptualize and use virtual instructor-led training either constrains or opens the aperture of the benefits derived from it.

With millennials and Gen Zers reshaping the workforce and with the ubiquitous nature of online social interaction and content consumption, the stakes are raised to capture the mindshare of learners. Thus, shifting from a training “build it and they will or must come” mindset to a learning “facilitate skill acquisition through an engaging educational experience” mindset remains an ongoing challenge.

Successful marketers look to gain followers, make connections, and increase shares or mentions – in essence, they look to build community. There’s a strong parallel here. By building smart learning communities, we can increase the engagement of learners and the stickiness of learning content. Virtual instructor-led training can be the linchpin to make this happen.

As traditional instructor-led training is costly, there is a temptation to pack as much content into the sessions as possible, but to do so is to aim a fire hose at a teacup. Given the renewed attention to the forgetting curve, we know that blended, spaced learning models (e.g., Gottfredson and Mosher’s 4-Step GEAR Cycle) are an effective way to reinforce learning and minimize retention loss. VILT is an ideal vehicle to spread out content, reinforce key learning points and bring learners together for continued development.

While not every topic lends itself to strategic virtual instruction, carefully consider your learning and performance requirements to determine best fit. VILT candidates can include programs that:

  • Were previously delivered through traditional ILT
  • Are designed for learners who can benefit from the instructor’s depth of expertise
  • Entail complex, lengthy or time-sensitive learning content
  • Lend themselves to segmentation (e.g., selling skills, product knowledge and onboarding)

When evaluating the appropriateness of VILT, start with the problems you are trying to solve and the metrics you want to measure. If the learning requirement is stopgap or has a short shelf life, then a tactical approach may work. If the requirement is more complex or the business outcome is more critical, you may want to look at a strategic VILT approach. For example, if you are training geographically dispersed salespeople on new product that is vital to the company’s success, then strategic VILT may be a good option. Instead of using VILT as a means to simply teach product knowledge and selling skills, you can conceptualize and design it as a way to facilitate successful sales enablement.

Tactical VILT Strategic VILT
Replacement for Traditional ILT Hub for Blended, Spaced Learning
Learning Event Learning Journey
Focus on Material Taught Focus on Performance Outcomes
Push Content Push/Pull Content
Classroom, Online Learning Community

Laying the Groundwork

Instead of fitting all (or most) of the instruction into a two- or three-day onsite class, a front-end virtual session can set the stage for the instruction, which can consist of a number of short online sessions along with other activities and assignments. In the initial session, virtual instructors paint the big picture of overarching goals and the flow of instruction. Learners then will know how to prepare themselves to get the most out of the program. It is important from the outset for the instructor to stimulate and reinforce motivation, ensuring that learners understand what’s in it for them and how they will benefit.

Optimizing Design

What learning activities should you consider for both inside and outside the virtual classroom? Are the facilitator and participant guides fully augmented for virtual use? Are learning outcomes the focus instead of slides? What techniques is the instructor using to maintain learner engagement and maximize participation? Are the learning content and activities designed for direct application on the job? While there are many more questions, the key consideration is how to maximize the learner experience so that learners are drawn back and motivated to continue to learn.

Chunking Content

Breaking content into smaller chunks is most often associated with e-learning, but you should apply the same logic to virtual classroom instruction. While it can prove challenging to pull disparate audiences together for in-person learning events, VILT largely removes this constraint, allowing instruction to be sharp, focused and succinct. It also facilitates scheduling, helping learners fit it into their busy calendars. In one such VILT application, the training for a sophisticated system was segmented based on different use cases. Learners were assigned a case study at the end of the session that would be the initial subject of discussion at the beginning of the subsequent session before moving on to a new use case.

Building a Learning Community of Practice

When the learning requirement is more than tactical, instead of looking at VILT as a replacement for traditional ILT, envision it as a hub for learning – a place where learners want to come for further enrichment. The goals should be to extend learning, advance knowledge and reinforce foundational skills. Here are some examples:

  • The facilitator publishes a thought-provoking question, tip or even tweet, seeking a response from the learners.
  • The learners present a case study involving how they applied skills they learned in the program.
  • The learners submit questions that colleagues respond to, which can then be used as discussion points in future sessions.
  • Virtual brown bag sessions enable additional questions and answers, group coaching, advanced skill building, etc.

The frequency of synchronous activities can be weekly, biweekly or monthly, as needed.

Where virtual classroom training is a viable alternative, take a closer look at how you can leverage it in a more significant way. By challenging convention, you may find there are opportunities to improve the learning experience, space instruction in a more thoughtful manner, and build a community of motivated and engaged learners.