Was your organization an early adopter of virtual training, using it in the late 90s or early 2000s? Or have you just recently discovered it, and are just getting started? Wherever you are on the continuum of moving to the virtual classroom, you are likely asking the same questions: What’s new in virtual training? Where is it going next? What do we need to do to prepare?

While virtual training has been around for 20 years, it’s still new to many organizations and it’s still growing in popularity as a viable delivery method. The recently released Global Synchronous E-learning Market Report 2018 estimates the current global virtual training market at $382 million with anticipated growth to $490 million over the next 5 years. This rapid growth projection parallels the expected continued drop in formal classroom programs. Over the past 10 years, research indicates that traditional classroom offerings have decreased from 70 percent to 49 percent, while virtual classes have increased to approximately 10 percent of all formal training programs.

There are three main trends influencing this shift to the virtual classroom, and three takeaways that every organization should make when looking to the future. Let’s consider each one in turn.

1. Trend: Remote Workforce
Takeaway: Create Collaboration Opportunities

A dispersed workforce is increasingly more common. “Have Wi-Fi, can connect” is the sentiment of many organizations and employees alike. A 2017 Gallup report discovered that 43 percent of U.S. employees work remotely. And research company IDC forecasts that by 2020, virtual workers will account for 72 percent of the U.S. workforce. In addition, Switzerland-based organization IWG reports that more than two-thirds of people around the world telecommute (another way of saying remote working) at least one day per week, with over half working remotely two or more days.

These remote employees need training, too. Fortunately, virtual training provides organizations with a way to reach a geographically dispersed audience. In fact, research on virtual classrooms suggests that “expanding the reach of training programs” is the top reason organizations implement virtual training.

When done well, virtual classes create collaboration opportunities among dispersed participants. A skilled facilitator will foster a highly social learning experience for all attendees. They will use the virtual classroom features, including chat, whiteboarding and breakouts for both learning and to build relationships. For example, skilled virtual facilitators allow participants to use collaboration tools for conversation and discussion. The more a virtual facilitator can build relationships during an online class, the more participants will connect to one another and to the learning content.

2.Trend: Mobile Devices
Takeaway: Create a Device Strategy

Mobile devices seem to be everywhere, and research supports this fact. Google recently reported that mobile users outnumber desktop users nearly 2:1. Pew Internet research says that over 95 percent of Americans have a cell phone, with 77 percent of them being smartphones. People use devices for everything: work, communication, shopping, and entertainment. They also use them in virtual training classes. However, the increased usage of mobile devices has a far-reaching impact on virtual training, in more ways than one.

Not surprisingly, participants are becoming more likely to use their mobile devices to connect to virtual training events. In most cases, this means they will download and connect using the virtual classroom platform’s app. Yet, unfortunately, many mobile apps simply do not support the robust features available on the corresponding desktop version. So, a mobile device participant is often unable to fully participate in the virtual class. This might not matter if it’s a lecture-based presentation, but it makes a huge difference in an interactive online learning event.

Therefore, organizations need to create a working strategy for how to handle participants who connect to virtual classes by mobile devices. If the platform’s mobile app supports all features as found in its desktop version, then no action is needed. However, if the mobile app functionality differs, then one of three strategies should be implemented:

  • Option 1: Ban mobile devices as the participant’s connection to the virtual classroom. To do this, educate participants that for this virtual class, they must use a laptop or desktop computer. Be sure to let them know why it’s important.
  • Option 2: Allow participants to choose how they connect: using a mobile app or a desktop version. To do this, educate facilitators on the virtual classroom tools in both versions, so that they can confidently provide instruction in a mixed environment.
  • Option 3: Allow (and encourage) participants to connect via a mobile device. To do this, educate managers and other key stakeholders on the nuts and bolts of your virtual training initiative. For example, design the program so that it only uses platform tools that are available in both the mobile and desktop app. Ensure participants know that they are attending a virtual class and their environment should be conducive to concentration and learning. Let managers know to expect employees looking at their devices while working, so that they can participate in the class.

There’s not one “best” strategy, because that will depend upon factors such as the available technology, the content, the participants, and the feasibility of each option in your organization. What’s important is that your organization gives this trend some thought and consideration.

3. Trend: Microbursts
Takeaway: Create Small Learning Chunks

The trend toward shorter training programs began years ago. Most trainers will agree when asked if they have been asked to deliver training in more concise formats. This same trend is occurring with virtual classes. Last year, my virtual training research study of 330 global training professionals revealed that the most common virtual class length is only 60 minutes, which is shorter than the 90 minutes reported in the eLearning Guild’s 2012 study.

The idea of shorter virtual training programs is actually a good thing. They help participants avoid the cognitive overload that can happen in many long classes. They also lead to better on-the-job results because participants can get to practicing new skills faster. My own term for this virtual learning trend is a “microburst,” which simply means small content chunks. In other words, when a traditional class moves online, it translates to a blended curriculum comprised of small microbursts of learning.

What does this trend mean for organizations moving to the virtual classroom? It emphasizes the importance of thoughtful program design. Care should be taken when moving traditional classes to the online classroom so that they still achieve the desired learning outcomes. Moving your classroom programs online changes the delivery methods, but it doesn’t change the desired results. It’s still important for participants to learn and apply the new skills.

Design a virtual program with several smaller microbursts. Think of this design like toy building blocks that can be pulled apart and put together in different ways. You can chunk the curriculum into topics and then design it in ways that make the most sense to your participants and their learning needs. For example, the sample curriculum could take place over the course of one day, with breaks in-between each item. Or, the live events could take place once per day for three days, or even once per week over three weeks. It’s flexible by design.

In addition, virtual classes that last longer than 60 minutes typically include breaks, just like a traditional in-person class. Be sure your facilitators are aware of this best practice and are able to follow it.

Summary

As your organization looks to the future, the key to remember is that underneath all of these trends, the move to virtual training is not really about the technology. On the surface it might seem that way – a technology initiative – but instead it should be a timely response to what your participants want and need for learning. Yes, there is a need to upskill instructional designers and virtual facilitators on the platform. Yes, there will be technology investments. But the most successful organizations are the ones that encourage discussion, conversation, and engagement in the virtual classroom, so that participants can learn.

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