10 Pro Tips for High-Impact Distance Learning

By Stephanie Woor

Organizations are unsurprisingly becoming more reliant on distance learning. While there are undoubtedly challenges to overcome, the opportunities outweigh the obstacles. Read on to discover 10 pro tips for creating high-impact distance learning, and how organizations are in a moment of long-term cultural change.

We’ve taken the best of a LEO Learning webinar series on the future of learning, and put together 10 pro tips that everyone creating remote learning should pay attention to.

1) Learn the Do’s and Don’ts of Distance Learning

Start your journey toward higher-impact distance learning with these simple do’s and don’ts:

  • Do: Experiment with new ideas. There’s a silver lining in the current situation: we now have room to experiment in the digital learning space and there’s less internal resistance to our ideas. People are more open to trying things that sounded too risky before, and we are gaining traction on user-generated content, including videos, shared throughout the company. We're realizing that some ideas which scared us aren't actually that scary. So take advantage and experiment—design the use case and prove it works (or at least doesn't cause damage).
  • Do: Design for distraction and technology problems. Does your design make allowances for inevitable flow-breakers such as workload distractions, internet outages, and children/pets/spouses gatecrashing calls? Include a technical facilitator whose role is to sort out technical issues as needed and make Plan B a part of your design. Identify where there are risks and plan for an alternative path through the learning. For example, allow for the possibility that people may not participate in a large group setting by having a breakout group backup plan.
  • Do: Think about journeys, not events. Avoid thinking about single virtual classrooms or webinars, although they are important. Instead, think about the process, and how learner understanding will evolve over time.
  • Don’t: Think it’s quick and easy. Having someone go online to deliver a message is only a starting point. As above, in relation to distraction and technology problems: You need to plan aggressively so you can execute flexibly. You need a Plan B for shifts in group dynamics, technology, flow of activities, and so on. Think of the agenda more as a flow, with branching to account for areas where you may need to pivot.
  • Don’t: Speak for longer than five minutes. Don’t let a speaker talk for too long without a break, whether they are a facilitator or participant. Take questions and input from learners, move to other activities, or let another facilitator speak. This will help keep the energy of the session up.
  • Don’t: Be afraid to check in with your learners regularly. In this moment of high distraction—regardless of your line of work—when you leave someone alone, you will be forgotten.

2) Start with Your Objectives

Before even selecting a tool and channel, effective distance learning begins when you’re clear on your objectives and have defined the learning needs you’re trying to serve. One practical approach is to come up with a framework: first, list all the behavioural objectives, the learning experiences that support them, and the approaches for delivering those experiences. Approaches can then be matched to these needs. Perhaps there’s a certain toolkit that would help in a given area, or a need for knowledge to sit in a certain place. Or perhaps self-exploration would be the best tool for a particular behavioral objective?

There are also needs that would be best met by group learning and social activities. So, knowing where these best sit sets you on the path to finding the tools that will enable those methods.

3) Make the Most of Virtual Classroom Time

There’s no specific balance of online self-study time versus virtual classroom time—you’ll have to experiment with what works best for your organization and material. However, both modes are very important. A virtual classroom needs to have a point to it, and you shouldn’t treat practice and social connection as entirely distinct blocks of work within a session. For example, you could get learners to:

  • Create a table based on data
  • Scope an infographic
  • Tell a story in a video and share it

The same is true for pre-work or self-study: give the learners something to do before the attend your virtual classroom, or else you'll find yourself spending your time in the classroom lecturing, or otherwise covering what you hoped would have been digested during the pre-work or self-study.

4) Clearly Convey the Purpose of the Learning

Communicating the purpose of your learning is key to learner engagement. This should come naturally if you’re focused on your objectives and the learning need from the beginning of the process.

If learners aren’t engaging with the learning, it’s entirely possible they’ve got other things that are getting in the way, they aren’t sure why the topic should matter to them, or what they need to do with it. In this situation, it’s important to go back to them and ask where you lost their engagement.

5) Find New Ways to Collaborate

When looking at the importance of giving learners something to do or create together, let’s use an example of a large international client. The typical prescriptive approach would be to just train learners on the specific things they wanted to achieve for customers. Instead of using this approach, the client is now experimenting with providing this information and asking cohorts to reply with how they were achieving this, and then developing a list of five best practices from that.

Furthermore, this method allows the client to build heatmaps and use them to determine what people are doing across the company and identify any gaps. This then allows for training that’s more responsive to the organization’s needs without a large research investment.

6) Whatever Engagement Techniques You Choose, Be Deliberate in Your Choice

There are many engagement techniques for a good virtual classroom that are available to us, including:

  • Action and Action Learning Sets
  • Chat
  • Response (icons, emoticons etc.)
  • Polling, surveys
  • Whiteboards
  • Document sharing
  • Collaboration tools i.e. Google Docs, Sharepoint, Padlet, Slido
  • Panel session
  • Recorded video inserts
  • Breakout rooms: reflection, creation, invention

Your choice of techniques is important, but most of all you should be deliberate and plan its use. For example, when using chat, you must think about and communicate rules for how you will use it during a session. Avoid simply getting everyone into a chatroom and telling them to talk about a subject.

Remember that tools can be used before and after sessions too. However, bear in mind that if you make material too substantial, you’ll see poor engagement. Rather than lots of pre-reading, it may be better to set a small task that exposes learners to a key piece of information.

7) Prepare Your Entire Facilitation Team

In a webinar, you can broadcast to hundreds and have to worry less about facilitating two-way talk. By contrast, your digital classroom has to emulate the face-to-face classroom as closely as possible. This may mean splitting larger groups into smaller break-out groups (around 12 people maximum) during a session. But this is only going to be effective if you have facilitators for each of those groups.

Identify people within the groups to act as your sub-facilitators and train them exactly as you would any facilitator. Hold a ‘train the trainer’ session and make sure they’re ready to help with technology issues, engage people who’re being spoken over and so on. Keeping the conversation going is harder when the immediacy of person-to-person contact is gone—so a person dedicated to this role is essential.

Bring cohorts back together to share ideas and set each group the challenge of facilitating the next when presenting. This can be a great way of keeping listeners engaged when it’s no longer their turn to talk.

8) Don’t Run on Too Long

One of the biggest differences trainers are discovering right now is that pacing and sustaining teaching is a completely different proposition in a lockdown.

A whole day of teaching is too fatiguing and potentially ineffective. Just as any one speaker shouldn’t go on for more than five minutes, a workshop needn’t run for more than 90 minutes. And you’d be surprised how much you can do in 45. Re-engage regularly. Return every second day and ensure learners are supported between each session.

Consider also how many people you have and how much of the topic has already been discussed. Allow time for ‘norming’—the amount of work that will need to be done to align everyone on the message or activity in the session. If everyone isn’t already aligned, the time-intensive discussion and discourse needed just to get started may push a session to the two-hour mark.

9) Always Remember to Align, Deliver and Sustain

Try this model for planning learning journeys to help you in thinking about the core topics, learning moments and different tools: Align, Deliver, Sustain.

Align: Bring the learners in and engage them—make sure they understand early why it’s relevant to them, and retain their attention by using existing memories, emotions, and cultural artifacts so they have something to relate that to.

Deliver: This refers to your core learning and training practices, ensuring that you’re delivering the correct training in the best way possible.

Sustain: Finally, continue to support learners as they apply their learning in the workplace.

10) Now’s the Perfect Time to Tell Stories

With more people now working from home, organizations are becoming interested in exploring user-generated content (UGC). We believe that this new theme of sharing stories is a real opportunity: people are less worried about production values and more open to the human element that UGC naturally allows.

A version of this blog post originally appeared on LEO Learning.

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