Experiences, tips, and tricks how virtual learning can be successful

Virtual learning has been popular for quite some time but has experienced a real boom during lockdowns and due to the increasing use of home office. Together with our customers we have gained exciting and instructive experiences: Here are our key learnings.

I made my first experiences with virtual learning about ten years ago with an EdX online course on “Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence”. I found the mix of videos, articles, tests, and study groups very stimulating and the professors were just as interesting and nerdy as one would expect for this topic. But what really helped me complete the course was the informal exchange on WhatsApp with a work colleague with whom I did the course.

Virtual training can be very versatile

Virtual learning was popular even before Covid-19 but has experienced a real boom during the lockdown phase and through the increasing use of home office. The conditions in times of Corona left our customers no choice but to switch to virtual learning formats and we could experiment together with them. Virtual learning can be very versatile, from fully automated online courses to virtual workshops, much falls into this category. In virtual workshops, the biggest challenge is to make it as engaging for the participants as possible. We try to achieve that by following these 4 basic principles:

Strengthen the personal level
The audio and video connection must be established for participants. Ideally, all participants should always have the camera switched on so that the trainers can keep in touch. Frequently addressing the participants directly with their name additionally strengthens relationship and trust.

Create space for interaction
Working in small groups allows parallel co-creation, gives energy, and enables the development of working relationships between the participants.

Formulate clear messages
Work assignments must be clearly formulated so that participants quickly understand what the task is. Instructions, templates, and guiding questions help to provide orientation. Every single instruction should be written down so that it can be re-read.

Encourage improvement and obtain feedback
Using Mentimeter, Slido or MS Forms, trainers can get live feedback during the workshop. This feedback allows the trainer to focus on specific topics or to adapt his or her moderation style during the training. In addition to the basic principles that accompany us during the design, implementation and follow-up of virtual learning formats, there are prerequisites and framework conditions that should be created in advance by the organizer or manager.

What organizers and managers should consider

Managers have a strong role model effect on their employees and the way in which trainings are framed by managers can have a strong impact on motivation. Managers and organizers of virtual trainings should therefore openly show how important the training of employees is for them. They should also support and encourage employees in how they can implement the training in their professional development.

Tip: Ask your employees if they can tell you about the highlights later. What were their top five insights?

How we learn virtually with our customers

Together with our customers we like to distinguish between synchronous and asynchronous learning. We do synchronous, virtual training in the form of joint online workshops where we guide a group of participants through the agenda. Our innovation team is currently working on asynchronous formats as well. This requires a lot of preparation time – for example, for producing short video clips. The advantage here is that participants can work through these courses independently. We find a mixture of the two types particularly exciting: “hybrid learning” or “blended learning”. The combination of self-study, virtual workshops and group work is what makes it engaging.

Synchronous, virtual learning

In synchronous, virtual learning, it is important to build up suspense and maintain it over the duration of the training. In order to get into an energetic, virtual working mode with our clients, we try to keep the time of content delivery as short as possible and instead give the participants the opportunity to experience and question tools, thought models and methods themselves.

  • Focus on experiencing and trying things out: We try to follow the ratio 25 – 50 – 25 percent: 25 percent of the time to convey new content, 50 percent of the time to let the participants experience and try out new things in groups or individual exercises and then use 25 percent of the time for reflection, exchange of experiences and discussion.
  • Use the right tools in the right mix: Two types of tools are essential for virtual workshops: a well-functioning video conferencing system (such as Zoom), which allows you to see as many participants as possible at the same time, and a powerful whiteboard solution (such as Miro or Mural), which allows you to work on the workshop content with the participants on a shared virtual workspace. Alternatively, or additionally, PowerPoint can be used, although virtual collaboration is only possible to a limited extent. 

In addition to the two essential tools (audio-video contact and virtual collaboration platform), live feedback tools such as Mentimeter are very helpful to visualize perceptions and to gather feedback live. But the right mix depends entirely on the target group and the content. For a group of executives of an industrial company, a different media mix is necessary than for an innovation team of a technology company. When introducing new, virtual tools, there is a fine line between stimulation and irritation. Even if a small part of the group is irritated or overwhelmed by a new software tool at the beginning, negative sentiment can run through the whole workshop.

Tip: Invite the participants to familiarize themselves with the new software tools through small exercises before the training and offer help for technical questions. Try to deliberately include analogous elements in the virtual training sessions (e.g. drawing, taking notes on a sheet of paper).

Blended learning

With “blended learning”, learning of new content can be done through watching appealing videos or reading inspiring articles before the workshops. The workshop offers a platform for joint reflection and discussion. Furthermore, workshops are well suited for working on tasks in small groups and then evaluating them. Alternatively, group work can also be outsourced if you want to use the synchronous workshop times differently. As with the right mix of tools, blended learning programs must always be designed with the target group in mind and adapted to their working rhythm. Software solutions or apps help to systematically implement larger blended learning programs. Quizzes, tests, games can also be integrated to emphasize the playful element.

The salt in the virtual soup

Apart from well-designed, virtual learning formats, the human aspect is very important for the success of trainings. Our recommendation for managers and organizers of virtual trainings is to talk with the trainers about informal, social interaction and to deliberately allow room for it – you can easily create WhatsApp study groups or a virtual wine tasting. Similarly to physical training programs, the joint evenings at the bar or teambuilding events are the salt in the soup, even if it is virtual.