How can we ensure remote learning initiatives represent evolution, not revolution? fassforward ran a study on remote learning. One of its principal findings (warning: spoiler alert) is that remote learning is here to stay. Contrary to being thought of as classroom’s poor relation, “remote” delivers specific benefits that challenge previous assumptions about learning. The question; how to net those benefits without losing the elements that made the classroom so valued? Revolution burns. Evolution builds.
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Paris newspaper editor, Alphonse Karr, had just witnessed a revolution. A couple of them, to be exact. The first, in February 1848, had ended a French monarchy. The second, in June, then attempted (but failed) to end the government that had ended the monarchy. All of this came only fifty years after the more famous revolution of 1789 — the one that sent the nobility on a one-way visit to Madame Guillotine.
Karr was already known for having a satirical wit. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that observing this revolutionary tidal flow prompted him to pen the phrase “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Translated: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
While Karr has vanished, his phrase remains.
Within the Learning and Development universe, the 2020 pole-vault from classroom to Zoom room felt like a revolution. The move online proved as tough for learning professionals as for participants.¹ Some of us, herded into virtual classrooms, felt like we had to learn our trade all over again.
Karr’s logic would suggest that when we look at this learning revolution in the rear-view mirror, we’ll find much remains unchanged.
One year on, we can reflect. What's apparent is that the same four facets that create great ‘traditional’ classroom experiences remain just as powerful now we’re remote:
1/ Interaction — the back and forth between learners and teachers.
2/ Intimacy — the comfort and trust essential for curiosity and exploration.
3/ Insight — eureka moments that reframe the way we think.
4/ Impact — learning that sticks, stays, is remembered, and used.
These four elements comprise the four I’s. Even though the physical classroom has gone away, the four I’s have not. They’re still with us, and in the world of remote learning, they’re more relevant than ever.
The four I’s apply to all learning, formal and informal, remote or live. During the past year, it isn’t just L&D departments who have been working out how to bring training to employees — team leaders have been as well. The best leaders are great teachers.² For many managers, that has meant coming to terms with coaching and guiding remotely. The four I’s are just as important to them as they are in a remote classroom.
The best learning happens when we're active participants³, not passive bystanders. In the classroom, we discuss, debate, and act. Impossible in the remote realm. Or is it?
In a live setting, we want interaction between participant and teacher and between participants themselves. We use table groups and breakout rooms. We put people into pairs or groups. “Get with a partner and discuss XYZ.”
Virtual learning environments are capable of this. We can place pairs or groups into break-outs for the same effect. It’s the same, but different.
Where that difference lies is in the preparation that we, the host, need to put in. We need to know what it feels like to be participants at each stage of the break-out process.
We need to know this as clearly as we know what it feels like to walk into a physical break-out room.
When we first train in virtual spaces, a common mistake (that I have made myself) is to think, “how do I compensate for…”.
This is functional fixedness.⁴ When we’re conditioned to see things in a certain form, it becomes hard to see alternatives. That blocks us from seeing new tools and toys unique to the virtual world.
Try playing with interactive tools such as polling and word cloud applications. Make full use of the chat window. Most virtual learning platforms come with their own native, easy-to-use versions.
Take a look at third-party products such as Poll Everywhere and Mural. Not only do these tools bring you interaction, but they also bring you data. As we’ll find out, data delivers insight. This is one of the many things the virtual world delivers more handsomely than the physical.
Up until her retirement, our town had a fabulous veterinarian.
This lady would taste new oral medications that came into her practice. She wanted to know if the medication was sweet or bitter; if it burned the tongue, or was sticky in the mouth. She experimented on herself. She wanted to know how her patients might experience and react to treatment.
We need the same intimacy with the online experience from the participant’s perspective. When dropped into a virtual breakout room or any other interaction tool, what does it feel like for the learner?
With that level of knowledge, we can make sure instructions and preparations are clear. We need to call for breakout rooms with the same ease we'd call an impromptu table-talk.
We can also empathize with what goes wrong (or right!) for participants working remotely. This ability to empathize is the central tenet for our next goal — intimacy.
Learning involves trust.⁵ To lower barriers and admit a lack of knowledge, learners need to trust you. For some, that in itself is a high-wire test. You need to trust the guide who invites you to learn.
In his classic study of storytelling,⁶ author Joseph Campbell described the character of the guide. The guide invites the sometimes reluctant hero to travel into the unknown, crucial to the development of the hero. In business, the guide is the coach, mentor, or trainer. It’s essential to your hero’s success that they can trust their guide.
Would you trust a guide who didn’t appear credible in their knowledge? Probably not.⁷ How about a guide who didn’t appear comfortable with their tools?
Demonstrating credibility with a topic and tools builds trust. Again — preparation is a must. A panicked flap with the tech does nothing for your credibility.
Intimacy comes with access. Not everyone is comfortable speaking in open class.⁸ Some would rather grab a quiet word during the break than put their hand up in a full group — especially if it’s to admit a lack of knowledge.
You can offer ‘office hours’ after class. Instructors stay online for one-on-one conversations. You can also drop into break-out groups for more intimate discussions.
Make the ‘private chat’ function available. Quieter individuals will use this to ask you questions they’re reluctant to post in the main group.
Insight is about grasping the relationship between cause and effect. If A, then B. From insight, we can move to application and skill. The world’s most famous insight occurred in the bath. Archimedes, suddenly grasping the law of buoyancy, leaped from his tub and ran naked through the streets of Athens.
How can we bring about something similar for our virtual participants?
Role-plays or ‘real plays’ have long been the dread tumbrel of insight.⁹ To see people slouch to the front of the room when called to role-play, you'd imagine they were on their way to the guillotine.
While dreaded, role-plays have a definite place in the learning process.¹⁰ They allow participants to simulate new skills in a safe environment.
Virtual Reality offers huge benefits, taking participants beyond any classroom role-play. The topic can be anything from handling an upset customer to replacing the brake assembly on a Boeing 747.
Lyron Bentovim, President and CEO of The Glimpse Group, a leading VR and AR company, discussed their application for soft skills: “If you're training someone to sell or deal with a situation that requires experts to play the roles. Those people cost money. In virtual reality, I can create as many experts, as often as needed.”
He went on to say how VR works with hard skills. “You might have a device that you need to know how to maintain, take apart, fix, operate, whatever it is. And that requires that we have that machine. Those machines cost money.”
(That’s why airlines buy flight simulators because it’s prohibitively expensive to train on real planes.)
A guest-speaker sharing their experience will reveal the context behind the knowledge. Guest-speakers are storytellers, and stories transport their audience. They are the original “virtual reality.” Insight is derived from story.
We're influenced by our peers. Sharing stories and experiences with our peers also shares insight.
In the classroom, such sharing happens when participants discuss training during breaks. Instructors can also jump-start the process, asking participants to share thoughts at the beginning or end of the day.
In the virtual world, this is achieved as effectively as in the physical world. The virtual environment offers even more powerful opportunities — we can share insights in real-time as participants practice their skills.
In the physical world, for this to occur, you would need to bring people back together post-training. Budget and time are seldom available for this. In the remote world, reconnecting post-training becomes simple. No travel, no venue, and little budget required.
Newly acquired knowledge has a short shelf-life unless quickly deployed. Ironically, one of the things most obstructing rapid deployment is the classroom itself. In many ways, classroom training is 'remote.’ It's remote from the place where the skill will find use.
Digital ‘remote learning’ takes place at the scene of the action. It can also be in a timeslot where the delay between learning and use is reduced.
The downside of classroom sessions — they pack in more knowledge than learners can easily digest. That knowledge is left behind at the end of the day, along with the candy wrappers.
Remote learning can be bite-sized. Groups can experience short nuggets. Each nugget can end with one or two specific applications to try out before next time.
We train to achieve behavioral change. The benefits of that change accrue to the bottom line, or people’s lives, or hopefully both. According to Michael Fracarro, Chief People Officer at Mastercard, “Learning is either raising awareness or building a new skill or most importantly, building new habits. And that's the important part of any learning — changing behavior or behavior improvement.”
Impact is precisely that — the benefit to the bottom line; the benefit to people’s lives. It’s seen in a new awareness, or a new skill, or new habits.
When asked about the ‘impact’ of the training, it’s those results and deliverables that are being referred to.
Many of us tie ourselves into pretzels trying to justify the value of training. Frequently our only 'evidence' are the feedback forms people may (or may not) have filled out as they left the room. This makes that pretzeling all the more uncomfortable.
In the classroom, we can subjectively gather feedback measurements through the evidence of our eyes. Remote environments give us something better. Real-time analytic tools that produce hard data on how participants take part. We can see participation in polls and chat activities. We can create our own audit trail of the high and lows of each session.
Because remote learning takes place closer to the actual work activity in time and space and is done in smaller bite-sized chunks — the learned skill can be used immediately.
The training’s impact, both on the learner and the organization, becomes visible and measurable.
We’re starting to glimpse how the virtual world offers more richness, not less. Richness of interaction, of insight, of intimacy, and of impact.
As humans we like what we know and take comfort in the familiar. That’s partly why the shift to remote feels like a revolution. In the context of learning, it’s not. It’s an evolution. Rethinking ‘how’ is vital. Staying true to the original intent of education and learning — that interaction, intimacy, insight, and impact — while sweating over the new “how.”
This isn’t just labor for an L&D organization; it’s work for every leader everywhere. After all, great leaders are great teachers and luckily great leaders are great learners.
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¹ Schwartz, Sarah. “Survey: Teachers and Students Are Struggling With Online Learning.” Education Week, 16 Nov. 2020, https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/survey-teachers-and-students-are-struggling-with-online-learning/2020/11.
² Finkelstein, Sydney. “The Best Leaders Are Great Teachers”. Harvard Business Review, 1 Jan. 2018.
³ Sandra Y. Okita. “Social Interactions and Learning.” SpringerLink.
⁴ Tognazzini, Bruce. “Functional Fixedness Stops You From Having Innovative Ideas.” Nielsen Norman Group, 30 July 201.
⁵ Jaffe, Dennis. “The Essential Importance Of Trust: How To Build It Or Restore It.” Forbes, 5 Dec. 2018,.
⁶ Campbell, Joseph. The Hero’s Journey. New World Library, 2003.
⁷ Maister, David. The Trusted Advisor. Simon and Schuster, 2012.
⁸ Walker, DaShon. “Extroverted Students Flourish, Introverts Struggle with Remote Learning” MARIST CIRCLE, 12 Nov. 2020.
⁹ Tumbrel, (or Tumbril) noun. An open cart that tilted backward to empty out its load, in particular one used to convey condemned prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution.
¹⁰ Cohen, Deb. “The Art of Role Playing in Developing Management Proficiency.” SHRM, 11 Feb. 2020.