Virtual Instructors: Almost as Good as the Real Thing

Virtual instructor-led training is a cost conscious and effective learning alternative when budget dollars are scarce.

Virtual instructor-led training enables organizations to spend less per learner while delivering more training to more people. While it’s not the ideal learning format for every situation, it’s easy to understand why virtual instructor-led training has gained popularity in the learning and development world.

It’s a far cry from when virtual instructor-led training first emerged two decades ago as the new, shiny tool on the learning and development playground — used often, but rarely effectively. Delivery was flat, as VILT sessions were essentially online presentations with an obligatory Q&A segment added for flavor. Participants sat in a passive experience and were force-fed content, only for it to be forgotten later. This poor use of the tool gave VILT a bad reputation.

VILT has since grown up and made great strides. With better delivery tools, more experience, and more encouragement from stakeholders to push boundaries, its future potential is vast.

Create Savings and Value 

Virtual training allows for obvious cost savings. Travel time and expenses can be dramatically reduced, as learners need not hop on a plane to attend live training sessions. Instead, they can stay at their desk — or in a nearby conference room — to attend training.

In a blended format, as is generally recommended, virtual sessions take less time out of the learner’s workday. Further, VILT sessions coupled with other training elements provide a variety of learning outlets for enhanced engagement. Instead of designing a one-time, full-day classroom instructor-led training session that requires time away from work, learning leaders can design more modular sessions that participants can complete virtually in segments over a few hours, or even minutes.

There also may be significant savings resulting from eliminating hard-copy versions of materials typically used in face-to-face training. Printing participant guides, handouts and other items can really add up. In a virtual session, materials can be provided digitally via company intranet, email or over the virtual platform itself. An outlying benefit here is simpler maintenance; document updates don’t require reprinting or postage.

VILT can deliver organizational benefits that go beyond budgeting, such as an ability to act as a connection point among geographically dispersed colleagues, participants across different departments, or between workers who may not have worked together previously. These connection points are more robust than other, flatter channels, such as email. VILT establishes a protocol for how people connect by adding valuable voice, video and presentation elements. When VILT sessions are effective, workers become more familiar and comfortable, which can help to build frameworks for them to work together virtually in situations outside of training, allowing for its adoption and use in more ways.

Likewise, VILT can expand the organization’s reach into additional audience pockets. Yes, traditional learners are in play for VILT — from front-line workers up to the C-suite — but it also offers a direct opportunity to expand audience reach into the customer base. Consider Austin, Texas-based National Instruments, a global measurement and control solutions company. The organization provides customer training using a virtual platform to build proficiency around its hardware and software. These virtual sessions are offered globally for any customer. National Instruments uses a blended format, with about 90 percent being VILT and the remaining 10 percent as standard e-learning.

“If customers need to keep expenses down, or their schedules don’t allow for eight-hour training days, VILT is a great option for them to gain proficiency,” said James Eifler, senior technical course developer of global customer education, National Instruments. “Otherwise, the customer may not attend any training. Having these various delivery modes allows us to train more customers.”

Reuse Learning

Another benefit of VILT relates to efficiency, resulting from repurposed training resources — documented content in deliverables, video segments from recorded ILT, recorded Q&A sessions in VILT, audio clips from recorded interview sessions and portions of job aids. Since VILT sessions are often shorter and relatively easier to launch compared to traditional ILT, virtual training can be conducted more frequently. When the content is relevant, smaller learning chunks also can be repurposed or placed into other development programs, embedded into e-learning modules, or even used as standalone microlearning available via mobile device.

VILT easily builds onto an organization’s knowledge repository to create a comprehensive learning journey, and learning leaders should think about VILT sessions with a wider scope. It’s more than a single training event to be conducted and completed; they should consider how VILT can be used again. Individual VILT sessions — and all learning elements — are not unlike puzzle pieces to be matched and connected to other applicable learning elements and programs. For instance, segments of VILT sessions can be used as a reinforcement or recall device.

This creates blended learning programs that can be used in a variety of ways, including, but not limited to:

  • Prework for cohorts, allowing participants to get to know each other before intense interaction is expected.
  • Connector points between e-learning modules, providing virtual face-to-face interactions among learners.
  • Interactive virtual case study explorations completed in conjunction with asynchronous individual study time.

Using VILT as one ingredient in a fully comprehensive learning program provides a springboard for the level of application and knowledge transfer organizations rely on from effective learners. When done right, blended programs provide learners with a variety of ways to engage, collaborate and connect with learning content.

For example, an onboarding program for new people managers may include a variety of stops for the learner along their role-preparation journey. The first stop may be a video from the CEO, followed up by some engagement with other newbies via the organization’s social network. The learner’s next stop could be a VILT session with their assigned cohort to walk through what they should expect in their first 30, 60 and 90 days in action in their new role. VILT can be a bridge to the next stop, where learners complete a set of microlearning modules covering critical topics on an organization’s history and culture. The journey continues onward.

Think Carefully About Design

Adding VILT to the learning and development toolbox is not as simple as taking an ILT session and delivering it using a virtual platform. Although ILT elements can be replicated within VILT, instructional designers must design learning with the learner in mind as they leverage virtual capabilities in the right capacities.

Instructional designers who have experience designing VILT understand the value of purposeful activities and continual learner engagement. Something as simple as a Q&A session can have an impact when incorporated effectively into VILT session design. Q&A segments are a regular element in ILT sessions, but in VILT sessions learners experience engagement that reinforces valuable adult learning principles. For instance, participants like being able to ask questions at any time during a presentation, and they often appreciate tracking features, which allow them to ensure their questions are answered.

A word of caution when designing for VILT: try not to mix ILT and VILT into one training event. If both delivery methods are used, create separate learning events for the learner’s benefit. “Don’t cross streams,” said Chad Venable, IT training director for AmerisourceBergen. “Don’t get forced into a situation where you simultaneously conduct ILT with people virtually. … Do not try to have a true hands-on, instructor-led, learning-type session with people both locally and distant in the same event.” This will create a challenging experience for learners who will be distracted by what isn’t happening for them, whether they are virtual or sitting in the live session.

When designing VILT, consider the following key points:

  • Design content in smaller chunks.
    • Create nuggets of content lasting roughly 20 minutes or so.
    • Revisit content frequently to aid learning transfer.
  • Engage and interact with learners early and often; incorporate an interaction with learners every three to four minutes, essentially almost every slide.
  • Create detailed VILT materials.
    • Prepare a facilitator guide that identifies key points or suggestions on what to say, what to do, what questions to ask, and what responses to listen for.
    • Include detailed producer notes providing parameters for logistical elements such as when to show quizzes/polls, how breakouts will be organized and operated, implementing video and other technology details.
  • Test out and master the virtual platform’s functionality.
    • Use the features applicable for the training session and its content.
    • Train learners how to use features.
  • Think beyond traditional execution of virtual training.
    • Expand the delivery boundaries beyond the virtual platform.
    • Pass control to learners to deepen their commitment and engagement in the session. Allow learners to teach the group.

VILT has made significant strides in the learning and development world. Organizations are using it in creative ways to enhance their learning programs, and taking advantage of layers of related benefits, including cost savings, increased engagement and learning retention. Learning organizations that master and effectively leverage VILT inevitably deliver added business value to the enterprise.

Joelyne Marshall is a learning solutions manager at Caveo Learning. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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