There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we approach the basic aspects of living each day. There is, equally, no doubt that many of these changes will have ramifications that will alter the pre-epidemic norm for a good deal of us. For instance, the de-stigmatization of working from home will likely drive changes in corporate footprints and employee flexibility that will benefit both organizations and individuals. To be sure, that change was largely accelerated by the forced testing of biases and assumptions that were holding back the movement.
Change or Correction?
Likewise, many in the field of human learning and performance have posited that the current force moving learning from the physical classroom or in-person experiences to virtual instructor-led training (VILT), online learning and simulation will result in a similar change in both how we provide and how we consume learning. To a degree — a degree that represents the pent-up resistance to change in the global corporate learning environment — I think they are right. But I am not ready to say, “This changes everything.”
To make that statement, at least from my perspective, is to deny some fundamentals about how we learn and that this point in time, we will subjugate optimal learning engagement and effectiveness to organizational efficiencies. Proper learning stewardship requires a long-term view.
Making Do, or a Case for Change?
At their core, distance learning classroom management and interaction tools share one commonality: They seek to minimize the deficits experienced by the instructor and the learner due to not being in the same physical place at the same time. There have been great advances in technology, and there are many use cases where remote learning is the most efficient and effective means of delivering learning. In these instances, courses are built for optimal delivery in this modality, instructors are trained for interacting in a virtual environment, and software and platforms are selected to optimize the learner experience.
For the most part, however, this experience is not the current reality. The COVID-19 learning experience is more like a MacGyver contraption to help make the best use of what the organization has on hand, given current constraints. It is fair to speculate that this suboptimal learning experience has an equal chance of biasing learners against these experiences as it does of driving them toward them. Just because something can be done a certain way, does not mean it should. We have seen this reality unfold in real time in trying to find appropriate use cases for virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR).
Many of the tools and technologies we lean on today have been available for years — years when organizations have completed countless needs analyses, curriculum designs and learning infrastructure assessments. Yet, despite the availability and affordability of these tools and methods, instructor-led training (ILT) continues to be the most prevalent form of training in organizations across the globe. While its popularity has declined as technology and as online learning and content curation have improved, it has not lost its top position. Again, maybe COVID-19 will be the event that pushes it below a 50% threshold — but only as a correction to pent-up resistance, not as a wholesale shift.
In fact, despite the presence and effectiveness of technology as a proxy for conducting meetings, let alone learning, business travel increased by some 7 million trips per year from 2017 to 2018 (the last year for which I found reported data). This increase is not due to a lack of alternatives; rather, human beings are social animals by nature, and that tendency is only suppressed, not altered, by the current environment.
What’s the Point?
The point here is not to create a learning-truthing movement relative to the COVID-19 virus; these are only my opinions based on my decades of experience. To a degree, I expect them to be both right and wrong.
The point is simply to be measured and strategic in the decisions that you make today to support your learners and organizations. An experienced learning services organization can help ensure that you can integrate the actions you take now with your learning infrastructure both in the interim and the over the long term. Every quick fix has the potential for long-lasting consequences on your learners and on your ability to effectively manage and improve learning.