By Prof Tania Saritova Rath, XIM University, Bhubaneswar
Remote learning refers to a learning scenario where the learner and instructor are separated by physical distance and can not meet to learn face to face(F2F) as in a traditional classroom setting. With the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic remote working and remote learning has become the buzz word which no longer needs an explanation. Each and every employee had experienced remote work in the form of work from home(WFH) and was exposed to some amount remote learning delivered online with the help of internet and video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Team, Cisco WebEx, Google meet , Go To Webinar etc. Technology has proved to be the saviour and enabler in the time of a global health crisis which kept the hearth burning amidst pandemic for many businesses that continue to survive , operate and generate income.
Companies worldwide have been using technology for quite some time for providing any time any where learning to their employees. Stand alone or web based learning via computer devices like desktop, laptop and even mobile was being encouraged. Developed organizations have set up their learning portals with e’ learning courses uploaded for any time any where access by its employees. The pandemic has transformed the otherwise ‘nice to have facility’ to a ‘must have’ capability to be applied in a massive scale to build skills of the employees in the new normal of remote working. The learning and development function has taken the centre stage to enable organizations to innovate and survive the pandemic. They have emerged as the business partners and consultant to not only train people with the new technological skills to gain from remote learning webinars but also to enable them to cope with the stress and anxiety of an overwhelming health crisis. Learning and development heads were redesignated as the Chief Connection Officers or Chief mental Health Officers by various organizations. Remote working required more learning support in the absence of face-to-face informal learning from peers, superiors and even subordinates at the workplace. The experience has shown that remote learning has boomed in last one year in many organizations. In fact, it had ensured the expected performance from employees to not only prevent derailing of the business but also to keep the business in a functional path to ensure growth amidst the recession caused by the pandemic.
This remote learning is technology enabled and different from traditional pen and paper distance learning or correspondence courses. It is enabled by both synchronous and asynchronous virtual learning. While organizations were providing asynchronous eLearning courses via internet or intranet to be accessed at employee convenience, the year 2020-21 has seen massive conversion of in person instructor led training(ILT) courses into Virtual instructor led training(VILT) courses. A virtual classroom is defined as a synchronous online learning environment that “not only delivers course materials to learners, but also provides a live, contextual, and interactive environment for learners. It supports active learning by providing an environment with the learning tools, learning materials, and opportunities for contextual discussion”(Yang & Liu, 2007, p. 171–172). Platforms like Zoom provide log in facility for conducting virtual classroom in web
conferencing mode. Trainees log in at the appointed time clicking on the meeting link to join the web meeting. Many of the features of F2F learning was replicated by virtual learning platforms. Discussions boards, white boards, breakout rooms, file sharing, interactive engagements through polls and chat boxes were the enhanced features to replicate personal touch of traditional face to face learning scenario. In fact, they saved the employee learning by enabling the shift to remote platform. The trainer can follow up with home assignments that foster practical knowledge. Side by side innovations in remote learnings were also happening in the form of podcasts, multimedia cases, micro learning, byte sized learning and webcasts which can be delivered in a virtual classroom and accessed any time as well. Blending synchronous and asynchronous virtual learning has been done for greater effectiveness. Experiments in AI, Machine learning may further enhance the personal touch of Virtual training.
Till now the compulsion of the situation provided the testing ground for companies using the virtual learning platforms and tools. As organizations realize the power and benefits of remote learning, they are likely to innovate further in this direction to reap the benefits.
The benefits are far flung as listed below:
1. A virtual classroom ensures human connection. The trainee can interact with the instructor and co-trainees, engage in a discussion over the learning platform.
2. Another major benefit is the reach and scalability. It can be accessed by a large number of trainees dispersed across geographies which is a limitation in traditional classroom.
3. The cost is minimal. No travel cost, material cost or site rental are involved. Trainees can access the training with no fees or minimal registration fees. This improves ROI of training.
4. Virtual classrooms provide for synchronous learning but recordings are available to persons who missed the training for asynchronous learning also.
5. The provisions of discussion rooms or breakout rooms for small groups to engage in healthy interactive discussions drives peer learning.
6. Virtual learning is flexible and adaptable. Everyone can focus on the issues at hand and learn as per their need.
7. Flexibility to mix different learning modalities starting from guest speaker to presentations to videos and audios like in the traditional classroom.
8. It is possible to establish emotional connect in virtual learning scenario with the help of multimedia tools. They can gamify the content with the help of gamification software. The innovations with the help of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning may go further in making this connect stronger in future.
Due to the exigencies of the pandemic and immediacy to shift to virtual learning platform most of the organizations navigated the transition in a haphazard manner by modifying traditional face to face courses to virtual courses. The transition was reactionary. Now that they have recognized and reaped the benefit of remote learning , the time for a strategic planning to implement remote learning and training has arrived.
The following steps may be taken to facilitate remote learning in a virtual platform:
i. Choice of a learning platform and tool to suit organization and user needs.
ii. Design the content for virtual delivery by using multimedia tools to synchronize story boarding, animations, video and voiceovers for better impact.
iii. The instructor should take care to avoid cognitive overload on trainees by keeping the content to the point and focused on learning outcomes
iv. Inform the participants about the learning objectives and outcomes in advance. Pre work may be given for better engagement when the course starts.
v. Reflective learning opportunities should be provided with the help of breakout rooms in class and short assignments after class. Collaborative learning via social media platform may be encouraged.
vi. Features like virtual applause, chat box and polls may be used judiciously to enhance learner to learner, learner to instructor and learner to content interactivity and engagement.
vii. Feedback should be sought from trainees for further improvement in the course.
Organizations need to proactively plan for use of virtual learning tools to drive learning and development of its multigenerational employees. With Gen Z , the digital natives, entering the workforce , the demand for flexible learning opportunities on digital platform is going to rise in coming days. With intentional and strategic planning remote learning can be effectively blended with traditional learning tools in future to skill, reskill and upskill employees as need be.