Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Training in the New Normal

The Role of the Virtual Classroom

During the past 6 months, there has been a major spike in the use of the virtual classroom as an alternative to the traditional classroom. There are many reasons why this is happening and why it is wise to do so. Here are some:

  • First, organizations have significantly cut back funding, forcing learning leaders to look for ways to deliver instructor-led training without travel.
  • Second, many organizations are less willing to pull their employees out for full or multi-day workshops. They would rather have the learning imbedded in the workflow, which is what spaced learning using the virtual classroom allows.
  • Third, the virtual classroom also allows training to scale more readily to a large, dispersed workforce in an environment that is continually changing.
  • Fourth, learners increasingly prefer to learn a bite at a time in the context of their work rather than all at once and away from their work.
  • Fifth, organizations are finding that when learning is spaced over time, there is a greater likelihood that skills will transfer more readily into the work-life of learners.

Although these are all excellent reasons for incorporating “Virtual Instructor-Led Training” (VILT) into an organizations learning landscape, there is another reason, that for me, is the most compelling.

Old Ways Die Hard
My parents were school teachers. We also had a dairy farm. One day, after my father had endured a rough day meeting with parents, he looked at me, as we were putting our boots on to go to the barn, and said, “You know, the more I’m around people, the more I like cows.”

I have grown to understand dad’s thinking. Cows, for the most part, are much easier to manage than people. For example, anyone who has tried to herd cows knows that it’s not hard to do. All you have to do is get them going in the right direction and avoid getting them spooked.

Thirty years ago, when I entered the learning profession, we all herded learners like I had herded cows. We drove them into classrooms, shut the gate, and fed them wonderfully designed training programs, doing all we could to “avoid getting them spooked.” Afterwards, we turned them loose, to graze on their own— until the next time when we were called upon to gather them up again and feed them another wonderfully produced training program.

We got away with this for a while, but at some point the learning landscape began changing and didn’t stop. The pace of this change has continued to increase in speed. It has also become turbulent and unpredictable. The children in our family have grown up during this accelerating environmental churn. They span Generation X and Generation Y (the Millennials). These generations are emerging as learners equal to these times. For the most part, they are aggressive, self-directed, rapid, adaptive, and collaborative learners. Certainly no one is going to herd them into classrooms, close the gate, and force-feed them a traditional course – at least not for any sustained period of time. Trying to do this would be like trying to herd cats. And there’s a high probability that those who cling to the old ways of training will, at some point, get scratched (see : ).

There is a “New Normal” that Calls for a New Way
In the visionary words of Yoggi Bera, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” There most certainly is a “New Normal” where the environment in which we work is in a state of accelerating churn. There will be no return to the calm, predictable past. The realities of this New Normal compel us to alter how we profess learning. We can’t cling to old paradigms. I’m not suggesting we cast them completely aside or even “shift” them. Instead, we need to create new paradigms that fully fit this “New Normal” and at the same time provide bridges from the old paradigms for those who need or want to walk them.

Perhaps another farm insight could help illustrate what I mean by a “paradigm bridge.” One of my jobs, as a young boy, was to teach new calves how to drink milk from a bucket. This was not a natural thing for any calf to do. Their nature and experience was to seek milk from an upward source. I used a paradigm bridge to help calves embrace a completely new paradigm (i.e., drinking from a bucket.) I would put three milk-soaked fingers into the mouth of a calf and gradually nudge its nose downward toward the bucket. The calf would often resist, but I would bring the bucket up as far as I could, and with handfuls of milk channeling through my fingers into the mouth of the calf finally get the nose down and into the bucket of milk. By doing this, several times, over a short amount of time every calf completely change its inherent paradigm—how it drinks milk.

Now, the New Normal generation of learners probably isn’t in need of paradigm bridges. They are the ones defining the new paradigms needed for these times. They’re embracing and pushing the evolution of Web 2.0 and 3.0 technologies to facilitate the immediate collaborative resolution of their learning needs and wants. Those of us outside this aggressive, self-directed, rapid, adaptive, and collaborative approach may need a bit of help across the bridge into this “New Normal” way of learning with its ever fluent supporting technologies.

So Here’s the More Compelling Reason
The virtual classroom can provide a crucial paradigm bridge for our time to help facilitate the journey into the mindset of a rapid, adaptive, collaborative, self-directed learner – a learner who can learn at or above the speed of change. Recently while speaking with a group of learners about the New Normal, one of them said, “I’m a Gen Y in a Baby Boomer’s body.” No matter the generation, the reality of our times compels us to this new mindset. Eric Hoffer pegged it right:

In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.
It is in the virtual classroom where trainers can help learners bridge their informal and formal learning efforts. Here trainers can help build meaningful bridges to unleash the full potential of social networking. Here they can orchestrate a total Learning Ecosystem™ to sustain agressive learners at all five moments of learning need. Here, regardless of anyone’s generational genesis, trainers can help them cultivate the capacity they need to learn, unlearn, and relearn in the New Normal.

A Caution: Calling it VILT Doesn’t Mean it's Effective VILT
For more than 10 years, Bob and I have developed and proven in our client work an approach to Virtual Instructor-Led Training (VILT) where learners achieve outcomes that actually far surpasses traditional face-to-face training. We employ an approach we call GEAR. It is a blended “Spaced Learning” approach where learning is spread out over time. This allows participants to learn and immediately apply what they learn in their professional lives.

This approach is different from the majority of live, web delivered classes offered in organizations today where learners merely meet online and that’s it. In the GEAR model, “Gathering online” is only part of the learning journey. Following every session participants “Expand” upon and personalize their understanding of what they have learned. They take steps to “Apply” what they have learned into their work life. They also report on their efforts and “Receive direct feedback.” This feedback is where virtual trainers deliver their greatest value. It is the key to accelerated learning.

True VILT requires greater instructional rigor in its development and delivery than what has typically been expended in the development of traditional “Instructor Led Training” (ILT). This isn’t to say that the same rigor isn’t called for, but the lack of instructional rigor can be more readily masked and at times compensated for in the traditional ILT classroom.

The bottom-line? Just because someone claims that training will take place in the virtual classroom, This may or may not be the case. Organizations can achieve a consistent high-yield “Return on Instruction” (ROi) in their VILT. This return can potentially exceed traditional ILT but it requires an instructionally sound, blended spaced-learning approach. The GEAR model provides a practical framework for accomplishing this.

The Traditional Classroom Doesn’t Have to Die—It Just Needs to Change
None of this suggests that traditional training has to disappear. The personal connection that can take place when people gather in person is unmatched. Unfortunately, we too often misappropriate learning time spent in traditional classrooms with low level learning that could readily be accomplished in other, more efficient ways. This is a subject that merits discussion beyond this article. A crucial question for any learning leader to ask is “What is it that we can only accomplish by physically gathering together to learn?” The answer to this question may very well lead us to places we have not yet gone. But this is certain, it will be a better place for the organizations and the people we serve.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience and expertise. I have cut and paste some point and plan to send it to the team of IDs and trainers that I work with.