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Top 10 Tips for Establishing a Virtual Learning Environment

When most of us hear the term “virtual learning”, we think of boring and lengthy self-study online modules. Deciding what learning content to put online is just the tip of the iceberg! There are many factors, needs and constraints to take into consideration when building a virtual learning environment. Here are our top 10 tips to help you develop and implement a robust Virtual Learning Environment for your employees:

1. Consider Your Audience:

Before spending a dollar on a new platform or approach, ask yourself whether it is appropriate for your audience. A full-featured and robust online learning environment will go to waste if most of your learners lack the skills or technology necessary to utilize it. Demographic factors like age, education, access to reliable broadband, geographic location, and languages understood may require consideration. You may have to provide training for your employees, improve access to technology, and ensure technical support is available.

2. Consider Your Organizational Needs:

What are you hoping to achieve by establishing a virtual learning environment? Do you need a way to track and analyze learner information, or do you simply need a way to deliver material to your learners? Platforms for hosting content range from little-to-no-cost to tens of thousands of dollars a year. If your instructional needs are focused on general business, productivity, communication, or software skills you may be able to license access to existing platforms with in-built libraries of professionally designed content. If you have significant or unique needs, you may need to plan for the design and development of custom courses and a learning management system (LMS) to track learners.

3. Consider Your Organizational Capacity:

Just as platforms and tools can require considerable investment, shifting your instructional approach may require your professionals to learn new skills or rely on outside specialists. Large organizations with developed online learning programs typically have multiple staff devoted to administrating their LMS, developing and maintaining content, providing technical support and facilitating online training. For a small organization with simple needs, these tasks may be managed by a single learning and development professional, or they may be unnecessary altogether.

4. Become Familiar with Various Formats:

Virtual learning can occur in a variety of formats and via a number of platforms. Although an LMS stocked with professionally developed courses is the conventional idea of a virtual learning environment, other options might better meet your needs. For workers completing technical tasks, powerful tools include on-demand job aids, and reference documents. For professionals developing soft skills, video conferencing and webinars allow for interaction and practice. For busy staff with limited time for training, a library of short videos can provide both routine and enrichment training. For organizations with constant, ongoing training, perhaps a robust platform is called for with social features and reminders. In each case, keep in mind that short segments that people can access in a timely fashion are ideal.

5. Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning:

Synchronous learning occurs when instructors and learners interact at the same time. Asynchronous learning occurs when instructors and learners interact with content at different times. Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses, and both approaches present different challenges and considerations. Often, the most effective and efficient balance is a mix of both approaches, commonly referred to with phrases like “blended learning” or “flipped classroom.” Via these approaches, learners might interact with content at their own pace, but then join a synchronous event to discuss what they learned or participate in activities.

6. Quality:

Regardless of the format or platform, serious consideration and effort must be put into your virtual learning environment. Whatever your approach is, learners are sensitive to a perceived lack of effort or care put into educational events, and this can be especially true of online learning. It is worth making sure that the content you use is well-thought-out, attractive, and fully functional. If learners discover that features are missing or do not work as anticipated, it can seriously undermine their confidence and willingness to engage with the learning environment. For video or interactive eLearning content, quality audio and video can make a good course even better. Professional voice talent, graphic design, videography, and other elements may seem like luxuries. Still, these additions can make a tremendous difference in your products.

7. Keep It Organized:

Along with quality, materials should be well organized and easy to access. Any barriers to finding and accessing the content will cause frustration and apathy in learners. Key content should be well organized and easy to find. Avoid overwhelming learners with mountains of choices and features, especially for people who are new to online learning. Simplicity and predictability can help acclimate people to an online learning environment, and consistency and clarity can reduce anxiety.

8. Offer Networking Opportunities:

Networking and social learning are powerful and it is often lost in the translation to virtual learning. This doesn’t have to be the case! It is not always possible or appropriate to build in opportunities for learner-to-learner or learner-to-instructor interactions. Still, these interactions add tremendous value to most learning events. Utilizing features like discussion boards, chat, commenting, and breakout rooms are great ways to encourage learners to connect. These connections can result in improved learning outcomes and more peer-to-peer problem-solving. Hosting open office hours, debriefing sessions, and participating in the features mentioned above are great ways for an instructor or supervisor to validate and encourager learners.

9. Encourage Enrichment Learning:

The benefits of enrichment training are numerous. Job enrichment and development opportunities have been linked with increased satisfaction and performance as well as secondary effects like reduced turnover. If the only training and development opportunities you offer are related to compliance and onboarding, consider a shift to virtual learning as an opportunity to expand to more professional and interpersonal skills.

10. Remember Accessibility:

Accessibility is a significant consideration in offering virtual learning opportunities. Ensuring that all your learners can access the content, or a facsimile of equivalent educational value is necessary. This is especially true for public agencies and educational institutions but applies to all organizations. When ensuring accessibility for most learners, three of the key aspects are captioning and transcripts for those with hearing impairment, screen reader compatibility for those with vision impairment, and alternative controls for those with motor impairments. Although you may think that these areas don’t match up with your learners, including these basic features can be of great benefit to a wide variety of learners. For example, many students enjoy the benefit of an available transcript, especially English-language learners who may wish to review at their own pace.

Designing, developing and implementing a well laid out blended learning solution takes time, resources and a variety of experts. Nevertheless, as learning professionals, we know that utilizing several different learning approaches and channels will afford the best learning impact for our employees.

Please share your experience so we can learn collectively on how to implement impactful blended learning solutions. E-mail: dhenry@donahue.umassp.edu.

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