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Why virtual works better than most people think

The Oxford Group

25 June 2020

At The Oxford Group, virtual design and delivery has been part of our blended approach to learning for many years. It is a very valuable part, enabling us to put in place powerful learning journeys to engage participants and provide multiple opportunities to reflect and practice – before, in-between and after the face-to-face learning events. For geographically dispersed groups, with small numbers of individuals in far-spaced locations, virtual was often the only option. Apart from these situations, face-to-face was almost always the central learning experience – until COVID-19. 

In just 3 months, we – like many others – have realised even more deeply the immense power of virtual learning and recognised the advantages that it can have over face-to-face, provided the learning process is understood and designed appropriately, that the facilitator is experienced in virtual delivery, and that the participants are prepared for the virtual experience.

The process of adapting to virtual starts by being clear about what it is not. Virtual is:

  • NOT just e-learning, links to YouTube / Ted Talks or podcasts (although this can be part of the experience)
  • NOT just taking the face to face design and putting it on a virtual platform; the conditions for successful delivery are different
  • NOT necessarily cheaper: virtual programs require more design time, and  platform and producer costs need to be added to delivery. However, everyone saves on the cost and time of travel, venues and accommodation.

So, what are the ingredients of effective virtual learning which have demonstrated, over the last 3 months of COVID-19, that that virtual works much better than most people think?

  1. A high level of interactivity both with the facilitator and between participants – properly designed and with the right technology, the quality and amount of interaction can be at the same level as in face-to-face.
  2. Use of multiple ways to engage the learners, now made easy by the increasing quality of virtual platforms: Whiteboards, Break-out rooms, Chat, Polls, Raise hands
  3. Strong use of visuals – which make the learning memorable
  4. The flexibility of duration – from short, impactful learning bites of one hour up to 1 or even 2 / 3 days. 
  5. The opportunity to build networks and collaboration across countries and time zones without additional cost and time wasted in travel. Cohorts of learners no longer need to be bound by their geography.  
  6. The ability to invite participants almost instantaneously for an impromptu learning experience or in response to an immediate need.
  7. Creation of more inclusive learning experiences by removing the distinction between people who can make it to ‘in the room’ training and those who can’t.
  8. Use of social learning experiences to build post event communities of practice. This  encourages more peer learning and more integration of learning into day to day work, as people who’ve attended virtual events can easily meet and share learning with others in shared collaboration spaces. 
  9. Virtual learning lends itself well to creating ‘drop in’ and ‘just in time’ learning moments where people can share resources and discuss their learning.

During the COVID crisis, the practices of social distancing and home working came to be the norm. We believe these will continue in various forms. Exploring these opportunities and challenges caused us to fully develop the immense power of connecting virtually. 

Many of our clients and participants are reporting the relief of “I am not alone”; we can share our experiences, our feelings, our concerns….” And perhaps even more extraordinarily, the virtual medium has broken down many barriers and enabled people to more easily show who they really are, to show their vulnerability in a safe and trusting environment – helped by the fact that most of the time they are working from home.

We’ve been delighted to join with our clients to create some great examples of virtual learning being which is rich and rewarding for the participants and specifically offers the trust building and interactive experiences that we know are a key part of powerful learning. It really isn’t a second best option, it has it’s own richness and can be a fantastic learning environment. It’s different to face to face and has its own great advantages. 

Making use of virtual delivery in the future

  • Design for virtual: focused and short. Less is really more! Currently we are designing programs which can be run as either virtual or face to face according to the Lockdown status in different regions – still taking care of the specific features of each
  • Build in a varied learning style with lots of opportunities for interactivity as well as reflection 
  • Start sessions with an opportunity for building rapport with the facilitator and between participants – more or less long depending on session duration
  • Ensure participants know the ground rules: how to use different tools, muting, and turning off all other programs to avoid risk of multitasking…
  • Keep groups small: ideally 8 to 12; although we have run sessions with up to 30 participants!
  • Get the practicalities right: choice of platform, familiarity with the tools, use of a trained producer and facilitator, communication to participants and ensuring their ease of access.
  • Give thought and care to creating an engaging experience and atmosphere in the session by actively building in many participation opportunities for everyone. People can still sense the connection if the facilitator is truly engaged. Remember, the technology is the instrument – the people are the music! 

Share your experiences

We would love to hear from you about your experiences of going virtual – we believe that sharing builds skill and confidence. Several of our clients, including BIC, Neptune Energy and Accor, have told us about their own positive experiences of virtual design and delivery – and have indicated their intention to stick with virtual, even after the COVID crisis ends. We would love to hear from you about your experiences of going virtual – sharing builds skill and confidence. 

Of one thing we are certain: virtual is here to stay – either as stand alone or as part of a blend with face-to-face. 

‘The Oxford Group was extremely responsive in delivering a virtual workshop for our leaders entitled Dealing with Ambiguity at the start of the pandemic. The trainer was fantastic and our leaders were pleased with the content which they thought was extremely relevant and timely.’
BIC