How to Develop Virtual Learning Programs with Impact

By Michael Phillips, Jade White | April 14, 2020

Key Takeaways

  • Developing an impactful training program requires planning in six areas: content, audience, andragogy, faculty, measures, and process.
  • Virtual learning programs can be as effective as in-person sessions in continuing to move business objectives forward and should be considered as viable options.

Recently a client reached out to see what types of virtual programs RBL had around culture, virtual teams, leading in times of ambugiuity and a few others. I asked if she could give me any more details about the audience or the desired outcomes. She replied she would get back to me, but for now was just looking to see what was possible as more of the organization was working remotely.

The anecdote above is not an uncommon occurance, whether for virtual or more tradtional learning programs. Some requests seem to be based on the latest topic trending online, or a best-selling book. Others are for a pressing pain point, but haven’t been explored beyond the presenting symptoms. Some requests are fairly detailed while others are just a word or phrase. “Can you build something around that?” is a question I have heard far too many times. When I respond with a query like “What is the desired outcome of the training?” often the response is a quizzical look—or worse—an awkward silence.

Creating and delivering a training program is an investment of time and resources. Its success, or lack thereof, can have an enormous impact on how employees engage and on the success of the business. In creating impactful training programs (virtual or otherwise), it is all about the results: results for the participants and results for the organization’s internal and external stakeholders. Here are a couple of examples of where we helped clients achieve their objectives leveraging a virtual and/or blended delivery format for learning programs.

In the specific case of virtual learning programs, once the objectives and desired outcomes are clear, special attention must be given to critical design choices for engaging the learner through a screen. For years, learning professionals have given special consideration to room layouts (round tables, u-shape, how many per table, flip chart stand and projector/screen placement, etc.) and multi-hour learning agendas with associated activities spread out over recommended time intervals. Now learners may be in an office, at home, at a hotel, on their mobile device, etc. Many times a learning cohort will have all of those variables (and more) occurring simulataneously! So while virtual learning offers more convenience and flexibility for the learners, training budgets and the organization overall, the following are a core set of critical tips for designing virtual learning components that deliver impact.

In our experience, there are six key areas to address in designing results-driven programs—whether face-to-face, blended, or virtual:

  1. Content: What should be taught?
  2. Audience: Who needs to be taught?
  3. Andragogy: How should it be taught to leverage the experience of an adult learner?
  4. Faculty: Who will teach?
  5. Measures: Are we getting the right results?
  6. Process: How do we put it all together?

1. Content

What should be taught?

  1. Do we have clarity and consensus about the desired outcomes (and associated development needs) this virtual learning program should address?
    • Keep in mind, for virtual sessions you have a far shorter attention span vs a live session (usually a max of 90 minutes). Therefore, content choices of “what’s in” vs “what’s out of scope” are of the utmost importance
  2. Do we have a process for translating the needs into a virtual curriculum that addresses those needs?
  3. Does our process include appropriate opportunities for stakeholder input and focus on measures of success?
  4. Is there existing content that can be adapted to a virtual delivery format?
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2. Audience

Who needs to be taught?

  1. Who is the target group (executives/managers/individual contributors)?
  2. What audience structure will have the most impact (same function, same business unit, intact work team)?
  3. How many participants are in the session?

Knowing your audience impacts the content, but also the delivery strategy and faculty. In a virtual setting, the mix of participants can have a significant impact on whether the virtual session is a monologue or a dialogue as participants can hide/retreat into other distractions far more easily. Therefore, being thoughtful about audience mix to encourage discussion is key.

Many virtual learning programs are either large, one-way communication sessions (think webinar), or a self-paced, individual e-Learning delivery strategy. These can be pretty solitary learning experiences. However, we are seeing more organizations shifting toward more interactive learning experiences to create networking as part of the learning experience for audiences. In those more interactive formats of virtual learning we suggest:

  • Cohorts of 12–20 participants, to encourage a deeper dialogue.
  • Similar leadership levels to ensure more candor/discussion.
  • While similar levels, a mix of geographies have proven to be helpful in large global orgs
    • Plan ahead as timezones can be tricky. 60–90 minute sessions are ideal.

One large audience benefit of virtual sessions is there is an opportunity to bring together participants that might not otherwise be in the same training cohorts because of distance and limited travel budgets. Ironically, a little creativity in a virtual training can actually help to unite people and foster increased collaboration.

3. Andragogy

While many are likely more familiar with the concept of Pedagogy, as it relates to traditional learning and learning design, Andragogy is specifically geared toward adult learning and leveraging the experience of adults. When designing virtual learning, one way to remain focused on shorter content pieces and encourage interactivity is to leverage the experience of the participants.

  1. What is the best approach for virtual learning for this audience and their needs (webinar, VILD, blended, single module vs smaller, multi-modules, etc)?
  2. What additional elements would be most effective in reinforcing the learning (Pre- and/ or post-work, on-the-job assignments, coaching, action-learning projects, returning as faculty/guest speakers, customer experiences, follow-up assessments, coordinated job assignments, etc.)?
  3. What are our resources (budget, access to internal or external resources)?
  4. What technology features are/are not available that may impact our design choices?
    • Polls, Whiteboards, Virtual Breakout Rooms, Chat, Discussion Boards

To optimize the penetration and sustainability of learning, consider what additional elements could be added to make the experience richer and more engaging for participants. The research on adding coaching is very compelling in terms of results, and there are many other elements that can make a training program more impactful for both the participants and the organization (assessments, suggested readings or TEDTalks, etc).

4. Faculty

Who should teach?

  1. What type of faculty do we need? How will we find/train them?
  2. Internal or External Facilitators?
  3. Do we need coaches? How will we find/train them?
  4. Who else will we need on the team?

We have repeatedly seen that this is truly a make or break issue, especially in a virtual setting. Since most virtual faculty is likely only visible by their upper torso, it is important that they are knowledgable, engaging and comfortable with the technology platform they are using. External faculty and Coaches are often more affordable in a virtual setting, than in-person, as they are not required to travel. This allows for increased topical expertise for your participants, and an external lens. Many successful virtual programs, blend external and internal faculty often from far flung timezones, providing global audiences with thought-leadership and expertise.

Interactive virtual programs benefit most from faculty who are facilitators vs presenters. Otherwise, deliver webinar style (more one-way delivery) or even pre-record.

While locking in your faculty choices are top priority, it is important to note a couple of other key roles in impactful virtual learning programs.

  • Producer: A behind the scenes resource who is managing the technology and participant experience while the Faculty Lead is focused on content and the learners. This role ensures the technology platform is up and running prior to the session, slides and poll questions are preloaded, virtual breakout room and live-chat are managed, participants are informed, invited, and muted during live sessions, etc.
  • Sponsor: Beyond budget and content approval, the sponsor sends a welcome note, co-hosting a kick-off session prior to the “main event” (which can also serve as a mini-technology test). The sponsor also reinforces the importance of pre-work, engagement during the session, and follows up with people post-session to drive learning sustainability.

5. Measures

Are we getting the right results?

  1. What business measures do we most want to impact?
  2. What are key learning measures that can function as lead indicators for those business measures?
  3. How will we monitor progress and implement improvements?

We like to say: measure what matters. Too often the measures around training (virtual and otherwise) are about how many people attended and did they like the sessions. This rarely resonates with business leaders. We believe it is important to establish baselines and the measure for change and impact. Measures should be established for both the individuals and for organizational change.

Since we designed the Content for Impact (see above), the measures of success should be outlined upfront. Are we looking to grow market share, reduce expenses, increase productivity or engagement, etc.?

Virtual learning program platforms offer a number of metrics and analytics capabilities that can provide key lead indicators to these business metrics. On virtual platforms, you can create pre- and post-assessments and track downloads of any pre-work assigments (readings, report downloads, videos watched, etc.). On more sophisitcated platforms, you can also gather more qualitative metrics in terms of time spent of those items, AI analysis of discussion boards and learner interaction and engagement. This information, once analyzed can provide useful reporting and insights to potential positive impact on the desired business objectives. RBL has partnered with CorpU and other providers to provide these types of insights, as this is a growing area of interest for business leaders increasing their investment in virtual learning programs.

6. Process

How do we put it all together?

  1. Are there needed changes to this process given your training challenge?
  2. What are the major milestones?

Following a process will ensure that you are both intentional and deliberate in getting the results that you desire. Setting clear milestones from the start will help your virtual program design maintain focus and a sense of momentum. Being able to see progress as you move from defining the audience, through a pilot program and full roll-out energizes the team, your sponsor and, ultimately, the organization.

Final Note: We have found virtual learning programs to be just as effective as in-person sessions in continuing to move business objectives forward. As technology continues to improve, the trade-offs aren’t as stark between the two delivery modalities. The above tips, we hope, enable you to help us as we work to enhance learning delivery in all formats.

The RBL Group can help guide your thinking in each of these six critical areas to develop an impactful Virtual Learning Program.

Michael is a Principal with The RBL Group. His work is focused on leadership development and organizational change management and creating high performance individuals and organizations.

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Jade is a Principal with The RBL Group and has over 25 years in the strategic HR, talent management and leadership development fields.

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