The coronavirus pandemic has forced all of us to rethink how we work, with virtual learning becoming an essential alternative to face-to-face training.
As we write this, in late 2020, it’s looking possible that a vaccine might allow us all to return to normal (or something approaching it) in 2021. Should that mean the end of virtual training and learning, or are there benefits of virtual learning that go beyond the fact it’s Covid-secure?
We think so. At Civil Service College, we’ve been running virtual versions of all of our training courses. And far from being a second-choice alternative, we’ve found that virtual learning has benefits we might never have thought of pre-pandemic.
What’s great about virtual learning
The Groundwork for Follow-up is Already Laid
Anyone who’s ever been to a face-to-face training session will recognise this scenario. At the end of a session, the trainer hands out business cards and offers to send round slides and worksheets by email. They invite people to keep in touch and ask questions if they’re unsure of anything.
But how many people actually go back and look over the slides again? How many emails the trainer when they’re unsure of something? In reality, once away from the training environment, most of us file the materials away and then don’t look at them again.
With virtual learning, you’re already engaged in the online learning process, so following up feels natural. The materials you’ve used in the session are already familiar, and it is simply an extension of the session to watch them back. You’ve already communicated online with your trainer, so it’s not a big deal to contact them after the session.
There are Fewer Barriers to Taking Part
For many, taking time out to take part in face-to-face training is tricky.
You need to be able to take a full day, or often two, away from your normal work. If you have childcare or caring responsibilities, this is difficult to manage. Travel can add significantly to the time commitment. For some, a hotel stay might even be needed. For a parent of young children, this can be impossible. Virtual training, with no travel time and potentially flexible timeslots, is far more easily slotted into busy lives.
For those with disabilities, arranging transport or finding parking near a city centre venue can be a problem. Support during the session might need to be arranged. With virtual training, it’s simple to add captions or allow for assistive technology, and travel isn’t needed.
It's an Equaliser
In a face-to-face session, the success or otherwise of learning can be affected by the personalities of the individuals in the group. Sometimes, one or two people may naturally be more dominant, and take up more discussion time than others. This isn’t usually malicious, but it can be difficult to deal with for both trainers and participants.
Equally, not everyone feels comfortable speaking up in a group. Even usually confident people can struggle if they’re unsure of the material or learning something completely new.
In a virtual learning session, it’s much easier for a trainer to make sure that everyone has their turn. Learners can use live chat as well as video to participate, which means everyone can have their say without anyone taking over.
Collaboration More Likely
It seems counterintuitive, but our experience is that virtual learning aids collaboration in ways that face-to-face training often does not.
In a face-to-face training room, participants might only interact with those who they’re sitting closest to in any meaningful way. While trainers can and do encourage mixing, it’s natural for participants to spend more time working with some people than others.
In a virtual session, it’s easier for everyone to work together. There are more opportunities for collaboration across the group, without limitation. And collaborative partnerships formed online are more likely to continue after the session, than ones formed in a session and ended with an exchange of business cards (especially when those business cards often get left in a desk drawer and never seen again).
It's More Affordable
Whether an individual is funding their own training, or their employer is, budget is always a consideration. Virtual training carries far fewer overheads than face-to-face, meaning substantial cost savings. We’re able to discount our virtual courses by up to 49%.
Employers are more likely to be able to fund a more diverse range of training for a wider range of people if each course costs less. They might also be happier to fund training that doesn’t require large amounts of time out of the office – even if that office is at home.
And what’s not so great about virtual learning
In the interests of balance, it’s important to recognise that there are reasons why face-to-face learning can be better than virtual.
While collaboration between participants and follow-up can be smoother, the lack of social interaction can make it harder for ideas to be bounced around, and off-the-cuff discussions won’t always happen.
While virtual learning is often more accessible, it can also slip down the priority list when work and life get busy.
And for many people, virtual learning simply isn’t as memorable as face-to-face learning.
The future of learning
We’d never advocate completely replacing face-to-face learning with virtual.
The future is likely to be a thoughtful mixture of the two, with options available that suit the budgets, needs and preferences of participants, employers and training providers.
We’re planning for a post-Covid future that includes both virtual and face-to-face learning.
To help us with that, we’d love to hear what you, as an employer or participant, feel about virtual learning. Could you take 5 minutes now to tell us?