Some organizations had developed the internal skills to design and deliver live online learning sessions way before the COVID-19 pandemic. But Coronavirus has hastened large-scale changes to how we work and learn, whether we felt ready, or not. Put simply, we’ve all had to adapt, and fast.
The rising role of learning tech
The use of webinars and virtual classrooms has been on the rise for several years. An Emerald Works (formerly Towards Maturity) report from 2016 showed that 45% of organizations were using virtual classrooms, rising rapidly to 84% in 2018. And this year’s (pre-COVID) report shows that 91% of learning leaders already had virtual classroom and webinar delivery skills as a priority.
Couple this with businesses responding to the 2020 pandemic and it’s no surprise that platforms such as Zoom, Teams and Connect are expanding rapidly. Microsoft reported a 70% rise in users in April 2020 and Zoom has more than 300 million daily Zoom meeting participants.
So, what does the data tell us? I’m going to draw on research from the Emerald Works (formerly Towards Maturity) Learning Health Check. In this independent study, 1,123 senior learning and development practitioners respond to a variety of questions about their learning strategy and the impact on their businesses.
The responses I’m focusing on here compare organizations that have virtual classroom/webinar delivery capability in-house (32% of respondents in 2020) with those that don’t.
As someone who trains L&D teams in how to design and deliver live online sessions, the speed and efficiency that L&D leaders are reporting makes perfect sense. With virtual classrooms:
- You don’t have to wait for a physical room to be available (though you do need a software license)
- There are no travel logistics to worry about
- Webinars and virtual classrooms can be as short as 15- or 30-minute sessions – you don’t have to add content to justify the cost of the venue, travel and lost productivity.
During March, as the COVID-19 lockdown took hold in Europe, I was supporting some of my clients to develop and deliver webinars to staff in a matter of hours. One particular organization already had some of the capabilities in-house. This enabled them to roll the skills out to more than 400 staff in a matter of days, as the tech infrastructure, as well as the L&D skills, was there to support it.
This highlights the important role of L&D to support organizations and truly partner with senior decision makers to deliver results. Indeed, recent LinkedIn research shows “two-thirds (66%) of L&D professionals say that learning and development is becoming a more strategic part of their organization, and 59% say they are starting to develop a stronger learning culture.”
People, technology and value for money
One of the perceived problems with technology is that it will take jobs away from people. But what if the organizations that had the webinar/virtual classroom delivery skills in-house were also those that had double the number of people in their L&D team? All very well, you might say, but doubling the team means increasing the costs of training out to all employees across the organization. Maybe not.
Those organizations in the Health Check with live online capabilities in-house had an average of 21 people on the L&D team versus just 10 on the team in the organizations that report they don’t have those capabilities in-house. Yet the organizations that are averaging bigger teams are also spending less on training per employee in their company. They’re spending, on average, £614.40 versus £644.76.
These companies are spending proportionally more on technology, but reducing the overall budget of training per employee. It feels counterintuitive, yet what I’m seeing is that technology in learning allows a wider reach across the organization, and even with more people in the team, the reduction in other costs offset the investment.
The learning and performance link
Spending money on developing trainers and learning programs for an organization is of course a waste if you aren’t achieving learning transfer that improves their performance. The Employer Skills Survey reported on the causes of such skills gap, including “staff performance not improving following training (31%), and staff not receiving appropriate training (25%).”
The report also shows that organizations that are more mature in their learning approach and have virtual/online L&D capabilities in-house are:
- 19% more likely to involve managers in the design of their learning solutions; and
- 14% more likely to report that their senior managers demonstrate a commitment to learning.
They also report they can speed up the application of learning back at work.
What these organizations show is that they have a better overall understanding of how learning can respond to the needs of people and the business, and how to involve the right people to ensure it
makes a difference. Involving managers in the development programs for their teams is a given for so many in L&D, and this data highlights that organizations who do it are more likely to be doing other good work to achieve overall positive outcomes for their people and for their core business.
Engaging your people to develop skills
In the Emerald Works 2019 report The Transformation Journey, L&D leaders reported on the technology they’re investing in and planning for future use. 93% of organizations say they’re looking to invest in live online learning. And (as mentioned earlier) this year’s Back to the Future report highlighted that 91% of organizations say that virtual classroom/webinar delivery is a priority.
The development of skills for working in new ways is a must. We’ve all attended webinars where the speaker didn’t know how to use the platform, or live online sessions where trainers didn’t interact beyond the odd chat comment. Indeed, in their 2019 paper Webinar-based approaches to maximize learning and transfer good practices, Rosa and Johnson cite the need for excellent engagement and facilitation skills in order to promote learning. 
Recent research by Gegenfurtner and colleagues echoes this. It found webinar participants were most satisfied when they could consult and question the facilitator and have synchronous interaction, feedback and support from both facilitators and other attendees. 
This research highlights what we’ve all experienced about good live online learning – it’s about being engaged, learning socially with others and having the focus firmly on the learners and the performance need – not on the broadcast of a presentation.
If, on the other hand, face-to-face trainers, and reluctant ones at that, are working live online without understanding the different approaches that they need to take and having the training and support to do so, the quality of those sessions is going to harm the learning, as well as the reputation of the individual and the whole L&D team.
Back to the beginning
So what does all this research tell us? Live online learning isn’t a silver bullet, it’s part of a suite of L&D tools to use with the wider organization. Both organizations with and without these capabilities still want to increase their face-to-face learning (both by 9%), their online learning (61% with the capabilities in-house and 70% without the current skills) and the blend (72% and 80% respectively).
While the Coronavirus context might change those numbers and their relative importance in 2020 and beyond, the outlook is still broadly positive for those that cherish face-to-face delivery. There’s still a place for it. It’s also beneficial to those who want to develop their skills and ensure that they, and L&D, remain relevant to the organization long into the future.
 de Rosa, C., and Johnson, J., (2019), ‘Webinar-based approaches to maximize learning and transfer good practices: case studies from the humanitarian sector’, International Journal of Training and Development, pp. 339 - 349
 Gegenfurtner, A., Zitt, A., and Ebner, C., (2019), ‘Evaluating webinar-based training: a mixed methods study of trainee reactions toward digital web conferencing’, International Journal of Training and Development, pp. 1 – 17
 Learning Health Check data gathered from September 2018 - September 2019 (n=1123)
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