As more business activity transitions to the digital world, training and development are common areas of focus for many companies of all sizes. Advances in telecommunications technology mean that companies can work efficiently with geographically distributed staff like never before.
Whether a company is centralizing training for a number of field offices from a central headquarters or staff are almost entirely remote, it’s possible to manage companywide training programs from a distance. That ability is increasingly being leveraged by companies around the world grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to have unprecedented numbers of staff working from home.
In addition to technological advances, the global pandemic has created a forced experiment in digital learning on a global scale, as educational institutions from K–12 through higher education have had to rapidly adapt to a remote learning paradigm at a massive scale.
In this feature, we’ll discuss some advances and best practices in learning from a distance by looking at the recent experience of education institutions, as well as input from industry experts.
Focus on the Learner
When looking to gain efficiencies in education, there is always the risk of slipping into a one-size-fits-all mentality in which every learner is presented the same material at the same pace, with little individual interaction between teacher and learner. A foundational best-practice aspect of any remote learning approach is paying attention to the needs of each individual.
“We can learn a lot by watching what our primary schools are doing. They are not built to go digital and remote at scale and have been forced to very quickly. And many are doing an exceptional job,” says Nate Butki of Root Inc. “A key reason for their success is the ability to stay fully focused on the learner and learner-centered design,” he says.
This is the same for classroom teachers and learning and development (L&D) professionals in corporate settings, Butki says. It all starts with a focus on the learner. Butki advises L&D pros to assess learners’ “access, capacity, needs and what makes the topic relevant to their world—and work backward to use the tools and techniques that reach them best.”
Convenience and Accessibility
A great way to discourage employees from engaging with remote learning, whether mandatory or optional, is to make it hard to access or burdensome. Neha Gupta, CEO of True Office Learning, recommends offering microlearning options and quick how-to guides. These options can let employees quickly access the information they need in a few minutes when they’re between other important tasks.
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a great example of resources that have emerged in recent years that allow remote learners to receive high-quality education in easily digestible quantities at their convenience.
The tools and strategies used to deliver MOOCs are easily imitable by private sector training departments. For example, companies can set up a centralized, easily accessible file share organized by topic from which staff can remotely access training materials from anywhere.
Technology Is the Medium, Not the Message
With the new advances in exciting and flashy telecommunications and distance learning tools, it can be tempting to let these new tools drive the training. It’s important, though, to keep in mind that technology is simply a vehicle for delivering content. Unless the training is specifically on how to use new technology, those technologies shouldn’t change the content of your training.
“Embracing technology and not trying to reinvent the wheel is critical to success in distance learning,” says Jason Lee, CEO of Freelance Master Course. “If you’re a major operation that needs a professional setup, reach out to companies that specialize in the process. Why? Because you should allow yourself to focus on teaching instead of learning the ins and outs of distance learning.”
Lee notes that there are a variety of free or low-cost tools available to take existing content and move it online, like YouTube, Vimeo, and others.
Distance learning is new to many organizations, meaning they may not have existing tools and strategies to leverage for remote training programs. While this is a challenge, it also presents an opportunity: Companies can work with their employee-students on developing programs and strategies that work best. The development phase of any program is a great time to solicit end-user feedback for shaping its construction.
This doesn’t mean the feedback loop closes off when the tools are “finished.” A good training program is never truly finished, and end-user feedback should be a key component of an iterative improvement process.
The immediate impetus for many companies to look more closely at online L&D may be the current COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean these tools and strategies should be seen as a temporary stopgap before getting back to business as usual.
In fact, many experts predict that we may never get back to business as usual in many ways and that we’re seeing the emergence of a new normal that will be around long after COVID-19.
“Now is the time to prepare for a post-COVID work environment,” says Gupta. “How can you construct a learning path that helps employees understand both new policies and new ways of working creating a path to ‘normalcy’? The most progressive companies are building custom e-learning, whether microlearning or foundational, that outline new steps employees need to take or new policies in place as companies return to the office or shift working arrangements post-COVID.”
In a knowledge-based economy, hiring and retaining top talent is essential to businesses establishing and maintaining a competitive advantage over their competitors. The ability to conduct business remotely greatly expands the pool of potential talent available to a company, and key elements of a remote business strategy are training and development.
Companies that can master the remote training and learning challenge can truly set themselves ahead of their competition.