by E. Sprague | May 4, 2020 | 5 Min Read

A Skeptic’s Assessment of Virtual Learning (Pros and Cons)

Focused woman wearing headphones using laptop, writing notes

This article is written by our featured guest writer, Erin Sprague.

On the first day of my new job at a large organization, I was given the keys to a shiny new virtual learning program. Every new salesperson at our company (upwards of 1,500 learners per year) had to complete it to learn the organization's sales process and improve their sales skills.

I was highly skeptical; my years of experience in designing and facilitating sales training programs were all in a traditional classroom setting. I had instant access to my learners, giving me the ability to coach and provide them feedback with ease.

But there I was, faced with a completely virtual approach to learning.

In this blog, we will walk through my skepticism of virtual training, discover the benefits of virtual classrooms, and discuss some disadvantages to keep in mind.

Characteristics of Virtual Classrooms

The online employee training system my employer implemented was entirely virtual, conducted over eight weeks. Previously, as an in-person training instructor, the concept of online learning was foreign to me.

I learned that some positive characteristics of a virtual classroom included being mobile accessible and self-paced, which was very convenient.

The content came in a variety of modalities:

I appreciated that the company could quickly and easily put employees through this new virtual learning program, but I was still doubtful of the course's ability to improve sales skills.

Questions About e-Learning Workplace Training

My limited experience with online learning platforms looked something like this:

I had a million questions:

How do you hold learners accountable for participating in the class?

How do you determine if their skills are improving?

How do you keep learning both fun and engaging?

Won't learners hate being remote?

How can people focus if they are on their computers?

Eight weeks is too long – wouldn't we be able to teach it faster if it were in person?

Nonetheless, I engaged in my company's virtual training program (not that I really had a choice).

The Pros and Cons of Virtual Classrooms

Let me tell you – the best way to get on board with something new is to be in a position where you are the change champion.

The organization I was working for invested heavily in an e-Learning program and empowered my team to support the delivery of the course.

I took a mental note of my objections and concerns then put myself in the learner's seat. Here's what I found out.

1. Virtual learning gives you the gift of time

Time is where most learning professionals feel the pressure from stakeholders and internal clients. The desire to shorten ramp-time, get people trained "faster," and reduce classroom time are all understandable.

However, this is where we need to dig deep and challenge our clients – is the desire to have team members complete a training course or improve their overall performance?

One of the most significant benefits of online training programs is the time you get back on your calendar. No travel, no 1-2 days out of the office, no day-long classes where you try to sneak in some email time or a bio break.

Virtual education also gives you an adequate amount of time to learn a new skill. Can you learn a new language in 1-2 days of study? Have you ever lost 30 pounds in 1 week? Anybody?

Yeah, me neither.

Most studies insist that habits repeated over extended periods lead to permanent change. A one to two-day juice cleanse or taking a crash course in Spanish may provide quick results, but not lasting change or knowledge retention.

Quick-fix solutions don't work because they don't allow us the time to grasp and "habit-ize" our new skill. Virtual learning harnesses microlearning (1-2 hours a week), combined with actionable feedback from a manager or peers, and the ability to ask questions over a consistent time frame.

The essential skills of online learning that employees need are not acquired overnight (yet).

2. Your e-Learning facilitator can make all the difference

In terms of learner engagement levels in the virtual classroom, my virtual experience proved to be consistent with my in-person one.

If the facilitator leveraged a Socratic approach – asking questions and encouraging learners to share their ideas and perspectives to drive the session – I was engaged.

If the facilitator opted to "stick to the script," re-teaching the lessons verbatim and communicating course objectives statically, it was easy to tune out.

One of the key traits of a good facilitator is one who can "flip their classrooms," to ensure learners are sharing what they know and providing helpful coaching and feedback to guide the discussion.

Not everyone is a Hermione Granger, eager to answer questions and share opinions. In virtual classrooms, facilitators can leverage polls, whiteboards, chat boxes, and even GIFs and memes. Learners can then participate in a way that feels relevant and accessible without using their "voice" every time.

Turning on learners' cameras is a must. Visual presence helps drive attention, accountability, and engagement. The more consistent facilitators are with this class norm, the more comfortable people get with it over time.

3. Virtual facilitation is more accessible to learners

Another fringe benefit of virtual instructors is they are far more accessible (without using lots of their own time).

When I think back to my in-person facilitation days, I handed out my business cards, shared my email, and even encouraged participants to connect via LinkedIn. Yet, very few learners would follow up or reach out to me.

For the internal stakeholders and clients who are fearful that 1:1 coaching and feedback opportunities will disappear in a virtual program, they don't.

Program participants can easily send messages, ask questions, and share notes with virtual facilitators (and they do). Facilitators can just as simply provide asynchronous coaching and feedback when they have time to do so.


4. Easily track and measure valuable data points

Curious about how many learners completed the activities in a particular e-Learning lesson?

Want to know what percent of learners were "disengaged" in last week's session?

Need to review the learner's skill growth over a multi-month period?

Learning management systems, like Spoke LMS, can provide you with tremendous, yet granular, insights with little to no effort through valuable dashboards and reporting.

Finally, you can assess and track employee training results. Manage and adjust your learning programs accordingly using the data points that mean the most to your business.

Your confidence in online employee learning programs will exponentially grow as you see how each learner's experience, behavior, and skill growth impact real-world business results.

5. Virtual learning can be too much of a good thing (cons)

After reviewing both the qualitative data and quantitative results, our company's team members genuinely enjoyed learning online.

However, where the feedback is negative, we see some common themes:

  • Failing technology.
  • Feeling like all of their learning is eLearning or virtual.
  • Being overwhelmed by too many platforms to navigate.
  • Feeling like they didn't get enough feedback or support in the program.

When organizations make sweeping changes like going "completely virtual" or "completely in-person" for learning, there will always be some fall-out. Find the sweet spot for your organization.

Take Advantage of e-Learning in the Workplace

E-Learning, virtual instructor-led training, and in-person instructor-led training can co-exist happily. Stakeholders and learners alike respond positively to having options.

I hope that my experiences and takeaways helped you see why online learning is important for the future success of the learners in your organization.

Want to learn more about the benefits of e-Learning for employee training and development? Looking to create online training for employees and implement it ASAP, given the current situation around COVID-19?

Contact Unboxed Training & Technology today – your partner in corporate training.

Erin Sprague is a seasoned sales professional, career coach, and learning & development leader. She has a passion for connecting the dots between capability analysis, feedback from business leaders, and sales results, in order to create training & development programs that allow learners to thrive, and drive results for the organization.

A native of Western Michigan, Erin is a recent transplant to Washington, D.C after spending 15 years in Chicago, Illinois. She has worked for companies large, (Hilton, Kraft Heinz), medium (Groupon), and small (Trustwave), always in or alongside sales teams. She has delivered consistent results for these companies – driving participation, engagement, performance, and high satisfaction across trainees.

Take this opportunity to ask for advice from an industry expert about the best practices and potential pitfalls about transitioning to virtual training.

More articles like this one