By Lauryn DeGeorge and Lynn Becker
Your 3 pm Zoom training session did not go as you had hoped. You closed the session with an ill feeling in your stomach. A few of the participants seemed eager to participate, but many others appeared bored, some apprehensive of the remote training environment, and a few in the group just did not seem to take the session seriously. You now sit alone wondering what went wrong. You put in your best effort, but yet the outcome was discouraging.
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. We feel your pain. At the onset of the 2020 worldwide pandemic, university faculty across the country experienced a near-overnight transition from the traditional face-to-face classroom to an unknown remote learning environment. Many faculty embraced this challenging time as an opportunity for experimentation and professional growth. However, this transition was not without its challenges, frustrations, and yes, quite a few awkward remote class sessions. Although transitioning to a remote environment had its ups and downs, it was nonetheless a significant accomplishment for an industry steeped in tradition and known for adapting to change at a glacial pace.
The pandemic was the unforeseen catalyst that propelled higher education, as well as an unlimited number of other industries, into a remote learning and working environment. And while it is uncertain when and how this pandemic will end; we propose, it is unlikely that organizational life will ever return to its pre-pandemic status quo. Expectations have been permanently altered. And perhaps rightly so. Albeit involuntarily, the potential benefits of a remote environment have been exposed. The use of technology to enhance learning environments, and in a variety of settings, is here to stay.
In this blog, we will share lessons learned, tips if you will, for creating an effective and engaging remote learning environment whether it be for students or employees, synchronous or asynchronous. We would suggest that many of the same strategies for enhancing student engagement and learning in a remote classroom may also be successfully applied in organizational training and development programs. As expectations have changed, we must adapt. In fact, we would argue that organizations who do not adapt will not only be viewed by stakeholders as less competitive, but that they will be seen as dinosaurs in the modern world.
To help equip training and development professionals to meet today and tomorrow’s remote learning challenges, we recommend five tips (Organize It, Chunk It, Personalize It, Gamify It, and Multimedia It) that have been practiced, and dare we say perfected, in the battle fields of higher education. The five tips are:
Tip 1: Organize It
In a traditional face-to-face training session, a puzzled look on a participant’s face or a raised hand is the signal that a participant is confused, and additional clarification or assistance is needed. A remote environment does not afford this luxury. Therefore, greater preparation and skill, in terms of overall course organization and structure, is a must. When designing a remote training and development program, it is helpful to consider the following questions from the learner’s perspective. Is the course visually well-organized and attractive? Is the learner’s path through the course easily navigated? Is it clear what assignments should be completed and their corresponding deadlines? Is it clear how each lesson is linked to the learner’s professional development goals or career progression?
Organization and structure of course materials are important for learning effectiveness, whether the environment be face-to-face or remote. However, there is an increased potential for miscommunication in a remote setting and every effort must be made in the course design itself to reduce this potential barrier to learning. We are not in any way implying that there is one best way to organize a remote training course. Course content may be organized by topic, chronology order, or even in a buffet-type style. The point is that the learner must be able to painlessly and independently navigate the course. Additionally, it is important to emphasize the role of training as providing, or enhancing, needed job-related skills. Training should never be viewed as simply another hoop to jump through. Each lesson, regardless of the organization method used (topic, chronological order, buffet-type style, etc.), should clearly indicate a link to the participant’s professional development goals demonstrating the value of the training to the participant.
Tip 2: Chunk It
It has never been more important to think outside the box, or to simply just to throw the box away. Gone are the days of long, monotonous one-way lectures, and gone are the days of voluminous training manuals. As noted by McNamera, these learning methods are more likely to “lull adults into a stupor, rather than sustain sufficient interest and engagement to accomplish sustained learning …” Instead, consider presenting information in chunks or burts; a less is more approach. The key with chunking is to break larger amounts of information into smaller units and then identify patterns or themes in the information. These smaller units of information grouped by patterns or themes may then be presented as chunks, manageable bytes, of information. As a learning strategy, chunking reduces cognitive load and makes processing information easier.
In a 2020 Harvard Business Review article, Reidl and Woolley suggest that communication bursts “help focus the mind and declutter communications.” If need be, supplemental information may be provided and clearly noted as such. Providing supplemental information, and labeling it as such, has the benefit of allowing those that are interested in delving deeper to do so, while still focusing learners on the most critical information.
Tip 3: Personalize It
At the risk of sounding like a snowflake, we would suggest that training programs should be personalized to best meet the affiliation and comradery needs of participants. Let’s face it; there’s no more water cooler and this has left many employees longing for human interaction. Employee needs of comradery and affiliation are often fulfilled in an organic manner in a face-to-face environment. Examples of spontaneous bonding activities abound in a face-to-face environment (casual conversations with peers may turn into a chat over coffee, grabbing a quick bite to eat with coworkers during a lunch break, etc.) In a remote environment, affiliation and comradery needs may go unmet if not directly addressed in the design of the training and development program.
We recommend embedding multiple, and varying types of opportunities for interaction with the course content as well as other participants. Typically, the focus is on the learner’s engagement with the course content and learning materials; this is of course critical. However, we are suggesting that engagement of the learner with the trainer, and engagement of the learner with fellow coworkers should also be a priority in efforts to better meet the affiliation needs of employees.
Activities designed to increase engagement may take many forms and should be tailored to the target audience. Some examples may include live chat rooms, asynchronous discussion boards, trainer welcome video, participant introductory videos, coworker feedback on submissions, and Zoom or other teleconferencing technologies. If the number of participants is large, the use of break-out rooms in Zoom to create smaller sub-groups may be highly effective. This strategy has the advantage of allowing the trainer to interact with a smaller group of participants creating a more intimate environment. Additionally, the use of break-out rooms not only creates greater opportunity for one-on-one interaction between the trainer and learner, but also between the learners themselves.
Tip 4: Gamify It
Games are not just for the young! Gamification may be used as an effective tool in achieving training and development goals. Glass (2017) in Why Gaming Matters explains that games encourage learners “to stay in the flow by tapping into … human emotion,” that they “provide a safe space for trial and error,” and that “the benefits of using games to educate, engage and boost employee learning have become increasingly pronounced.”
Two examples of gamification applications that encourage participation are Kahoot and Materia. Kahoot is a popular learning tool in which participants can work individually or in teams to answer questions. Kahoot also has the advantage of being able to be implemented in a synchronous or asynchronous environment. Wang and Tahir in Computers and Education (2020) highlighted that Kahoot has a positive effect on learning performance. With over 50% of U.S. teachers currently using Kahoot, this tool has proven to stimulate engagement through a time limited question and answer competitive format. A similar gamification learning platform is Materia. Materia, originally developed for the academic environment and currently used at the University of Central Florida, makes online learning richer and increases student engagement. This gamification option offers matching, flash cards, crossword puzzles, situational scenarios, and Jeopardy-type games to test user’s knowledge. In an organizational setting, these gamification options appeal to the competitive nature of employees and may also be effective in stimulating team cohesiveness. Similar gamification options may be available through your organization's technology and learning team.
Tip 5: Multimedia It
YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn Learning, TicTok and more … if you can’t fight them, you might as well join them. Embrace multimedia and use it to your benefit. Think of multimedia as another tool in your training toolbox. Combining multimedia alongside more traditional tools has the potential to be highly effective as it approaches learning from multiple avenues. Specifically, the use of multimedia in course design appeals to both audio and visual learners.
We suggest creating a short introductory/welcome video (1-2 minutes) to be viewed at the start of the training program as well as other brief videos throughout the course to deliver important information. A welcome video from the training facilitator adds a personal touch and starts the training program off with a positive tone. Videos, especially those led by managers and those in leadership roles, are a useful way to signal the importance of the training and its role in supporting overall organizational goals. Enlist organizational members in the creation of videos. Have a manager lead a training topic or consider enlisting a community leader for additional emphasis. Even better, have employees role play a training topic or discuss an important skill. Used as touchpoints throughout the year, videos excel at delivering foundational material that will be built on during the year. These types of videos also have the advantage of personalizing larger organizations and giving employees direct face time with managers.
Collectively, these five tips (Organize It, Chunk It, Personalize It, Gamify It, and Multimedia It) were lessons learned, through trial and error, in higher education’s overnight transition to a remote learning environment. We share these tips with confidence that they are applicable and valuable in the design of not only remote training and development programs, but face-to-face training as well. And while we may long for the good ol’ days, returning to pre-pandemic status quo is unlikely. The use of technology to enhance learning environments is here to stay. The challenge is now how to best use this tool to our advantage.
Creating Effective and Engaging Remote Training & Development Programs
Tip 1: Organize It
Make the learner’s path through the training program easy to navigate and link lessons to the learner’s professional development goals
- Organize content by topic, chronological order, or even buffet-type style
- Clearly link content to participant’s professional development goals or career progression
Tip 2: Chunk It
Break larger amounts of information into smaller, more manageable units
- Group manageable bytes of information by patterns or themes thereby reducing cognitive load
Tip 3: Personalize It
Embed varying, and multiple types of opportunities for interaction
- Encourage interaction of trainee with learning materials
- Encourage interaction of trainee with trainer
- Encourage interaction of trainee with other trainees
Tip 4: Gamify It
Use games to provide a safe space for trial and error
- Appeal to the competitive nature of employees and build team cohesiveness
Tip 5: Multimedia It
Embrace multimedia and think of it as another tool in your training toolbox to be used alongside more traditional methods
- Consider creative uses for YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn Learning, TicTok, etc.
- Appeal to both audio and visual learners