With many organisations working remotely or adopting a hybrid working model, many of the HR functions and processes have also gone virtual. Leaning and development (L&D), which is one of the vital functions of them all, has also shifted online. Though most organisations have been able to smoothly transfer their L&D programmes to the virtual mode, there are still some benefits that a face-to-face classroom learning environment offers and which the online version lacks.
There are two major concerns that an online learning environment presents, the first one being lack of social interaction. One of the major benefits offered by onsite learning is social interaction with other participants. In the past, signing up for a learning programme meant a chance to meet new people, which also resulted in peer-to-peer learning. That opportunity is missed now with online learning.
“Yes, earlier there used to be a lot of social interaction and peer learning as part of the onsite learning programmes, but now they are lost. For online sessions, we have made small groups of 7-8 people each. This way, it is easy for the facilitator or the coach to keep the engagement level high.”
Rohit Iyer, director-L&D, PwC Kolkata Acceleration Center
The second major concern of an online learning programmes is their inability to break the monotony. Earlier, people used to sign up for learning programmes and workshops not just to enhance their knowledge, but also because such programmes gave them a break from their monotonous regular routine. Therefore, while participating in the onsite training programmes the engagement level of employees tended to be high. These programmes gave the employees time away from staring at their screens and a welcome break from their workstations. A virtual learning programme does not give employees any such break. It is just more onscreen time, and the likelihood of employees being distracted or doing something else while the training is on, is high.
However, given the unexpected circumstances that we are dealing with today, there seems to be no option but to shift learning to the virtual mode.
“The social interaction, travel and visits to fancy venues, which were the fun parts for a lot of people, have gone out the window now. The facilitators’ rating by the participants has also gone down, but not significantly. Earlier facilitators used to get an average 4.3 or 4.5 rating, but now they get around 4.”
Nitin Thakur, head of learning, Jindal Stainless
There is no denying the fact that online learning has its own benefits in terms of scalability and cost effectiveness, but some things just cannot be replaced, can they?
So, given the inability of online learning to promote social interaction or break the monotony for employees, is it impacting the learning of employees? Are employees finding it difficult to benefit from the online learning programme?
Learning and development experts admit that social interaction and peer learning are definitely missing, but they have found ways to deal with it.
“Yes, earlier there used to be a lot of social interaction and peer learning as part of the onsite learning programmes, but now they are lost,” admits Rohit Iyer, director-L&D, PwC Kolkata Acceleration Center.
Nitin Thakur, head of learning, Jindal Stainless, also shares, “The social interaction, travel and visits to fancy venues, which were the fun parts for a lot of people, have gone out the window now.”
“Earlier, we used to hold eight-hour a day training sessions. Now we have broken them down into small sessions of maximum 175 minutes each. This allows us to give breaks to people in between, and minimise fatigue for employees.”
Emmanuel David, director, Tata Management Training Centre
Iyer shares that at PwC Kolkata Acceleration Center, they have made sure that all batches are broken down into small cohorts. This way, it is easy for the facilitator or the coach to keep the engagement level high. “We have made small groups of 7-8 people each. That way it is fairly easier for the facilitator to keep a small group engaged all the time as compared to a larger group,” mentions Iyer.
Also, Iyer shares that PwC Kolkata Acceleration Center has a digital asset of each module of the learning programme, which includes videos and docs. People first prepare themselves and go through the learning material before attending the online sessions. Then, the purpose of the virtual discussion boils down to interaction and engagement alone. This is the best practice for any company to adopt in these times.
According to Thakur, online learning has actually helped improve retention and the business impacts of the learning. “We have data which shows that the learning outcomes and retention have improved with online learning,” says Thakur.
He further states that earlier, people used to undergo a three-day learning programme and it was difficult to give pre- and post-session homework to participants. Now, however, those three-day sessions have been broken down into two-hour sessions with breaks in between. This allows the participants to work on assignments, which further facilitates better retention. “The cost of such learning programmes has reduced. Not only do we see better retention, but the monitoring of learning has also become easy with technology. So, for us, in spite of lack of face-to-face interactions, online learning has improved learning in employees,” admits Thakur.
According to Thakur, the facilitators’ rating by the participants has gone down, but not significantly. “Earlier facilitators used to get an average 4.3 or 4.5 rating, but now they get around 4,” reveals Thakur.
As per Emmanuel David, director, Tata Management Training Centre (TMTC), despite all the drawbacks of online learning, the virtual mode has actually shown good results in their case. “Going by the employees’ feedback and reactions, online learning seems to have worked fine for us,” shares David.
Since online training is going to be a lot of added fatigue for employees, TMTC also decided to break down the sessions into small parts. “Earlier, we used to hold eight-hour a day training sessions. Now we have broken them down into small sessions of maximum 175 minutes each. This allows us to give breaks to people in between,” tells David.
Though online learning programmes tend to get a little boring and uninteresting, it is the responsibility of the trainers or coaches to keep the discussion engaging.
All L&D heads feel that the facilitators try to keep the discussions as interactive as possible, and that technology has also helped enable this.
“Now, if someone wants to ask a question, they can post on the chat and if others also have the same question they can vote for it. This way the most voted questions come on the top and are answered.
Also, we have virtual break-out rooms where people can be paired to indulge in interactive activities,” explains David.
Though online learning has presented some challenges, the corporates have been able to overcome these in their own ways.