News story

Why businesses turned to digital learning to get them through pandemic year

Ilkley Learning NewsVirtual College by Netex

Now they are a year on from the start of the pandemic and starting to come through the other side, Virtual College, a leading digital training provider based in Yorkshire, looks back and reflects on what they have learnt from this year, what trends they have seen and what other businesses can learn from these insights.

Hannah Brindle Virtual College Managing Director
Hannah Brindle Virtual College Managing Director 

The significant trend is the major shift to digital learning. With offices closing and workforces having to work from home, businesses had to make this shift. This resulted in L&D professionals across all industries having to adapt to a remote working setting and develop training that will translate into this new way of working.

Virtual College first noticed this shift when there was an unprecedented increase in learner numbers, with over 850,000 learners accessing their learning management systems since March 2020, a huge influx which has taken their overall learner numbers to over 4.5 million. On top of that, there was an incredible uptake of their training packages, especially their COVID-19 support package, which has had 195,000 registrations since its release in March 2020.

‘This exponential growth in learner numbers, literally overnight, was incredible. It quadrupled our learner numbers with over 20,000 learners on our platform every day,’ explains Hannah Brindle, managing director at Virtual College. ‘We quickly realised the hunger for accurate information about the new world we found ourselves in, so we made sure businesses had the support they needed on things like infection prevention, remote working through to mental health and wellbeing. Businesses needed to find a way of easily educating and upskilling their people in a quick and effective manner - digital learning being the obvious answer.’

Through a number of business roundtable events that Virtual College held last year, where they explored different Covid related challenges, it became clear that this move to more remote working required a change in how the L&D community needed to approach learning. The delegates shared their experiences of needing to rapidly change the business tools they relied on, the working policies they were using as well as their approach to learning – moving to a digital or blended model where the learner had more control and autonomy over their learning. This has meant an increasing use of different digital technologies as well as the need to upskill on the advantages of different digital and blended formats to achieve desired learning outcomes.

This shift to digital learning is also reflected in a survey Virtual College carried out, which over 2,000 learners completed. The research aimed to better understand a learner’s perspective on the changes they had seen and experienced over the last 12 months. A report detailing and analysing the results will be released in the summer, but some key findings are set out below:

  • Over 58% of learners said digital training had been introduced in the past 12 months.
  • When asked what learners liked about digital training, 85% of the learners said the ability to access it anywhere and complete it at their own pace and time.
  • 89% said that they would turn to online training first if embarking on learning a new skill, whether at work or in their personal lives. This was followed by videos (51%), books (50%) and face-to-face lectures or seminars (36.5%).

The learners’ sentiments are also reflected in the impressive uptake of online courses which have been included in the Department for Education’s initiative An Hour to Skill. Designed to help people build up their skills and career capital, the initiative includes several free courses from a variety of organisations and businesses from Amazon Web Services to The Open University and Virtual College. Virtual College found huge uptake of their courses with over 27,000 learners accessing their course suite, with the most popular course being their growth mindset course.

What businesses can learn from this shift to digital delivery

Overall, it has been a learning curve for all businesses as they figured out how to adapt to the challenges the year presented. Early on, Virtual College realised that their focus had to be on their ‘ready-to-go’ training, which businesses can easily purchase and use, rather than bigger, more complex bespoke projects.

‘It was very much a year where people had to react. There was a substantial rise in ready-to-go style training, as organisations didn’t have the time to develop fully bespoke solutions. Businesses suddenly found themselves needing to find easy, digital alternatives to their face-to-face training,’ explains Hannah Brindle.

As the world comes out of the pandemic, Virtual College believes it’s imperative for organisations to seriously consider their digital learning approaches long-term, especially now they are out of this initial reactive phase. They should seek advice and support to look at more sustainable digital delivery learning models going forward. Virtual College predict that there will be much more emphasis on a continuous approach to learning rather than a focus on a one-off training intervention, as they believe businesses and their employees will move towards learning in small nuggets on a daily basis rather than an annual focus on one or two main training interventions.

This is a change they have already started to see happening. In March this year, they released a Leadership and Management training suite, which included eight courses, and businesses could purchase the whole suite or the specific courses they needed. Since its launch a couple of months ago, they have seen a large uptake of the courses and packages.

Simon Falconer, Chief Marketing Officer at Virtual College, shares his thoughts on this positive start. ‘Whilst leadership and management training has traditionally been seen as training best delivered in a face-to-face setting, we have seen a big shift in people’s willingness to transition over to digital in the last six months. This has been made clear from the strong uptake we’ve seen across our recently launched leadership and management training suite. Businesses are becoming increasingly aware they need strong leaders and managers to navigate through difficult and challenging circumstances and it’s clear they are keen to invest in developing their people to support their business goals and objectives, and with employees now working remotely they are looking at new ways and means to deliver this training and seeing how digital training can help plug the gap.’

Alongside this, businesses should continue utilising the online collaboration tools that so many turned to during the last year. They have been valuable in allowing fruitful conversations to continue and connections to remain in place, and there is no doubt that social collaboration tools will be fundamental to learning in the future.

Virtual College’s survey states that just shy of 60% of learners said they use social communication tools (ie. Microsoft Teams or Slack) to share ideas and knowledge. And of the people who didn’t, the majority of them said they would use them if available.

It is insights like these which help support the idea that businesses should also keep their learners in mind. Hannah Brindle explains further, ‘As employees have experienced much more freedom and flexibility in how they work, they are now increasingly expecting this in how they learn. Learners will expect more autonomy and more control over their learning than ever before. How they learn, when they learn, and what learning resources they use.’

Businesses should see the positives in this autonomy. Through greater learning autonomy and the ability to make personal decisions over learning will come greater employee engagement – and ultimately better organisation performance.