What Is “Online Learning” And How to Do It Quickly and Easily During the COVID-19 Pandemic



With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many people to work from home and reducing or entirely ending meetings for classroom-style, instructor-led training, there’s an understandable move to put instructor-led training online.

In this article, we’re going to give you some general guidelines for transitioning your instructor-led training (ILT) online, give you a better idea of what online training is, and also link you to some additional articles we’ve created that will help you develop the different types of online learning we’ll explain in this article.

Don’t Worry If It’s Not Perfect

It’s a difficult time. Many of us are currently having to do more with less, frequently under work circumstances that are new to us, and all while we’re also thinking about the health and safety of our families and friends as well as an uncertain economic future.

So, remember that things don’t have to be perfect.

But Don’t Just Pump Out Garbage, Either

So while perfection can be the enemy of the good, especially during a pandemic, that doesn’t mean you should rush and just throw stuff together as fast as possible.

You’re STILL going to want to take some time to analyze the learning needs of your employees and then design and develop helpful online learning activities.

  • There’s a few good reasons to not just pump out things quickly without much thought, including:
  • It’s a waste of your time and the time of your employees, and of course that time costs money
  • You’ll turn employees, especially those who are entirely new to online learning, off the experience immediately and you may never get their buy-in again no matter how good the online learning you make later turns out to be
  • It’s likely that online learning materials you create now will continue to be used for quite some time at your organization.

Remember that every time you create training, you want it to be impactful and to lead to real learning outcomes that will help employees develop skills so they can perform job tasks.

Consider Blended Learning Approaches

We’ll explain this more in the following sections, but you can put training online in a variety of different manners: written materials in the form of a web page or a PDF, videos, webinars, virtual classrooms, elearning courses, and more.

In many cases, instead of just using one delivery method, such as doing all of the instruction on a given topic in a virtual classroom, you’ll get better learning outcomes if you use multiple delivery methods. For example, if you need to relay information, you can use a video, a PDF, or a web page that employees can read; then you can hold a virtual classroom for discussion and Q&A and to judge comprehension and help correct any misunderstandings; and an elearning course to let workers practice applying the new skills.

More on Blending: Think about Synchronous and Asynchronous

When you’re thinking about creating that blended learning solutions, remember to give thought to the issue of synchronous and asynchronous learning.

If you’re not familiar with the terms, synchronous means a learning activity you complete in a group, together, all at the same time, and asynchronous means it’s a learning activity you do on your own (even if other people taking the same learning curriculum will also complete the same activity on their own).

So use synchronous online learning activities, such as a virtual classroom, when there’s a real benefit to getting people together to learn. And use asynchronous online learning activities, such as a PDF, a video, a recorded webinar, or an elearning course, when there’s no real benefit for getting together to learn.

Use Basic Evidence-Based Training Practices

Ideally, you’ve been using evidence-based training practices that we know lead to improved learning outcomes in your instructor-led training sessions. These include thinks like knowing how people process information, remember, and later use that information on the job; writing learning objectives and then creating training that supports those learning objectives (and nothing else); remembering that in training, less is more; chunking; awakening prior knowledge; not merely delivering information but also–and primarily–providing opportunities for practice and feedback; spaced practice; using metaphors and analogies; using worked examples; using visuals; and more.

If you’re already using evidence-based training methods in your instructor-led training, then creating effective online training won’t be that different other than some minor technology changes.

If you’re not already using evidence-based training methods in your instructor-led training, then this move to online training is an opportunity for you, and one you should seize and take advantage of now. Don’t continue the same mistake of developing and delivering training that’s ineffective, that doesn’t assist your employees, and that doesn’t lead to impactful learning results and workplace performance improvements when you move to online training. Take some time, learn up about evidence-based training methods, and incorporate them when you go online.

If you’re new to this idea of evidence-based training, don’t worry. We just linked you to some, and the additional articles that will follow-up in this series about transitioning your training online will include more. But in addition to that, if you want to start learning more, let me suggest some of the following resources:

There are more, of course, and we apologize for wrongly omitting great additional sources, but this is a pretty good start.

Primary Forms of Online Training You Can Develop

The primary different forms of online training you’ll be looking to deliver are:

  • Virtual classrooms
  • Live webinars
  • Recorded webinars
  • Videos
  • eLearning courses

In addition, you can also use other materials as part of your online learning experiences, including:

  • PDFs
  • Web pages
  • Virtual classrooms

We’ll explain a little more about each below. Additionally, for the most important forms within the context of this discussion–virtual classrooms, webinars and recorded webinars, and eLearning courses–we’re going to provide links to additional articles that really drill down on how to create these effectively and quickly. PLEASE NOTE: if you’re reading this article and we haven’t yet included links to those more detailed, more focused articles, we’re working on them and they’re coming soon, so check back in a day or so.

Virtual Classrooms

A virtual classroom is kind of a mix between what you might think of as a webinar or teleconference and a classroom session. You’ll use the same kind of webinar and teleconference software platform that you’d use for any webinar (think of Zoom, or GoToMeeting, or WebEx, or whatever) but you’ll include interactivity that’s similar to the kind of interactivity that occurs in a well-designed instructor-led classroom training session.

To underline that point, a virtual classroom isn’t the same as a webinar because in a webinar, you’re just delivering information, whereas in a virtual classroom, you’re designing a learning experience with learning activities that help employees learn (understanding, remembering, practicing, encoding, and later transferring to the job).

For more on designing an effective virtual classroom, please listen to or read this extended discussion of webinars and virtual classrooms, referred to in combination as “live online training.”

Live Webinars

A live webinar is similar to a virtual classroom but the goal is primarily to deliver or broadcast information. It doesn’t have the types of activities that are meant to improve learning and simulate a lot of what we do during instructor-led training. It’s just a way to broadcast information (which is still helpful) and maybe have a virtual conversation (which can also be helpful).

Live webinars fit into that “synchronous” bucket that we mentioned earlier–people all experience it together as a group.

Live webinars have their value and their place at any time, including now, but remember that a live webinar isn’t really a learning activity. We recognize you’re in a pinch right now, trying to do more with less in a short time frame, so you may find yourself relying on these a little more than you should right now, but when possible, try to avoid it or try to shift away from it when you can.

Recorded Webinars

A recorded webinar is live a live webinar except it’s not live, obviously. So you won’t be able to chat or talk with the attendees and you won’t be able to answer questions.

Recorded webinars fit into the asynchronous bucket that we mentioned earlier.

Use recorded webinars in cases when there’s no benefit to having people talk or chat together at the same time and place.

eLearning Courses

An elearning course is something you make with a software application called an elearning authoring tool. The typical elearning course delivers some content, includes practice opportunities and a test, and (often, but not necessarily always) is delivered through another web-based software application called a learning management system, or LMS, which we’ll briefly talk about later.

You can buy an elearning authoring tool and make your own elearning courses or you can partner with a training provider to get off-the-shelf elearning courses or custom-built elearning courses. There are lots of companies that make elearning authoring tools, and we’re not recommending any, but a few of the biggest, most common names are Articulate, Adobe, and Lectora.

A tip for building elearning courses during this trying time, and one that the article we link to below will explain in more detail, is to not rush in and try to do too much at one time. You’re still going to want to do your analysis and design before you begin development.

Another tip is to consider using elearning courses to provide practice opportunities to your employees and then deliver the information in a different form (virtual classroom, webinar, video, PDF) right now. If you’ve got to do some things quickly, that would probably be more effective than trying to design and build a more complete elearning course that you might build during “normal” times.

Read this article for more focused, detailed tips on building elearning courses during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other Ways to Deliver Training Online–Videos, PDFs, Web Pages, and More

There are other ways to deliver information to employees that would be part of their training program, such as videos, PDFs, web pages with text they can read to themselves, and more.

As we’ve mentioned before, think of using these to deliver information, consider using virtual classrooms to build upon that information delivery (having discussions, Q&As, chats, breakout rooms, etc.), and then use elearning courses that people can use for practice.

You can deliver these additional types of materials in a variety of ways–on a web page as a series of links, through email, through your work chat or messaging tools, or even if you get creative through online project management tools that allow you to set up kanban boards.

Some Thoughts about Learning Management Systems (LMS)

When people think of online training, they often break that down into two aspects:

  • The training content
  • A delivery system, often known as a learning management system (LMS)

If you’re not familiar with learning management systems, they’re web-based software applications that allow you to create or import training; assign training; track and report on training; and more.

You might find a learning management system helpful at this time, and in fact many organizations already have one. But know that in many cases, it’s not necessary to have an LMS to get online training to your workers.

It’s easy enough to provide your workers access to a series of links they can use to access the online training, and in many cases you can get those links to your workers through email, a messaging tool, or a website (even SharePoint). In many cases, this will be just fine, because you won’t need to track and store completion records for that training. Our advice to you in most times, and especially now, is to trust adults to complete the training they need and that will benefit them.

Now, if you’re dealing with compliance training, you can’t be so loosy-goosy about this. An LMS might be a big advantage to you.

So our advice to you regarding an LMS is ask yourself if you need one. If you don’t, then don’t rush out and get one right this week–you can always get one if you choose after a more deliberative LMS search process. But if you absolutely DO need an LMS now, find an LMS and a provider that are a good match for your online training needs (although many LMSs have some similar features, none are exactly the same and no organization’s learning needs are exactly the same, either).





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