By Dan Anderson, CMRP, CRL, MBA, Manager, The Life Cycle Institute
True learning is intended to change behavior to produce a desired result. Gone are the days of boring old PowerPoint presentations and lectures that pass as training. This is especially true when it comes facilitating education in a virtual environment. Today’s student requires an activity-based platform that focuses on specific learning objectives. When designing this type of education, you have to begin with the end in mind. What would you like the student to remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and/or create? Building focused learning objectives that go through these levels of understanding is essential. Adults learn much differently than children. The content needs to be relevant and activity-based, and participants need to bring their prior knowledge to the table.
In March 2020, the world was thrown a curve ball when social distancing became the “new normal.” Many of us were asked to work from home, which entailed creating a distraction-free work space and familiarizing ourselves with video conferencing platforms like Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, and Skype. Coupled with this change, my team was tasked to transition to the virtual world while continuing our business of providing meaningful training solutions to the maintenance and reliability community. We had to quickly develop and deploy a strategy to convert our instructor-led workshops into virtual deliveries with the same quality our students had come to expect. This was no small task and required a collaborative effort between our instructional design team, course facilitators, training coordinators and administrators.
Some might think, “How hard can it be? You just deliver the classroom content / slides via the online platform and you have a virtual class.” Unfortunately, it’s not that easy when you are switching group activities from a classroom environment to virtual. Determining how your content can be delivered effectively in the virtual environment should be a proactive, planned effort. A common misunderstanding is assuming education from the physical classroom can be delivered online without modifications. This approach can negatively impact student commitment, lead to technology challenges, and reduce the effectiveness of the training. Depending on the level of engagement (basic, interactive, advanced), developing one hour of classroom time (in-person and virtual) can take anywhere from 40-60 hours of a professional instructional designer’s development time.
In a traditional classroom setting, facilitators would use flipcharts to have teams discuss a topic and learn from each other. Our team required a video conference platform that would allow us to conduct breakout sessions and facilitate these activities. Zoom awarded us the capabilities to have group activities (with whiteboards), on-line polls, and share content / handouts in a seamless manner. We quickly agreed on the virtual platform and started working on developing course content – maintaining our existing learning objectives while keeping the learner engaged.
Since the classroom content already existed, it required chunking the curriculum into a scalable format that would translate well to the student through Zoom. Focusing on the content-participation and review methodologies already in place, our instructional design team partnered with subject-matter experts to eliminate non-value-added modules and optimize the time spent on a specific topic. Having our students engaged was the first priority because there are plenty of distractions that could pull them away from the training while working from home.
Additional aspects to consider were the length of the virtual course and selecting dynamic course facilitators who would exceed expectations through the online platform. Many of the activities from our classroom environment did not transition to virtual. We integrated videos and sections from our self-paced eLearning modules to catch the students’ attention. More frequent breaks, and abbreviating the days from eight hours to six hours, was essential in our re-design. Having a producer join the facilitator in a delivery was a key ingredient to avoiding any technical difficulties that may take place during a workshop. We wanted to partner with facilitators who would lead the way in creating satisfied students in order to promote on-line learning as an effective alternative. Some facilitators felt comfortable in the virtual environment and others did not adapt to the on-line delivery mechanism that was required during this period.
When it came to our initial virtual delivery, our facilitators were well-prepared and excited about the opportunity to deliver from the comfort of their own home. Prior to the virtual delivery, we conducted several practice sessions of the new content to ensure the facilitator was comfortable and ready to lead. We had formally prepared our students to have a reliable internet connection and log in from a distraction-free environment. Furthermore, high-level tutorials on the functionality of Zoom were provided by the producer before the students even entered the virtual classroom.
As the students went through the virtual experience, they were engaged and had nothing but great things to say about what they learned using the Zoom platform. It was wonderful to hear their testimonials and how it surpassed their preconceived expectations. Many appreciated the opportunity to have the facilitator readily available without having to sacrifice the time and money invested for travel. These students are now equipped to bring back to their companies the knowledge and skills to support their reliability programs.
The ultimate goal was to create real-life scenarios for students to solve issues that relate to their actual work environment in maintenance and reliability. Facilitators promoted teamwork by inspiring students to work in groups and learn from each other. And they encouraged participants to integrate learning into their everyday routine. Designing these activities into a virtual environment truly made an impact on students’ understanding of best practices and supported a new way of learning. As a result of the pandemic, educational institutions across the globe have faced a number of challenges, including the move to distance learning and finding new ways to support students. With the right technology, coupled with rigorous focus in instructional design, learning can take place at any time, anywhere, and in any way. The crisis of today has opened up the door for the future of learning in our workplace.