CEO of Livius and co-author of “Hacking the SAT: Tips and Tricks to Help You Prepare, Plan Ahead, and Increase Your Score.”
In the days immediately following the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic on U.S. shores, schools shut down as administrators and parents raced to gear up for digital classrooms. Unfortunately, many of those educators and concerned parents found the nationwide online learning experiment to be a struggle.
That consensus seems to be growing now that schools across the country have begun the new academic year. Social media is full of posts from parents, teachers and students describing a fraught, frustrating school day that often ends in tears all around. The same is true for employees and leaders attempting to navigate remote working, training and professional development.
Yet there’s a learning opportunity hidden in the chaos, and your company can benefit from it. Given the continued battle against the novel coronavirus and the deadly disease it causes, it’s no wonder that many business leaders and training consultants are deeply concerned about returning to an in-person training and development environment. That’s why it’s crucial to ensure the online learning option is as robust and engaging as possible.
In my professional experience in the education and academic support industry, I’ve studied distance and online learning closely. Through that study, I’ve learned four best practices that will ensure that employees participating in remote training get better results while learning from home through digital platforms. By evaluating what went wrong with online learning, you can optimize your corporate training through remote learning platforms. These straightforward tips will help lighten the digital learning load for all participants.
1. Adjust your instructional approach from straight lecture to dialogue-based techniques.
Whether you’re 14 years old or 20 years into your career, staring silently at a screen half the day isn’t likely to produce much of anything beyond boredom and despair. Most distance learning students would rank direct instruction or listening to a teacher for the duration of class to be their least favorite methodologies. And in fact, one of the biggest mistakes instructors make is adhering exclusively to direct instruction. This approach throws up an absolute block to the key to learning: a two-way dialogue between participants and instructors.
Instead, adopt direct two-way dialogue if you have very small class sizes (one to three participants). With larger groups, explore the Socratic method, which should help generate more lively participation among attendees. You can also consider asking employees who are participating in remote training to present a topic for discussion. These presentations don’t have to last long; a few minutes will be sufficient to get them invested in the class.
2. Limit the time allotted for each session.
What’s the optimal length of time for an online class or workshop session? Shorter than you might think. Keep classes to 35-40 minutes. That’s the point when most students, regardless of age, begin to move on mentally from the task at hand. They’ll start to fidget, shift attention or engage in masking behaviors so that the trainer and other participating colleagues don’t notice that they’re engaged in other activities such as social media or playing games. You’re fighting an uphill battle, so stop fighting and declare victory. Either move to a different subject, begin a hands-on or more participatory segment of training or dismiss the class entirely.
3. Don’t worry about the size of a session.
This may conflict with every expert opinion you’ve encountered in the past six months, but hear me out. Once an online class or training session exceeds more than three or four participants, the two-way dialogue mentioned above is pretty much impossible. Teachers won’t have the space or time to hold that dialogue with each employee and thus solidify the acquisition of new information.
Since that isn’t always possible, there are workarounds you can put in place here, too. To counteract the loss of the two-way dialogue with a larger class size, use small group work or paired projects to better reinforce a tighter focus and ensure you’re effectively driving knowledge acquisition in participants. If you can tailor these projects to the attendees’ work roles and functions, you’ll generally experience a higher degree of focus and engagement from attendees.
4. Assess often.
Assessments are key, whether you’re teaching 10th-grade algebra or training new hires on company policies. The more you understand exactly what and how much knowledge participants are actually acquiring, the more you can remediate to optimize that process. Are they really grasping the material the lecturer is striving to transmit to them? There’s really only one way to know, and that’s by assessing student progress.
However, it’s also critical to make sure assessments, quizzes, tests and other projects that are designed for evaluation don’t add to the already outsized stress loads the participants are carrying. Instead, look for ways to create assessments that are low-stress. Aim to make them entertaining whenever you can.
Right now, we must all work together to cope with the chaos caused by the ongoing pandemic. Whether you’re working with onboarding new employees in a fully virtual setting or conducting continuing education classes, you can make that online training experience more engaging, productive and effective. As we find our footing in whatever our new normal will look like, these practices will be valuable for the future of virtual learning, too.
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