News story

The story of the Virtual Classroom, part one: how it leapt to prominence in the wake of the pandemic, and what it can offer beyond

Learning NewsKineo

In this three-part series, we’re focusing on the Virtual Classroom (VC) and Virtual Instructor-Led Training (VILT) to explore the impact of the pandemic, what Virtual Classrooms can offer for the future of learning and how new developments in the technology landscape can help to amplify this long-standing learning format. In this, part 1, we take a look at the latest research and explore the lessons that can be learned to help take this virtual learning format to the next level.

The rise of the Virtual Classroom and how best to make it work for you

Virtual Classrooms aren’t new, but soon after the start of the pandemic their inclusion in learning and development programmes skyrocketed. Research from independent industry analyst Fosway highlights that as many as 97% of organisations were using Virtual Classrooms soon after Covid-19 hit. And while some evidence suggests that VC adoption may now be slowing (Brandon Hall Group) as traditional training teams discover new and more diverse ways to digitally transform their training delivery, and whether you were on a similar journey with your face-to-face (f2f) training when Covid-19 struck, it’s clear that the Virtual Classroom is here to stay.

In 2020, many organisations had to quickly rethink how they structure and deliver workplace learning; with f2f training no longer an option it’s no real surprise that so many turned to Virtual Classrooms. In fact, according to the research, over half (53%) said that Virtual Classrooms were their most successful learning platforms during the pandemic, and they are being used in a range of different learning categories too. According to the survey, compared to pre-Covid, Virtual Classrooms have seen:

5x increase in use for high-value development programmes

This includes leadership and management training, which is a skills area we recently highlighted as in need of a boost in our previous blog: ILM research finds leaders and managers are lacking the key skills to manage well through a crisis. The fact that the pandemic has led organisations to use Virtual Classrooms for high-value development training presents an opportunity now to think beyond a straightforward 'lift-and-shift' of full training days to a virtual environment. The design and delivery should form part of (and be informed by) a wider virtual and digital blend, with careful consideration for what is covered during the live session and what can be delivered through other virtual means before, during or afterwards.

19x increase in use for coaching and mentoring

This is a clear demonstration of how Virtual Classrooms have the potential to be about much more than delivering content or training (in fact, we’d almost certainly call that a webinar). The smaller group format and collaboration aspect of Virtual Classrooms provide the opportunity to include mentoring/coaching types of learning, such as positive role-modelling and informal feedback, and support during tasks.

400% increase in use for external training delivery

Bringing in experts to deliver training is nothing new, and so it’s no surprise that this too shifted to a virtual format during the pandemic, but does this now present an opportunity to take advantage of remote/virtual delivery to bring in experts that might previously have been out of reach – whether due to budget or geographical constraints?

Clearly, the pandemic meant a step-change for many organisations, but the Virtual Classroom format has been around for a long, long time. A lot of the advantages are obvious:

  • Location independent: virtual delivery means you can easily reach a global/remote workforce (or bring in remote-based 'experts').
  • Reduced costs for delivery: in a virtual format, there’s no need to worry about booking a location, providing lunch and covering travel costs.
  • As part of a blended learning design: the ability to link to other digital approaches in a blended learning programme and tools such as an LMS.

It should be said that there is no silver bullet when it comes to converting traditional f2f training and learning to a virtual format, but we can certainly look to the Virtual Classroom to provide the connectivity and dynamic engagement of a more traditional classroom setting. You just need to think smart about its use within the learning blend and how to get the best from it!

So, where do you start?

As we’ve already touched on, fundamental to the success of any Virtual Classroom design is to ensure the sessions are developed as a core part of and to work alongside all the other elements of a virtual learning blend. Whilst it can be tempting to 'lift-and-shift' all the various elements of an existing f2f programme (not only content, but the delivery, structure, exercises and tasks), careful consideration should be given to what might work best (and give the most value) in the Virtual Classroom environment and what could be covered outside of the session.

Once you’ve identified the Virtual Classroom as a key component, here are some of the practical considerations to think about:

What can be done before or after the live session?

When considering what needs to be covered in the session, and what can take place elsewhere, start by looking at your aims and objectives and consider what sort of resources, content or tasks can be developed (or already exist elsewhere). You can then look at which elements of the course could be delivered before or after and which parts will benefit from being explored during the live session. The preparedness of participants is a key success factor, so think about the learning tasks and activities you can set to engage learners ahead of the session – from pre-reading to videos and reflective tasks.

What tech do I have?

Before getting into the detail of the session design, it’s worth reviewing the practical, technical options available to you. Consider what sort of digital learning you already support, and how the Virtual Classrooms will interact with and support this – do you have an LMS, and will that be where you host related content? The tool you use to deliver the sessions is also important; Virtual Classrooms can be delivered by many tools, from learning-specific suites such as Adobe Connect or Cisco Webex Training to simpler chat and collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams, which has experienced a boom in the last year. In fact, the Fosway research found that 70% of organisations are using Teams in at least part of the Virtual Classrooms approach – interestingly, though, only 10% rate it as effective for training. Since the research was conducted, however, and as recently as this month, Microsoft has released a number of functional upgrades which place it ever closer to the more specialised learning tools, which are feature-rich with advanced interactions, breakout rooms, LMS integration and, as expected, off-the-shelf content from LinkedIn Learning. We see Teams as a core challenger, not just to the likes of Adobe Connect and Webex, but large content library providers too. Look out for part 2 in our Virtual Classrooms blog series for more!

Keep it simple

Designing good content for a Virtual Classroom session requires some preparation, and it is always worth keeping things as simple as possible as there are fewer ways in which you can command attention. There is a danger that learners can get lost or overwhelmed, so only use elements and tools that your learners can comfortably follow and build in regular interaction and feedback activities to sense check learning, just like you would in an in-person session.

Download our guide to creating a killer Virtual Classroom session.

Our Virtual Classroom services

We’ve designed Virtual Classroom solutions for organisations including BP, ING, KPMG, City & Guilds and Coats. Our design team can provide the skills transfer or design input needed to put together engaging and effective virtual sessions. We can:

  • Design sessions and create facilitator guides.
  • Create fully branded and professionally produced slides and images.
  • Develop learning assets such as videos and animations to embed within the sessions.
  • Design and create useful takeaways in PDF and other formats.
  • Review your existing Virtual Classrooms and make recommendations for enhancing them.
  • Train your teams to design and deliver effective Virtual Classrooms.

We can design Virtual Classrooms as part of an overall blend or as a discrete learning approach. Coming up in part 2 of this series, we’ll take a look at the technology and tools that have ramped up their capabilities and how you can use them to improve your Virtual Classroom experiences.

Get in touch to speak with one of our team.