Along with hand-washing, disinfecting, and social distancing, Zoom has become part of life for many during the pandemic. The platform, along with other video services, has been a lifeline for those working, learning, socializing, exercising, and worshipping from home. However — for many of us — the initial thrill of seeing distant colleagues on video conferences has given way to fatigue, anxiety, and distraction as we struggle to stay engaged. This level of disengagement is worrying for any aspect of business, but is especially concerning for the success of workplace learning.
Second, the “constant gaze” we experience is draining. While this dynamic works well for productivity when full attention is required, it is nonetheless uncomfortable. Finally, we experience loss of personal space. When we meet in the real world, we have opportunities to adjust how and where we sit so that we can be more comfortable, relative to the speaker and other participants, as well as to screens and whiteboards. That control goes away in a video conference when you’re tethered to your screen at a specific distance, and is compounded by the lack of control over your physical surroundings, which are often shared with family, roommates, and pets.
Move Online, Leave Learning Behind?
In the rush to move operations online, learning can get left behind. As leaders retreat to command and control in a time of crisis, workplace learning gets pushed down the list of priorities. When learning is addressed, the response too often is the hasty introduction of an online platform that emphasizes business continuity over actual learning. Setting up a Zoom account and attempting business as usual can defeat the very purpose of learning new ways to cope and succeed in a distributed work environment. This results in what Susan Grajek of Educause, the association of education technologists, describes as a “quick, ad hoc, low-fidelity mitigation strategy” that cannot compare with “well-considered, durable online learning.”
INSEAD researchers have identified two common mistakes business leaders tend to make in the quick transition to online-based learning, which go against best practices for workplace learning. First of these is a fixation on mechanics as leaders obsess about how to replicate in-person training and focus more on how they communicate instructions to workers and less on how to empower employees to learn together.
The other trap that awaits learning leaders in the move online is a retreat to thinking about learning as a purely cognitive endeavor.
This can be dangerous at a time when we are all experiencing some level of socio-emotional distress and trying to figure out how to move ahead with our lives.
Bringing Cognitive and Socio-Emotional Learning Together
There’s a dated assumption that only cognitive learning is possible online. However, organizations have demonstrated success in building capabilities online that encompass the social and emotional as well as the cognitive aspects of learning. Strategic capabilities such as leadership, design thinking, and digital transformation all require mastery of new information and technologies. But they also require new mindsets and ways to learn and work together.
For these efforts to be successful requires a focus not just on the content of learning but also on establishing learning environments that are learner-centered and psychologically safe.
Learner-centered environments accommodate the learning preferences and needs of the learner. In online learning, this can mean enabling asynchronous participation in discussions and collaborative projects that require social interaction. This allows the learner to proceed through the experience at their own pace, while still getting the benefits of collaboration. For many, this type of learning allows people to spend some “alone time” with the material and overcome inhibitions that may arise when responding to unfamiliar or uncomfortable material.
Another fundamental element of successful learning environments is psychological safety.
Practice and roleplay come more naturally in the presence of trusted colleagues and coaches. Candid conversations about sensitive work topics presume some level of confidentiality. In the physical world, we can generally create these safe environments with a door and a few simple ground rules. That sense of safety is hard to recreate in a video conference when you’re facing a wall of faces and dealing with whatever is going on in your physical space at the same time. In some instances safety can be achieved by allowing for written reflections. In others, it may involve allowing for practice to happen when the kids are in bed or after you’ve had a chance to get out for a walk.
How to Enable Online Collaborative Learning?
The move from classroom training to online collaborative learning does require a shift in how learning is designed and practiced. However, the shift is not as daunting as it may seem. Moving in-person workshops online can be achieved in four steps:
Spread the learning over time. For example, a one- to two-day on-site workshop could be rolled into a three- to six-week online experience with a two-hour commitment to learning per week.
Design learning experiences for application. Ensure your learners build capabilities through opportunities to apply the learning in authentic work situations. Missions and projects allow learners to practice and apply learning to their jobs – all within the safe space of a learning environment.
Create and curate content. Enrich and contextualize learning experiences with a combination of existing and new content. In addition to the PowerPoint decks that are the staple of in-person workshops you can also use internal and external videos, infographics, text, documents and other learning content.
Preserve the social learning experience. The group connections and felt accountability of in-person experiences can be maintained by keeping learners in cohorts with deadlines. Collaboration can be stimulated by including discussions, sharing assignments, and providing informal and formal feedback.
Choosing the Right Tool for the Job
If the purpose of your training session is to simply share information and can be conducted in 60-90 minutes, video conferencing may be perfectly adequate for online training programs. If the training is strategically important and involves learners engaging with each other in sustained efforts to build capabilities, additional learning modalities may be required. This does not rule out synchronous video conference sessions within extended learning experiences — these can always bring value through convening and focusing attention. However, by spreading the learning over a range of interaction types, the stress on learners can be reduced, resulting in higher engagement and ultimately better business outcomes.