Virtual Learning is not just a change in where we deliver learning, but rather a change in the way we design it. In this series, i will explore some of the underlying ideas, and some practical tips and techniques for the creation of virtual learning experiences that are rigorous, engaging, and effective.
There are a bewildering host of terms used to describe the design of learning and the varied mechanisms of delivery, almost none of which have commonly understood meaning: from distance learning to remote, virtual learning to digital, mobile learning to distributed.
I am going to use the term ‘virtual’ to describe learning that is delivered primarily through technology, but which includes live online sessions and support, as well as participation within a learning community. But really, i would always say that our primary interest should just be in ‘learning’, because good design focusses on outcomes and the journey to get there, through whatever channel.
Even within this definition of Virtual Learning, i will make a further distinction: between ‘Event’ based, and ‘Experience’ based, which broadly means the difference between one off short sessions (like a webinar), and programmatic approaches, which see multiple touch points over time.
It’s primarily the latter that i am interested in, as it is this which has the greatest potential for delivering quantifiable learning (if we design it right, and support it well).
I say that not simply because of the technology that powers it, but rather because Virtual Learning approaches that deliver an experience allow us to do some fundamentally useful things: we can spread the learning out over time (spaced repetition), we can create opportunities for rehearsal within the learning itself, we can be grounded in the everyday reality of the learner, and hence we can focus on the skills, capabilities, and behaviour change needed in a really dynamic and iterative way.
Or to put it more simply: event based learning allows us to think about things, whilst experience based learning allows us to actually try new things out within the context of the learning itself.
Or to put it yet anther way: event based learning is always inherently abstract, leaving us with the challenge of putting it into action, whilst experience based learning is inherently applied (still leaving us with a challenge, but an easier one: to relate action back to framework and theory).
TIP: create experiences to explore, not simply events to attend. That is not to say that we should not do stand alone events, but when we do so, ensure that there are parallel ‘sense making’ sessions, or that they are signposted into a broader narrative.
The pandemic has forced many Organisations to move learning away from face to face delivery, into remote contexts, with great speed. But it’s worth remembering that the move to Virtual is more than simply a change in the ‘where’ we deliver, it’s a change in the cognitive context of delivery. It’s learning coming to us, rather than us to the learning, which may sounds trivial, but has significance when you consider it in terms of the three spaces that an Organisation should maintain.
Learning is where we bring something new in, whilst Performance is where we put it into action. Many Organisations almost entirely miss the central stage, of Rehearsal. A Socially Dynamic Organisation, by contrast, will clearly hold all three spaces: clear spaces to learn, clear spaces to rehearse (prototype, loop, experiment, feedback), and clear spaces for Performance.
It is much easier, in the context of Virtual Learning Design, to include Rehearsal space within the learning design itself, as part of the journey. So although the context of the shift is a difficult one, an outcome may be positive in terms of the quality of learning we are able to design.
Let’s look back at the central topic of ‘Virtual Learning’, but this time put three lenses onto it: ‘Outcome and Effectiveness’, ‘Method and Modality’, and ‘Scaffolding and Space’.
The first set represents why we are doing the learning in the first place: it’s about the disturbance that bought us here, and the question (at least in Organisational Learning) of how we will be better able to do our job at the end of it.
The second represents the method by which learning is designed, and the mechanisms by which it is delivered: it’s about how rigorous we are in the design, and technically how we distribute it.
The third is about the ways that the learning is constructed to account for tacit knowledge and experience, and the spaces we have to learn and rehearse within.
Essentially the three spaces represent  what we want to achieve through the learning,  how we intend to achieve it and  the spaces and structure that we will do that within. We should be able to tackle each of these spaces in turn.
But a thing to look out for is to what extent the pressures of Organisational context force us to become fixated on the second one, and in particular the specific technologies of distribution, or the mechanisms of engagement.
So we talk about co-creation, about virtual, about remote, about journeys, but we are unable to answer the fundamental question of ‘what do you want to achieve. Why are we even building this learning solution?
Whenever a new project comes your way, ask that fundamental question: what are we trying to achieve, and pay particular attention to whether that is framed in terms of a description of interaction, or a definition of effectiveness. E.g. ‘lots of engagement and discussion’ or ‘high scores in post session feedback’ are not outputs that relate to outcomes and effectiveness.
Throughout this week i will share a short, practical series, exploring the context of Virtual Learning, intending to highlight some of the underlying design approaches, and providing some practical tips and techniques.