Thursday, December 10, 2009

A New Kind of Blend for the New Normal

Blending Formal and Informal Learning

Note:  This blog article is a reprint from

The learning tradition of pre-modern society was for centuries defined by two enduring patterns. The first was informal learning in the form of on-the-job training. It was customary to apprentice young workers in the skilled trades by having them observe and work alongside competent craftsmen until they acquired enough knowledge and skill through experience to work independently. Here, learners learned in the workflow. The second pattern was that of formal learning in which a teacher pulled learners from the flow of their work and taught them through formal instruction. For centuries, society held to these two approaches: one experiential, the other didactic, and there seemed to be little impetus to change.

In the early 18th century, the arrival of the Industrial Revolution created major developments in agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing. Overtime organizations began to move away from the “apprentice” informal learning model to greater emphasis on formal training primarily using external resources and after-work hours. Gradually, formal training was brought into the organization and delivered during work time but completely removed from the workflow. Cognitive and behavioral psychology contributed to the formalization of training development and delivery. National associations emerged advancing training as a necessary part of organizational success.

The nature of training continued to evolve on the formal side. Basic skills training became supplemented by interpersonal skills and management training. Organizations who could afford it bought technology-facilitated media because of its promise of greater productivity in the workplace. The training function became more widely recognized as important, which led to a greater investment in formal training in the form of event-based courses

Eventually additional layers of organizational support emerged in an effort to support learners beyond their formal learning at their moment of apply. For the most part, this assistance consisted of support services (e.g., help desks), and publications. Support services picked up where training left off, often cultivating an environment of educational welfare where problems and needs were resolved with great proficiency, but often left those who had made help desk calls no more proficient after the call than they were before. Publication groups were charged with developing ongoing support solutions such as printed and electronic documentation and online help. Between support service groups and documentation groups, the informal learning needs within an organization were supposedly covered. But that was not the case. Informal learning, where it is estimated that 70 to 80 of all learning takes place, had gaping holes. Informal help networks flourished to fill the void where, too often, unconsciously incompetent workers helped others achieve the same status. And when someone demonstrated real competence, the less skilled would rob him or her of productive work time.

Today, the patterns of market disruption and accelerated change have become the new normal. And given the technological, economic, social, and political forces that drive the new environment, there is no evidence to suggest that organizations will somehow return to conditions of stability and equilibrium. The volatility and speed of the new era appears irreversible, which is tough news for leaders and organizations struggling to survive. Organizations confront increasing complexity in globalizing markets. They find themselves constantly challenged to learn and change, as Gary Hamel observes, “in a way for which they have no precedent.”

Google’s initial public offering on August 14, 2004, signaled the entrance and game-changing impact of web 2.0. Technologies such as wikis, blogs, social-networking, open-source, open-content, file-sharing, peer-production were not new at the time, but the Google offering coincided with the point at which virtual communities finally gained massive traction and scaled to orders of magnitude beyond anything of the past. Of course the internet was already heavily populated, but 2004 saw a select few websites consolidate anchor positions in a virtual land grab. The web presence of not only Google, but also YouTube, Myspace, Facebook, Wikipedia, eBay, and created a force multiplier effect for social networking and mass collaboration.

These technological and environmental advancements have fostered the new millennial learning mindset and opened the door for blending formal learning with intentionally defined informal learning practices. Here’s one example of what this kind of blending looks like:

New Blend Example 1
  • A workgroup completes self-tailored pre-work prior to attending a virtual class.
  • They attend 4 virtual meetings each lasting 2.5 hours spread out over 8 weeks.
  • Following each virtual meeting, learners independently complete “Expand” assignments requiring them to use their personal learning network to learn more about what they learned during each virtual session. They document what they learned in a course wiki.
  • Also following each virtual meeting learners complete “Apply” activities tied directly to their personal work and submit the results to their trainer. They work on these activities using a digital performance support broker that provides learners finger-tip access to all the resources they need to apply what they have learned.
  • Students work together in virtual groups to help each other.
  • Trainer holds virtual feedback/coaching session for each set of “Apply” assignments for each learner.

This “new blend” of formal and informal learning practices represents a significant scope shift for training professionals. We are now intentionally stepping into the informal side of learning. We should have always been doing to this, but emerging technologies make it more feasible. Support services and technical publication groups should NOT feel threatened by these efforts. They have much to offer here. But there is more that the training profession can and should be doing in addition.

In reality, the distinction between formal and informal learning should look more like this:

Formal Learning, of course, is what training groups have traditionally done—they build, deliver, and manage learning solutions to support organizational needs. The point of this blog is to make the case for broadening the scope of this work to embrace both formal and informal learning and to correlate these efforts with others whose charter plays in this same field (such as support services, technical publications, etc. In doing this, organizations establish a complete learning ecosystem.

A learning ecosystem comprises all the factors that support a vibrant learning community of interdependent people in gaining and maintaining the skills necessary to perform effectively together. It can exist at different scales in an organization (e.g., work group, division, company.) 
Informal Learning, as you can see by the graphic, can be divided into two areas: Informal Intentional and Informal Independent. Informal Independent is learning that individuals and teams may choose to do outside what is planned, implemented, and managed by the training arm of the organization. This has been the elephant in the room for a long time. Two-thirds of learning taking place within most organizations has been happening in the Informal Independent area. But, as learning teams begin to focus on a broader view of their role, learning solutions are beginning to include intentional informal learning activities. This new blend can look something like this:

The New Blend Example 2
  • An Employee is in the middle of a pressing work project. She consults her digital performance support broker and identifies four areas where there are several unique twists that require additional knowledge and skills to complete the project.
  • She immediately accesses directly from her broker, several microblogs where she shares her learning need out through several follower groups (internal and external to the company.)  
  • A representative from the learning group along with other microbloggers immediately provide recommendations. She sorts through those recommendations and does the following:
  • Schedules and takes 3 recommended e-learning courses, 2 from within the companies LMS and 1 purchased independently from an independent eUniversity.
  • Schedules and participates in 4 virtual coaching sessions –two internally sponsored and two from a colleague/friend from another company.  
  • Spot reads through 3 books (two digital.), one of which was purchased online  
  • As she moves forward to complete the project, she frequently accesses her electronic performance support broker to guide her as she and her team completes each critical task.
  • After she completes the project, she takes 10 minutes and accesses a “Lessons Learned” template via the performance support broker and documents lessons she learned, enriches it with metadata, posts it and then pushes it out to the her direct manager as a project report.

As you can see, there is a blend of formal learning solutions (e.g., e learning courses, virtual coaching sessions), independent informal learning (e.g., scanning through books), and intentional informal learning (using the performance support broker providing access to the resources she needs at her moments of apply.)

It is readily apparent that there is a great amount of learning going on outside the formal structures we have so adeptly put in place. The reality is that the informal side of learning is where real learning occurs in any organization. Formal learning can either help or hinder those informal learning.efforts.

Today simply building and deploying a set of formal learning events doesn’t cut it. The New Normal requires the blending of formal and intentional informal learning practices and making available the permissions and resources that support dynamic learners when they choose to learn independently.

In Summary

  1. Although informal and formal learning practices have been around a long time they have most often been approached as separate paths for learning and skill development. Over time, formal learning has become the primary arena for investment by organizations. This is changing today.
  2. Historically, most learning and other siloed support groups have not blended their practices to provide unified performer support to those they are charged to serve. This needs to change.
  3. The current environment of unrelenting change coupled with the disposition of an increasing number of learners to learn informally, has opened the door for learning teams to lead out in blending formal and informal learning practices.
  4. This blending has created a healthy division within the informal learning arena: intentional informal learning and independent informal learning. Intentional informal learning is anything planned for and supported when people learn on their own or with others independently.

Monday, October 12, 2009

GEARing Up:

The Power of Expand Assignments
The GEAR instructional design, development, and delivery model for Virtual Instructor-led Training (VILT) has, as a core component, Expand assignments that are completed by learners following a virtual training session. Expand assignments provide learners opportunities to increase, tailor, or reinforce the understanding and skill-set they were taught during the virtual Gather session. These assignments can directly address five fundamental realities that we have struggled to resolve adequately in the traditional classroom
Here are those realities along with some thoughts on how Expand assignments help address them.

Reality 1: Ownership is 9/10ths of the Law for Learning Transfer
In reality, the true measure of our value to the organizations we serve is determined at the moment of Apply—when the learner is called to perform in the real world. Everything we design, build, and implement must, at some point translate into meaningful application by learners. It is this reality that has pushed Bob and me to pursue practices in the area of Performer Support where the focus is directly on helping learners transfer what they have learned to the moment of Apply.

Expand assignments can also play a vital role in helping learners successfully cross the learning transfer bridge. Here’s how. When learners personalize what they are learning and translate what they have learned to their individual circumstances, they take their beginning steps on the transfer bridge. When they feel this ownership they are much more likely to choose to use the performance support tools we develop. They will make the effort to modify how they have performed in the past to include what they have learned. They will store what they learn more readily into their long-term memory and retrieve what they have learned, when it is needed, more effectively. Personal ownership of what learners learn is 9/10ths of the law when it comes to learning transfer.

Expand assignments, if designed properly, can help make this happen. Here are some design guidelines:

  • Where, possible, include the assignment to teach what learners have learned to someone else. There is no more powerful way to help someone own what they have learned than to have them prepare for and then teach what they have learned to someone else. Just make sure that there is meaningful content and helpful skills to teach to someone else. If it is ever perceived as merely a “make-work” assignment it will have little to no impact.
  • Provide some optional expand opportunities that allow learners, who have interest, to take them on. The act of choice has a transforming impact on learners. Since they have chosen to learn something because they have interest in learning it, they take ownership. The secret here is to provide them a compelling case to “take it on.”
  • Attend to reality number 2 (below.) The more tailored the assignment the higher the probability that learners will own their journey across a much shorter transfer bridge.
Reality 2: Tailoring is Tough
One of the great challenges of classroom training is that learners show-up with unique backgrounds and differing levels of understanding and skill sets. This challenge is compounded by the fact that these learner’s “real world” environments vary. Even two people, who share the same job role and work side-by-side, actually work in different worlds due to nuances of personality and the nature of differing perceptions. All these differences contribute to the ever-present challenge of adapting synchronous instruction to accommodate the unique circumstances learners face in their almost singular worlds of application.

Most trainers who attempt to tailor learning during an actual training class find it tough and at some point surrender, at least partially, to the pressures of other realities. For example, in the flow of synchronous teaching, if the trainer attempts to address a unique challenge facing one student, what are the other students doing? Too often, they are sitting on their hands waiting for the instructor to get back to their learning needs and interests. This tailoring challenge is much greater in the virtual classroom. Focus in on one student there and and the rest of the class will check out mentally and start checking email. Have you ever been in a class where the unique needs of an assertive student has brought learning to a screeching halt for the rest of the class? The bottom line: tailoring in the midst of synchronous training is tough.

There are certainly ways around this. In the virtual classroom, Expand assignments provide one of those ways. These assignments provide learners the opportunity, following a Gather session, to adapt what they have learned to their specific world of application as they perceive it to be and according to its current realities. Feedback is vital here. You can add to Expand assignments questions that encourage learners to identify unique challenges they face regarding what they have learned with the assignment to propose potential solutions. Learners then submit this as part of their reporting so that they can “Receive tailored feedback” (the R part of GEAR.)

In addition, whenever you can anticipate learning requirements that are unique to a sub-audience in a course, Expand activities can be helpful. For example, one of our client colleagues determined that she wanted to train peer coaches during the same class as the people they would be coaching on-the-job. She had two overlapping training needs with significant tailoring requirements: training new hires and training their coaches in how to coach them. Here’s how she did it.

Both the new hires and the coaches participated in the same Gather sessions. The coaches were charged to learn what the new hires needed to know and do. Then during the Expand activities, the coaches worked on different Expand assignments to help them learn how to be better coaches while the new hires took on Expand options that helped them learn more about what they had been taught during the Gather session and in the process personalize it to their own specific circumstances.

Obviously Expand assignments don’t play a singular role in addressing the challenges of tailoring. Solid Apply activities also play a vital role. But don’t underestimate what Expand assignments that are designed to address this reality can do – they can do a lot.

Reality 3: Real Learning Requires Chewing
When I was in graduate school I conducted a study where we addressed the principle of “time on task” with first grade children learning to read. We attempted to collapse the normal distribution of reading failure by adapting the teaching methodology to allow learners to take the time they needed to chew on what they were taught. We acknowledged the reality that some children needed more time to master reading skills than others. At the conclusion of the study we had every child in every classroom reading at their reading grade level or above.

A newspaper reporter interviewed me about this study and I explained that we had primarily provided children the “time on task” they needed . In her article, she summarized our study’s conclusion by stating that we had proven that “children who attend school will learn more than those who don’t attend.” Clearly I should have provided her more time on her task of understanding what we were doing.

Have you ever taken a class where your attention faded or where you experienced learning fatigue to the point that you just stopped learning? Expand activities can provide opportunity for the ongoing “chewing” of what was presented, discussed, and practiced during a Gather session. This allows those who may have “checked out” mentally during the Gather session an opportunity to step back into that learning and chew on it some more until they’ve got it.
The GEAR model allows you to create opportunities for learners to continue their learning beyond the Gather session. In practice, we generally provide access to a recording of the Gather session so that learners can review as needed. It is often the case that when learners begin their Apply assignments, they find places where they thought they understood but they didn’t. It’s helpful, at that moment, to have access to the Gather recording.

We also produce recordings of “deeper dives” where we provided a more detailed discussion of a specific topic or skill as an Expand assignment to view and then do something with it. Got the idea? GEAR blends synchronous with asynchronous modalities and wraps feedback around it all. The result: learning actually survives the classroom. Why, because learners are able to “chew at their own pace.”

Reality 4: Lasting Learning Requires Chewing Over Time
One of the fundamental indictments of traditional classroom training is the immediate loss of learning that takes place. It is even worse in the virtual world where “webinars” are, for the most part, rapid-fire content dumps. Real learning really does require “chewing.” And lasting learning requires chewing over time. This is where the virtual classroom excels the traditional classroom. The nature of the VC environment pushes us to break learning up into multiple shorter Gather sessions. This opens the door for us to spread those sessions out over time. Here’s why that’s helpful. Do you remember “cramming” for tests? Not much learning survives when it’s “crammed.” The encoding of knowledge and skills into long-term memory sufficient to allow efficient retrieval (with or without the help of job-aids), requires spaced learning. Even if you successfully “cram” it all into long-term memory all at once, the retrieval of what you have “crammed in” is often messy when it comes to remembering.

My first semester at a university included an asynchronous elearning course. It was a math course and I loved the self-paced option. We weren’t allowed to move to the next module without achieving over 90 percent on each unit test. . I pushed through it all in record time and then focused on other classes and extracurricular activities. I wasn’t alone in this. All the members of my class did the same. We loved it. When we took the final exam, two and a half months after I had completed all the learning modules I couldn’t remember much of what I thought I had learned. Neither did other members of the class. We should have “crammed” for that exam or at least reviewed. But that was the great problem—the designers of the courseware hadn’t incorporated review into their instructional methodology. They had designed and developed stellar modules. But when we moved to module 2 we left module 1 behind never to return to those concepts and practices. The same held true through the rest of the course. Years later, in graduate school, I learned about the principle of “integrated review.” This is an instructional apFont sizeproach where learners integrate newly learned skills and concepts with previously learned skills and concepts. This kind of review over time cultivates lasting competency.

My point? In the VILT world, Expand assignments can provide this vital learning function – the integration of previously learned knowledge and skills with newly acquired learnings. By spreading this out over time learners solidify, integrate, and extend their skillsets. The result: learning that lasts.

Reality 5: Time is a Lousy Taskmaster
As a trainer, have you ever set a discussion timeline and then run behind schedule because you spent more time in an area than you had planned. Have you ever hesitated to share an example, or cut a discussion short, or opted out of a practice exercise so that you could get back on schedule? Have you ever completed teaching a course without getting to everything you needed to get to? Time is such a lousy taskmaster, isn’t it? When learning is governed primarily by the clock learning can often suffer. So, how do we break free from this challenge. Easy! The solution is found in Expand assignments. In the GEAR virtual training process, the Gather part of the virtual course (VC) can be designed to be modular. Each discussion can be designed so that it can be turned into a Expand activity, on the fly, if needed. This allows the virtual trainer to spend the time needed on each discussion area knowing that if she/he runs out of time during the Gather session, the remaining discussion areas can be pushed to Expand assignments where the learner can receive meaningful feedback. This lifts the burden of time-governed learning and removes the pressure to “cover it all.” It allows an instructor to focus on what matters most and still provide learners the opportunity to continue their learning, at their own pace, through the entire learning plan.

Bob and I have written earlier regarding how enjoyable it is to train in the virtual classroom. Many of the instructional frustrations we have experienced in the traditional classroom are tied to the five realities described above. And the GEAR model for virtual instruction resolves much of that frustration. In the GEAR model, the Expand assignments play a vital part in it all. The objective of this blog article is to provide you some help in designing Expand assignments that will prove helpful to you.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Blending Traditional and Virtual Classrooms

In the previous blog article I suggested that the virtual classroom doesn’t need to threaten the traditional classroom. And, in the article prior I described how Bob and I are finding greater fulfillment as trainers in the virtual classroom than we have typically found in face-to-face training. None of this suggests that traditional training should ever disappear.
Tim Bosworth’s comment “Don’t forget that there’s still value in old-fashioned, face-to-face learning” is an admonition we all need to heed. Here are some of the unsurpassed strengths of the traditional classroom:

The personal connection that can take place when people gather in person is certainly unmatched. The time required to forge this connection is generally short and the sustainable strength of these connections is what keeps me engaged in face-to-face training.

One of the great challenges we experienced with eLearning 24x7 is that learners have continuously struggled to find the time during their work to learn at their desktop. Continuously interrupted learning in the workflow is tough work. Again, Tim Bosworth’s comments on the last blog ring true:
“It's a different kind of learning. You're sitting in your office or home, all the old familiar cues are around, that report you have to get done before you knock off for the day is sitting in front of you, your secretary is telling you your boss needs to see you ASAP, so on. It's just a different venue than going to a place and putting the world aside for a period of time. If you're going to do e-learning, you have to make sure that you are going to "teach" the kind of material that can be taught in that environment.”

The traditional classroom certainly helps here. Some learning merits our escaping from the workplace so real learning can take place—uninterrupted.

The most fundamental gift a trainer brings to training is the capacity to observe performance, provide immediate feedback, and check to ensure that the performance of the learner adapts appropriately. Not all training requires this kind of immediate feedback, but when it does, face-to-face training is vital.

When skill development isn’t singular but collaborative, the traditional classroom becomes a crucial environment. Collaborative work has, at its core, moment-to-moment exchanges of interpersonal effort sustained by trust. A group of people don’t simply master skills independently and then naturally collaborate. Most collaboration skills are best developed in a setting that provides people opportunity to intermingle their skills and in doing so develop the trust required to sustain future collaborative efforts.

Interpersonal interaction skills are similar to collaboration skills but with these skills an individual interacts with others in the context of a specific situation (e.g., applying listening skills to resolve a communication problem or sales skills to make a specific sale.) The development of these kind of skills calls for interpersonal practice with real-time feedback. Today, this type of learning is best accomplished face-to-face. This is not to say that preliminary skill development can’t be achieved elsewhere by other means, but in reality, the traditional classroom, is the best place for polishing these kind of skills.

The Virtual Classroom Lets Us Use the Traditional Classroom More Effectively
In the past, when training has required an instructor, we haven’t had the option to safely offload learning requirements that don’t require the level of connecting, escaping, adapting, collaborating, and interacting described above. The virtual classroom allows this.
A crucial question for us to always ask is “What is it that we can only accomplish by physically gathering together to learn?” Everything else should be pushed to other learning modalities, and, whenever an instructor is still needed, the virtual classroom can most certainly deliver high-yield learning.

The Strengths of the Virtual Instructor-led Training (VILT)
In addition to the capacity of VILT to extend the borders of the traditional classroom, there are other compelling reasons for organizations to add VILT to their learning options arsenal. Here are some:

First, VILT doesn’t require travel. Many organizations simply can’t afford the costs of pull-out training.

Second, VILT imbeds learning into each learner’s workflow. This is an advantage over the discontinuity inherent in full or multi-day courses.

Third, VILT allows training to scale more readily to a large, dispersed workforce in a constantly changing environment.

Fourth, VILT allows learners to learn a bite at a time in the context of their work rather than all at once and away from work.

Fifth, through spaced learning, VILT allows learning to transfer more readily into the personal work streams of learners.

Unfortunately, much of what is happening today in the virtual classroom fails to take full advantage of these strengths. Dean Bennett posted a comment regarding the last blog that puts it best:

“The future, with its plethora of communication media offers huge potential for more engaged, active and sticky leaning. I think we are still in the early stages of understanding its full potential.”

The good news is that there is a growing community that is actually doing this. They are taking the virtual classroom beyond the one-way content dumps that have been taking place in the name of “webinars.” Instead, these professionals are designing, developing, and delivering “high yield training in the virtual classroom.” They are achieving a healthy balance between traditional and virtual classrooms, maximizing the strengths of both. They are growing populations of learners who are finding in the virtual classroom a rigorous learning experience. Stay tuned to this blog and we’ll share with you how they are doing just that!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Role of the Virtual Classroom

During the past year, there has been a major spike in the use of the virtual classroom as an alternative to the traditional classroom. There are many reasons why this is happening and why it is wise to do so. Here are some:

First, organizations have significantly cut back funding, forcing learning leaders to look for ways to deliver instructor-led training without travel.
Second, many organizations are less willing to pull their employees out for full or multi-day workshops. They would rather have the learning imbedded in the workflow, which is what spaced learning using the virtual classroom allows.
Third, the virtual classroom also allows training to scale more readily to a large, dispersed workforce in an environment that is continually changing.
Fourth, learners increasingly prefer to learn a bite at a time in the context of their work rather than all at once and away from their work.
Fifth, organizations are finding that when learning is spaced over time, there is a greater likelihood that skills will transfer more readily into the work-life of learners.
Although these are all excellent reasons for incorporating “Virtual Instructor-Led Training” (VILT) into an organizations learning landscape, there is another reason, that for me, is the most compelling.

Old Ways Die Hard
My parents were school teachers. We also had a dairy farm. One day, after my father had endured a rough day meeting with parents, he looked at me, as we were putting our boots on to go to the barn, and said, “You know, the more I’m around people, the more I like cows.”I have grown to understand dad’s thinking. Cows, for the most part, are much easier to manage than people. For example, anyone who has tried to herd cows knows that it’s not hard to do. All you have to do is get them going in the right direction and avoid getting them spooked.

Thirty years ago, when I entered the learning profession, we all herded learners like I had herded cows. We drove them into classrooms, shut the gate, and fed them wonderfully designed training programs, doing all we could to “avoid getting them spooked.” Afterwards, we turned them loose, to graze on their own— until the next time when we were called upon to gather them up again and feed them another wonderfully produced training program.We got away with this for a while, but at some point the learning landscape began changing and didn’t stop. The pace of this change has continued to increase in speed. It has also become turbulent and unpredictable.

The children in our family have grown up during this accelerating environmental churn. They span Generation X and Generation Y (the Millennials). These generations are emerging as learners equal to these times. For the most part, they are aggressive, self-directed, rapid, adaptive, and collaborative learners. Certainly no one is going to herd them into classrooms, close the gate, and force-feed them a traditional course – at least not for any sustained period of time. Trying to do this would be like trying to herd cats. And there’s a high probability that those who cling to the old ways of training will, at some point, get scratched (see : ).

There is a “New Normal” that Calls for a New Way
In the visionary words of Yoggi Bera, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” There most certainly is a “New Normal” where the environment in which we work is in a state of accelerating churn. There will be no return to the calm, predictable past. The realities of this New Normal compel us to alter how we profess learning. We can’t cling to old paradigms. I’m not suggesting we cast them completely aside or even “shift” them. Instead, we need to create new paradigms that fully fit this “New Normal” and at the same time provide bridges from the old paradigms for those who need or want to walk them.

Perhaps another farm insight could help illustrate what I mean by a “paradigm bridge.” One of my jobs, as a young boy, was to teach new calves how to drink milk from a bucket. This was not a natural thing for any calf to do. Their nature and experience was to seek milk from an upward source. I used a paradigm bridge to help calves embrace a completely new paradigm (i.e., drinking from a bucket.) I would put three milk-soaked fingers into the mouth of a calf and gradually nudge its nose downward toward the bucket. The calf would often resist, but I would bring the bucket up as far as I could, and with handfuls of milk channeling through my fingers into the mouth of the calf finally get the nose down and into the bucket of milk. By doing this, several times, over a short amount of time every calf completely change its inherent paradigm—how it drinks milk.Now, the New Normal generation of learners probably isn’t in need of paradigm bridges. They are the ones defining the new paradigms needed for these times. They’re embracing and pushing the evolution of Web 2.0 and 3.0 technologies to facilitate the immediate collaborative resolution of their learning needs and wants. Those of us outside this aggressive, self-directed, rapid, adaptive, and collaborative approach may need a bit of help across the bridge into this “New Normal” way of learning with its ever fluent supporting technologies.

So Here’s the More Compelling Reason
The virtual classroom can provide a crucial paradigm bridge for our time to help facilitate the journey into the mindset of a rapid, adaptive, collaborative, self-directed learner – a learner who can learn at or above the speed of change. Recently while speaking with a group of learners about the New Normal, one of them said, “I’m a Gen Y in a Baby Boomer’s body.” No matter the generation, the reality of our times compels us to this new mindset. Eric Hoffer pegged it right:In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

It is in the virtual classroom where trainers can help learners bridge their informal and formal learning efforts. Here trainers can help build meaningful bridges to unleash the full potential of social networking. Here they can orchestrate a total Learning Ecosystem™ to sustain agressive learners at all five moments of learning need. Here, regardless of anyone’s generational genesis, trainers can help them cultivate the capacity they need to learn, unlearn, and relearn in the New Normal.

A Caution: Calling it VILT Doesn’t Mean it's Effective VILT
For more than 10 years, Bob and I have developed and proven in our client work an approach to Virtual Instructor-Led Training (VILT) where learners achieve outcomes that actually far surpasses traditional face-to-face training. We employ an approach we call GEAR. It is a blended “Spaced Learning” approach where learning is spread out over time. This allows participants to learn and immediately apply what they learn in their professional lives.This approach is different from the majority of live, web delivered classes offered in organizations today where learners merely meet online and that’s it. In the GEAR model, “Gathering online” is only part of the learning journey. Following every session participants “Expand” upon and personalize their understanding of what they have learned. They take steps to “Apply” what they have learned into their work life. They also report on their efforts and “Receive direct feedback.” This feedback is where virtual trainers deliver their greatest value. It is the key to accelerated learning.True VILT requires greater instructional rigor in its development and delivery than what has typically been expended in the development of traditional “Instructor Led Training” (ILT). This isn’t to say that the same rigor isn’t called for, but the lack of instructional rigor can be more readily masked and at times compensated for in the traditional ILT classroom.The bottom-line? Just because someone claims that training will take place in the virtual classroom, This may or may not be the case. Organizations can achieve a consistent high-yield “Return on Instruction” (ROi) in their VILT. This return can potentially exceed traditional ILT but it requires an instructionally sound, blended spaced-learning approach. The GEAR model provides a practical framework for accomplishing this.

The Traditional Classroom Doesn’t Have to Die—It Just Needs to Change
None of this suggests that traditional training has to disappear. The personal connection that can take place when people gather in person is unmatched. Unfortunately, we too often misappropriate learning time spent in traditional classrooms with low level learning that could readily be accomplished in other, more efficient ways. This is a subject that merits discussion beyond this article. A crucial question for any learning leader to ask is “What is it that we can only accomplish by physically gathering together to learn?” The answer to this question may very well lead us to places we have not yet gone. But this is certain, it will be a better place for the organizations and the people we serve.

The Personal Rewards of Training in the Virtual Classroom

Bob and I just finished teaching our new course: High Yield Training in the Virtual Classroom. During this virtual Instructor led training (VILT) course we employed our GEAR design and development process. For those readers, not aware of the GEAR methodology, here’s a brief description:

The GEAR™ model consists of a spaced learning that includes a series of virtual training/coaching cycles that allow participants to apply immediately what they learn to their own work requirements.

When most people gather virtually, they merely meet online and then disperse. That’s it. With the GEAR training/coaching model, gathering online is only part of the learning journey. Following every session, participants expand and personalize their understanding of what they have learned and then take steps to apply concepts and tools into their work streams. The final step in the GEAR cycle is to report progress and receive personalized feedback from the trainer and peer participants. (For more detailed information about this model view the following recording:

Bob and I have marveled at what we experienced, as trainers, during this virtual course approach. We have previously participated in the development of courses using our GEAR model and observed remarkable results in learning outcomes for our clients including the exhilaration it was for the trainers. But this was the first time we have developed and delivered a course of our own employing GEAR.The result? In our combined experience of training adults, we have not experienced greater personal satisfaction as trainers—ever! This wasn’t just “High Yield Training” for those who participated as learners, it was “High Yield training” for us as trainers. We finally spent most of our training time doing what no other training delivery system can do as well. We orchestrated adaptive learning embedded directly in the work-stream where we were able to provide individual attention to students with tailored feedback – and it was GREAT!In addition, the lines between formal and informal learning blurred – as it should. We built a performance support broker that provided a bridge from the virtual classroom into the on-the-job independent learning process of participants.

Fundamental to the GEAR approach is intentional informal “Expand and Apply” learning assignments.Now, lest those who took the course and are now reading this blog wonder about these comments – we’re not saying that the course couldn’t have been better or that it won’t get better. It could and will. But, that’s the learner side of things. For a few of our learners, the transition from the traditional classroom to the virtual classroom was a bit difficult, because, frankly, we failed to help them reset their expectations from a traditional classroom mindset. The GEAR model requires learners to engage and own their own learning journey and it is impossible for any learner to hide from it.What we found as trainers is that we knew where everyone was at every point of their learning journey to competence with greater precision than we have ever known during traditional ILT.For the majority of participants, who jumped in and embraced the GEAR learning approach, it was transformational. Here are a few excerpts from learner comments to illustrate:

“Thank you so much for this excellent opportunity for growth. This was a fantastic program that has taken my teaching to a whole new level.”

“The VILT workshop taught me how to properly use technology to actively engage learners in a virtual learning environment. The opportunity to use the virtual classroom first hand, from my own office, gave me a true appreciation for the effectiveness of the VILT techniques. The month of the workshop flew by, and by the end I had the knowledge, resources and tools I needed to move my learning project forward, by leaps and bounds.”

“It was great to see a Virtual Classroom firsthand., This class not only helps you design for Virtual Classroom; it helped me improve my design process for all delivery methods.”

“The GEAR model provides us with a practical, proven approach to designing and delivering training that helps our learners go from just 'knowing' to 'doing.' In fact, the principles we learned in the Virtual Classroom training will make all of our instructor-led trainings better!”

From these comments you can see that participants emerged from their learning experience with an understanding of how to improve training in the traditional classroom setting as well. But what we want to celebrate with you in this blog article is the absolutely rewarding experience training in the virtual classroom can be for trainers. This course wasn’t a webcast. It was rigorous training that pushed learners to work to learn. And they worked, they learned, and they performed!

Certainly the solid performance outcomes from this kind of training is rewarding to us. But our journey through the teaching process was even more rewarding. We worked more closely with our learners than ever before. They made greater progress in their learning than we have ever seen in traditional Instructor Led Training. We were able to coach learners through the fundamental learning moment of need—the moment of Apply. We were able to draw upon our experience to provide feedback that connected to improvements in the learner’s skill-sets, thereby manifesting the benefits of that feedback in the quality of participants on-the-job work projects.We found exhilaration and intrinsic reward every step of the way. Training adults was the best it has ever been.