Why Virtual Training Needs a Rethink

By Nicci Nesmith Hammerel, VP Consulting Services Development & Chief of Staff

January 16, 2018

Benefits of Virtual Classroom Training: Advantages of Online Training

Training connoisseurs are pretty consistent when listing the pros and cons of virtual classroom training and onsite learning options. Here’s a simplified version of what you might hear:

Virtual classroom pros: It’s cheaper, highly scalable, and less disruptive to schedules

Virtual classroom cons: It’s less engaging, thus multi-tasking can impinge on learning

Onsite training pros: It’s the right learning environment for optimal absorption

Onsite training cons: It’s time-consuming and expensive

The industry has put these options in black and white terms; the cons of one are the pros of the other. And there are a ton of assumptions embedded in this thinking. In fact, they’re all assumptions. Luckily this is also an industry filled with innovative minds, eager to challenge the notion that virtual learning isn’t engaging enough to capture (and keep) an audience’s attention.

Thanks to these bold minds, we chunk eLearning into bite-sized content, produce high-quality video, make characters come alive through fancy graphics, gamify everything, and salivate at the thought that one day soon, virtual reality will make simulations soar.

But for all the focus on challenging the engagement assumption, consider the fact that people don’t always get through an entire YouTube cat video before launching into Jimmy Fallon’s latest lip sync battle. Given that even the most engaging internet stars haven’t solved the online attention deficit problem, it’s highly unlikely the business training world will. That’s okay, and it doesn’t mean we should stop trying. It’s a worthy and fun battle to fight.

But we need to push harder on the industry’s most sacred assumption by asking the following: Why do we keep chasing the idea that part of the answer is to replicate the onsite training experience in a virtual classroom?

After all, it’s not like virtualizing onsite learning will automatically eliminate the traditional format’s imperfections—in fact, doing so could even make some of its deficits more pronounced.

Every classroom trainer knows her students check out during post-lunch food comas. Group exercises really mean a few students do the work while at least one student punts. Every break is spent glued to a phone screen rather than allowing the mind the space it needs to reflect and commit to memory the lesson just learned. And the one-to-many classroom model leaves very little room for one-on-one attention and coaching.

So remind me again: Why are we trying to replicate the onsite experience in a digital environment?

The answer is pretty simple. We know it’s not perfect but it’s the best we’ve got. And now that we’re standing on the precipice of the onsite classroom’s future, the words to the Passenger song come to mind: “Only know you love her when you let her go.” Our comfort and familiarity with onsite training have likely caused us to build the wrong kind of virtual learning experience.

A Different Path for Virtual Classroom Training

Most learning professionals recognize that recreating the one-to-many onsite lecture environment in a virtual classroom is only remotely effective if all participants are on video. But that whittles away the scale benefits. And every participant still needs to be available on the same days and times. So much for time and schedule flexibility.

Why not start with an asynchronous, one-to-one coaching model? Let the eLearning modules handle the knowledge transfer, elevate the value of the trainer to mentor/coach, and make the whole thing self-paced? In an asynchronous, one-to-one environment, you can assign learners relevant challenges at their desks, forcing them to integrate concepts directly into what they’re working on that day.

In the case of a salesperson, that assignment could be to plan a scheduled conversation with a prospect and record herself on video using the principles she learned in the eLearning modules. With a sales expert ready to critique her performance, there is nowhere to hide. The rep can’t rely on group members to do the work and there are no artificial, in-room time constraints to excuse a lackluster performance. If she doesn’t demonstrate that she can apply what she learned, she doesn’t complete the course. Her coach gives her direct, individualized feedback to identify areas of improvement and assigns remediation modules specific to her needs. And you maintain healthy competition by showcasing the top performances amongst colleagues.

When so much rides on the quality of what your salespeople say in front of your most important prospects and customers, why not establish a training environment built around observable practice and demonstrated proficiency?

With this level of accountability, you ensure learners don’t just log off after half-listening to a WebEx session and consider their training box checked. Each learner must demonstrate the behavior you’re seeking. That’s something you simply can’t do by trying to replicate onsite training in a virtual instructor-led training classroom.

Online, recorded fluency training may seem like a radical break from the in-person, event-based classroom model that’s long been the standard of the training world. But it’s actually a doubling down on what sales training has always been about: fluency, command, and positive, lasting behavior changes. What sales training approach wouldn’t want to aspire to those ideals?