Pivoting to Remote Training

Since about March, maybe a little later, we’ve been busy helping clients convert their in-person training to either remote instructor-led training or self-contained web-based training. It’s a challenge because it seems simple on the surface, and it may actually be simple…but based on our observations, it is apparently easy to get wrong.  

First of all, if you are thinking about this now, you are probably too late and probably underestimating the level of effort. Nobody allows enough time, even if it is part of a larger strategy. But if you are trying to react to the COVID-19 situation, the easy part is deciding to “go virtual.” After that decision, there are a ton of things to be figured out — instructional design issues, infrastructure issues, and capability issues to name three. There is a lot of planning, preparation, and practice before you should start doing.  

There are basically three scenarios to consider when switching to virtual training — from traditional instructor-led, in-person delivery to 

  • Instructor-led remote delivery 
  • Self-contained web-based training 
  • Shift away from training altogether to performance support 
  • There is a fourth option — a “blended” solution. But, though blended is often a better solution, blended solutions are really just a combination of the challenges of every component. 

Let’s start with the first scenario — shifting from traditional instructor-led to remote instructor-led training, either using a tool like “Go to Training” or just a web-meeting utility such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. We’ll address the others in later posts. 

The first consideration is, or should be, instructional design.1 This will drive the requirements for infrastructure, materials, application/transfer, and assessment. 

Time. One of the biggest changes from going virtual is the time available for instruction. Going from classroom to remote/virtual, that time is very likely to be reduced. Things take more time via a remote meeting software than in an in-person setting. Interaction is more structured — if you ask the group a question, you typically have to warn them. You have to watch a separate part of the screen to see if anyone is responding. You might have to remind them to turn their mic on (and wait for them to do it). This process compounds because it makes every interaction take a little bit longer.  

Learner Attention. Also, keep in mind that learners in a remote learning setting (often) aren’t really off the job. Or at the least, they are not 100% focused on the training. They may be sitting in a home office trying to fit the learning in along with job and personal tasks (read “emails, baby-sitting, contractor/household management, errands/etc.)  

To maintain attention in a virtual setting, you need to rely on activities and exercises to engage the learners. And those need to be strategically designed to create the intended learning. Solid purpose, clear instructions, debriefs to ensure/clarify the learning, and some kind of verification to make sure everyone actually did them. 

Content Delivery. Remote, online delivery lends itself to a “flipped classroom” approach, where content acquisition activities (instead of lectures, think readings, videos, interviewing experienced personnel, independent research) take place outside class time. Of course, you have to spend the time to  find and verify that those resources exist and fit your intent…unless you have the resources to create them. 

“Cut to the Chase.” Often instructor-led training is based on a single instructor’s view of what learners need to know. In a classroom situation, there is a great deal of flexibility in how the time is used (and often very little oversight).  When shifting to remote learning delivery, things need to be more structured and prepared in advance.  Quite often, learners will drive accountability — they will not hesitate to suggest more efficient uses of time or more effective ways to reach the course goals. In person, the learner has to sit there anyway but in a remote delivery setting, the learner could easily switch to doing something else…and often that something is nagging at their attention, so learners have increased motivation to “cut to the chase.” 

Infrastructure. The next consideration is infrastructure. For many corporate training programs, infrastructure can be taken for granted. But not everybody has a fast network at home. Or a printer that can crank out a two-sided course manual without using up a small hillock of toner.  

And, when you are doing the training, you need to figure out how to manage learner activities. When people need to do a breakout activity, where will they “go”? Maybe they can log into a separate team meeting, but then, how will you communicate with them to keep them on track? How will they hand in any assignments? All things that need to be figured out.  

Supporting Materials and Equipment. Even something as simple as a manual can present some challenges. Is it fair to expect people to print out a manual? Is it risky to distribute easily duplicated PDFs for learners to use? Will the advantages of using an electronic document (search, portability, highlighting and comments) be lost on less technically adept participants? 

For some technical training, the investment in lab equipment and simulators may present another significant obstacle. One client created simulator kits housed in a suitcase-style case sent to remote offices. (This ensures standardization but also makes it a little more difficult for the audience’ workplace to cannibalize them for parts). Individuals can check them out to complete training. In another case, a client company had learners log into a remote set of equipment simulators (housed in an unstaffed training facility) from their remote locations to complete exercises. Or it may be possible, in some situations, to create software simulators. 

There are also practical parameters that you really can’t overlook or minimize. You will need to decide on some organizational standards. For example, what is the maximum duration of a course that will be tolerated/accepted? Generally, more than two hour chunks are difficult to pull off. But if you can do a couple of sessions per day with homework in-between, before, and/or after, you can get a fair amount of learning time. But you need to keep time zone differences in mind.   

Capability. Finally, let’s look at instructor capability. There are knowledge/skills that need to be gained by instructors (and others) involved in remote training delivery. Some issues include: 

  • Planning is a must — it won’t work to wing it 
  • The instructor needs to be able to use the remote training tool — it may even be necessary to add a new role, the producer, who can focus on the mechanics while the instructor focuses on content and learning. The producer can watch for participants raising their hands, make sure the mics are muted (or not), confirm that the display/sharing is correct, monitor chat messages, and so on. 
  • Preparation — you have to think about how you are going to explain concepts, ask and address questions, debrief exercises when using the medium. You may not be able to draw. It may be a challenge to ask for and “flipchart” responses from the group. You may have to target questions to specific participants to ensure a response. 
  • Providing individual feedback — if the goal is to get each participant to a level of competence, the instructor will need to observe and provide feedback to an individual level at some degree. 
  • How to rely on or supplement external content delivery, e.g., reading assignments or “YouTube-style” videos viewed outside the class.  
  • Changing your perspective to learner-centered (vs instructor-centered) instruction. (Well…this is a good idea for in-person training as well.) 
  • Develop materials for delivery via remote — for instructors that build their own materials — a single computer screen is likely the entire real estate available. 

The key takeaways are obvious. Applying many of the above ideas will improve in-person training once things go back to normal. (Of course, things probably won’t go back – remote delivery is likely to continue as audiences learn to rely on it).  

But if the takeaways are obvious, it requires leadership to set the direction and provide the resources and support needed to be successful. Your team can almost certainly make this change, but they need to believe it is important (not just for the short term) and have the backing to get ready before being expected to risk their reputation trying something new. Make a plan, test in small increments, and be ready to learn quickly as you go. 

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