The pandemic has forced us all to experiment with things we previously believed impossible. That is just as true in corporate training as anywhere else in life and work.
Prior to the pandemic, virtual instructor-led training (ILT) was seen as a worst-of-both-worlds compromise between the gold standard of face-to-face training and the cost-effectiveness of self-paced online resources. But the limitations of the pandemic made everyone take another look at it. We’ve heard firsthand from our clients that although ILT was initially adopted out of necessity, both learners and corporate L&D organizations have learned to appreciate its value and convenience.
Forced to innovate rapidly, the corporate training world has regained a taste for experimentation. All sorts of assumptions are up for grabs, and one of them is that ILT has to happen either face-to-face or online. Partly because global offices are returning to normal at different paces – and partly because the experiences of the pandemic have forced us all to be more open to new ideas and opportunities – training organizations are beginning to experiment with hybrid learning environments, in which some participants are co-present in long-abandoned conference rooms and others attend from the comfort of their repurposed breakfast nooks. After all, for many of us, our work environment has been a hybrid of virtual and face-to-face since long before Covid: Why should training be different?
At Abilitie, we’re excited to be riding this wave of experimentation: It allows us to practice what we preach as advocates of experiential learning. And as we like to say in our programs, “experiential learning” is just the fancy way to say “learning from mistakes.” We’re proud to share some of our misses and victories as we contribute to the growing body of best practices in hybrid learning.
Objectives in Hybrid Learning Environments
Of course, progress should always be measured against objectives. As we experiment, we have kept corporate L&D’s objectives in mind. Capability-building is just one of those objectives. Equally important are building peer networks and signaling to talented individuals that the company intends to retain them by investing in them. And it’s with an eye to these latter objectives – peer networking and retention – that we believe hybrid learning harbors the greatest risks.
Any training experience that makes someone feel like a second-class participant is going to fail at signaling value – and could signal the opposite! Based on our experience, it is clear that the group facing the greater structural disadvantage is the one participating remotely.
With that in mind, here are some initial hypotheses we’re working with to address that risk as we experiment and co-develop with our partners:
1. Diversify across learning modalities
We’ve always known that learners respond differently to different modes of learning, which is why it’s important to incorporate different learning modalities into any program. But the differences in individual preferences are swamped by the differences between the participation formats of face-to-face and online. It’s all the more important now to integrate a variety of modalities into every learning experience. To make a hybrid session interactive, we have to do more than alternate between plenary lectures and table discussions.
2. Enable social learning through shared experiences
Part of the benefit – to companies and to individuals – of face-to-face (F2F) learning has been the peer networking that comes from a shared experience.
In a F2F setting, shared experiences have come almost “by themselves” through coffee, lunch, and dinner breaks. In a 100% virtual setting, shared experiences have to be more intentionally engineered, and that has been one of the great advantages Abilitie’s team-based, simulation solutions have offered. In a hybrid environment, however, those participating F2F will once again be able to enjoy serendipitous shared experiences, from which the virtual participants will be excluded. To compensate, learning designers should look for ways to structure social learning opportunities specifically for the online participants. One example may be that the training experience truly diverges for the two audiences, e.g., setting up small discussion groups exclusively for the virtual populations of a training program.
We feel pretty confident in these hypotheses based on our experience of delivering virtual and hybrid programs during the pandemic, but they are also general. Where are some places we’ll go out on a limb but will be prepared to acknowledge that we bet the wrong way should our hypotheses be invalidated by our experiences in the coming months? We’ll be sure to share our discoveries as we learn more.
3. The use of the virtual format as the baseline
Given that the higher risk lies with neglecting the virtual audience, we believe that virtual delivery should be the format of reference. Concretely, that means that everyone should connect online, through their device, with individual cameras and headset microphones, even those sitting in the same room. Co-present participants can take advantage of coffee breaks to make the most of their physical environment, but the main event should remain virtual for all throughout the program
4. Facilitate remotely
As a slightly more speculative corollary, we think that it will be advantageous for the facilitator of a hybrid program to participate remotely. If she is co-present with some of the audience, she’ll find it extraordinarily difficult to resist using all the modes of instruction that work so well in a classroom, and this can’t help but make remote participants feel disconnected. Meeting the needs of any diverse audience is a tough balancing act, but we think that facilitators may find it easier to remain attuned to the needs of the more vulnerable remote audience if they connect remotely, too.
No matter what, there is no end in sight to the interesting times we’ve been living through, as we and the world adjust both to new external realities and a renewed internal delight in experimentation.