From slick user-interfaces, attention-grabbing videos, seamless switching between devices, to interactive breakout rooms, virtual reality labs and immersive game-based scenarios, the implementation space of training program development holds endless possibilities for making learning impactful and enhancing engagement. But too much novelty can have your staff reaching for the exit button. In our fourth article in our 5 Ways to Step Forward into Tomorrow series, we’re taking a look at:
- Why you want to give your learners the best possible digital experience
- How to decide where innovation is most valuable and productive
- Our top tips for choosing the right technologies to keep learners motivated
- How to ensure your approaches are not just fads but also maximize learning gain
As virtual learning shifts towards the norm, let us help you decide what digital tools and considerations can be brought in to help keep your learners happy and focused while they train.
The challenges of virtual learning
An important, but often missed consideration during the implementation phase of the instructional systems design process ADDIE, is the pause before you press ‘Go’ to launch your new program. This is the moment to review what your learners’ full experience will be like. No matter how well-designed your eLearning is, it cannot be effective if your learners encounter barriers that mean they drop out part way through. So, what can we do to help keep our learners engaged and supported from behind a screen?
Face-to-face trainings have the advantage of being bi-directional. The trainer can see how the leaners are reacting to the content and use that feedback to make immediate judgements on when and how to adjust delivery and interaction to improve the learner experience, including putting in breaks as appropriate. This feedback can be harder to reliably obtain through virtual mediums such as online webinars, and training modules offer very little in terms of immediate user feedback.
Although many users value online learning due to its atomisation and anonymity, as they are not physically present in a classroom being observed by the facilitator and/or their peers, this can also contribute to non-engagement and a resistance to communication. eLearning attrition rates are generally high , for a variety of reasons including:
- Unclear course objectives and intended learning outcomes
- Lack of opportunities for multiway engagement or interactions with facilitators and other learners
- Insufficient or belated support, whether technological, personal, or professional
- Incompatible technologies – hardware and software alike
- A lack of time or motivation
- Complex multi-step log-in/save/log-off processes and poor system join-up
- Inaccessible, inefficient, or unappealing user interfaces
- Platform or program navigation difficulties
- Digital fatigue
Any barrier to learning that triggers disengagement carries professional and economic consequences for your company and for your staff. High drop-out rates mean learners are not being upskilled where knowledge and competencies gaps have been identified, so the needs identified at the analysis phase of you training program development are not being met. This has knock-on consequences into the quality of their professional performance, as well as into job satisfaction and sense of personal worth within the company, all of which carry economic and workplace belonging costs. You will also have invested time, money, and energy in building training that then falls flat at the last hurdle.
So, what can we do about it?
Identify possible problems and invest in innovation
Our first top tip is to return, as always, to your needs analysis. If you skipped this step, a quick questionnaire or even a consultation with a range of diverse colleagues is better than nothing to help you anticipate and overcome potential problems linked to the categories listed above. Take stock of the following:
- Where have learners identified problems with engaging with training programs in the past? Hopefully, you will have already addressed in the previous phases any issues linked to course design, intended outcomes, learner journeys, and assessment strategies. Now it’s time to look out for smaller issues rooted in the digital realm, such as poor communications, tricky logins, unexpected device incompatibilities, flawed audio or visual content delivery, dead links, recurrent error messages, and so on
- What were those problems, and have you directly addressed them this time?
- What quick fixes can be implemented now to resolve any that have been missed, and can you build in time (even retrospectively) to come up with a more sustainable solution if needed?
- Are there any accessibility issues that you need to solve, for example by changing font type or size, use of colors, or layout, providing captioning, etc.? (Remember: these changes generally benefit all learners, not just those with disclosed disabilities!)
- What can you do to set learner expectations so that they are prepared to navigate any ongoing technical barriers, rather than likely to be caught unaware by it? This isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card – you still need to fix them as soon as possible, but it can encourage learners to persevere if they know an issue exists and, even better, how to get help solving it!
Where known problems exist that have caused learner drop-off in the past, these are the places to invest time and money in now. Listen to your learners and reach out to your digital colleagues for solutions.
Finally, test, test, test your learning platform! Your digital colleagues can’t fix problems if they don’t know they exist, so make sure you have time to pilot the program with them before pinging that link out to your learners.
Implementing better virtual learning experiences
The potential to spice-up your learning environment and create a better learning experience is limited only by your budget and your imagination. So, where else can you innovate to enhance your program, maintain motivation, and maximize learning game at the implementation stage?
Start small! Although it’s easy to get excited about creative new learning approaches, like immersive environments, learning games, app-based assistants, and unique ways to interact – these may not be the most effective use of time and funds. If your learners have flagged problems with repetitive learning tasks and similar resources, this may be a good place to start. However, always keep in mind what technologies your learners are familiar with and able to get to grips with quickly and easily. Systems, software, and learning resources that require too much tech-savviness can quickly cause digital fatigue and prompt disengagement . Make sure you match-up any creative implementation methods with real-world needs of your learners that will help them translate learning into practice and that they can grasp quickly and easily so that they can focus on what they’re learning as well as how.
Navigation and communication: Improving your learner journey map and changing the language used to communicate training – moving away from words like ‘required’ or ‘mandatory’ to ‘recommended’ or ‘relevant’ may help the user feels as though they are actively deciding the ways in which they can shape their personal learning and development, without feeling pressured. Keeping ‘mandatory’ and hard deadlines for compliance or regulatory training will also help your learners organize their personal training timetable.
Social spaces: a key aspect often missing from virtual learning is the social component. Traditional face-to-face or group-based activities commonly use social interaction to facilitate learning, while online learning can be a lonely experience. Look for logical spaces where you can transfer part of your delivered learning content into activities that can be facilitated through live chats, polls, quizzes, and small-group breakout discussions. Timing is key to these activities and work better if done in short but regular bursts – polls and quizzes should only take a couple of minutes, whilst breakout rooms and live chats often need 10 minutes plus to become animated and effective. Give your learners opportunities to share stories, experiences, and lessons-learned to draw on the benefits of their professional experiences and relate learning to their own contexts for maximum effect.
Mental breaks: Whether you’re delivering a virtual training day or an hour-long workshop, encouraging time away from the screen, to go for a walk or grab a coffee, can help break up the monotony of staring at a screen and absorbing information. These sorts of “resets” are vital in the psychology of virtual learning. You can use short breaks to foster a sense of community too, such as slotting in a 5-minute breathing exercise or 10-minute set of stretches that can be done listening only to the audio, to support a group pause and reset.
Feedback: Face-to-face learning can facilitate interactive, immediate feedback, which has to be approached differently in the online learning space. While feedback mechanisms should be considered in the development phase of ADDIE, the implementation phase is another point to check that learner motivation can be sustained through timely and regular feedback points. Although non-live eLearnings, such as an online course or quiz, may lack the capacity to offer personalized feedback or answer questions in real time with a human facilitator, these platforms often allow for pre-programed feedback and answers to common questions, which will help keep your learners informed about their progress and able to correct any mistakes they have made. Feedback can also be boosted by assigning a bulletin board, Teams channel, or forum for each training subject where learners can interact freely or be directed through learning exercises in collaboration with their peers, as well as ask and answer questions for one another. If possible, regular feedback from a dedicated mentor or learning coordinator is a valuable investment.
Online or offline? With learning going digital, it’s easy to forget that material objects, particularly paper-based ones, carry learning value of their own. Imagine this: you have assigned 20 lengthy papers for your Medical Science Liaison (MSL) to read following a ground-breaking congress. It is imperative your MSLs read these papers and digest the data and key takeaways. Studies show that in a classroom setting, students generally absorb more when they are reading on paper than on screen, assisted by the multisensory impacts of being able to feel, hear, and smell the pages as they read. Online reading, by contrast, is visually demanding, can lead to shallower understanding, and trigger digital fatigue . So, what can we do?
It is neither practical nor environmentally friendly to expect learners to print out hundreds of sheets of paper, to be read once and then discarded. But other changes can be made to support a move from paper-based to online reading:
- Use plain-text formatting for long materials that require focus and concentration
- Adjust font type and size, and use larger line spacing with paragraph justification to make text easier to read
- Change, or encourage your learners to change, text and background colours – an off-white background with black or dark blue text can be more suitable for dyslexic learners and reduce eyestrain for others
- Encourage leaners to take their time to ensure they have understood all parts of the texts by providing activities, such as writing a 250-word summary of key data or produce a bulleted list of takeaways – a great way to support retention and ensure the leaner has acquired all of the necessary detail
- If you’re going to require learners to do a lot of reading throughout their professional career, consider investing in e-readers for your team, as these have been shown to reduce eyestrain and are superior to digital-text formats in terms of focus and retention . These could be offered as a bonus or on a payment plan via payroll for teams that train often and need to process substantial quantities of written information
As we move toward a future where blended learning becomes the ‘norm’, it is important to make sure that we continue to invest in and give consideration to the distinctive nature of online learning so that it can be maintained as a flexible, effective, and cost-efficient way to train.
 “Most effective ways to cut elearning drop-out rates,” Kotobe,2014. Available at: https://blog.kotobee.com/elearning-dropouts/
 Gutierrez, K. “25 ways to reduce drop-out rates in elearning,” ShifteLearning,2013. Available at: https://www.shiftelearning.com/blog/bid/272086/25-Ways-to-Reduce-Dropout-Rates-in-eLearning-Courses-Part-I
 Benson, K. “Reading on paper vs screens: what’s the difference?” BrainFacts.org.2020. Available at: https://www.brainfacts.org/neuroscience-in-society/tech-and-the-brain/2020/reading-on-paper-versus-screens-whats-the-difference-072820
 Jabr, F. “The reading brain in the digital age,” Scientific American,2013. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/