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Oct 07, 2021 Jennifer Hofmann

The Science of Designing for The Virtual Classroom

How the Design of the Virtual Classroom Can Also Align Business Goals, Objectives, and Learner Intent

Even in an (almost!) post-pandemic age, the face-to-face classroom is often considered to be the best environment in which to deliver training, and when that option isn’t logistically or economically feasible, it’s only then that we look to the virtual classroom or a blended learning option to meet our training requirements.

Surprise! Did you know that some performance objectives are best suited for delivery in the virtual classroom? Or eLearning? And some performance objectives are best taught in the mobile virtual classroom?

Hard to believe, right?

This is great news, considering the state of training today.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the lessons we learned from the pandemic is that a philosophy of virtual first will be applied to decisions about training implementation (and employees will expect it). In the “before times”, it was a common perception that more rigorous training programs required an in-person classroom experience. Now, with months and months of experience proving that much of this content can be taught effectively in a virtual environment, training programs will be designed for virtual delivery first. Strong arguments will need to be made to justify in-person classes, especially those that include travel-related expenses.

If the online classroom is our first ‘go to’ option, then we need to start by getting the design right.

We get the right design by going back to the basics of instructional design:

  • identify business goals,
  • crafting on-target learning objectives,
  • choosing the right delivery methodology,
  • and aligning the design intent with the learner intent.

Aligning Learning Outcomes to Business Goals

When designing a virtual learning classroom solution, a critical part of the process will be to link the learning outcomes to business requirements. This should always be a part of the design process. Depending on the instructional complexity of the program, its development can be expensive, and the implementation timeline could take many months. If you go through this potentially expensive and time-consuming process without being certain you are meeting the business need, you might be delivering content that’s not needed.

That doesn’t help anyone.

No matter how ‘good’ your training design is, if it doesn’t align with the goals of the business, you have a failed program right out of the gate.

Even with a "virtual classroom template" in hand, you must first start with business goals or it won't lead to success. When speaking to your stakeholders, document needs specific to your client. In addition to these client-specific needs, be sure to ask how the desired learning solution can meet the business outcome. It may be difficult for your client to articulate the business need for a perceived training requirement because the need feels obvious to them – but persevere! You need to get this right. And once you do, you can start the design.

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Laying the Foundation with Learning Objectives

Once you have clearly articulated the business need, it's time to design the program. Early in the process, you’ll develop your learning objectives.

As you start to design your virtual learning or blended learning program, you will constantly revisit your learning objectives, because they will direct almost all your design decisions—from the selection of instructional treatments to assessment strategies to the selection of instructional technology for authoring content and delivering lessons.

Even if you are converting existing learning content to a virtual or blended format, you need to spend time validating that your learning objectives are on target. They need to align to the business requirements, as well as support what the learners need to know, what they need to be able to do, and how their behaviors need to change because of the training.

Well-crafted learning objectives are critical for creating intellectual engagement–one of the core foundations of the InQuire Engagement FrameworkTM. Beyond aligning with business goals, the design must stimulate learner curiosity and emphasize relevance and applicability. The learning objectives must expressly communicate the intent of the design.

For help creating your learning objectives, you can download this job aid.

Aligning Learner Intent with Design Intent

For the learner to develop intellectual engagement, the learner's intent must be closely aligned to the design intent.

Curiosity prepares the brain for learning and stimulates intellectual engagement. So, if a facilitator is able to arouse students’ curiosity about something they’re naturally motivated to learn, they’ll be better prepared to learn things that they would normally consider boring or difficult.

This is often referred to as ‘alignment of intent.’ When the instructional experience is designed, there is an intent behind that design, and that intent was identified during the needs analysis phase of the instructional design process.

In other words, the intent of a program design is to develop some level of expertise or understanding of a topic.

For the program to be successful, the learner needs a comparable intent. For example, we often have people come to our Virtual Classroom Facilitation Mastery certification thinking they will learn how to use the specific virtual classroom platforms. Here, the learner intent is to master Zoom, MS Teams, Webex, etc. When they arrive, they are frustrated to discover the program is focused on facilitation skills that work on any platform. The design intent is facilitation skills.

Our job is to find common ground between these two intentions by stimulating learner curiosity.

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A Word on Context and Authenticity

Before we can design better learning, we need to discover the fundamentals of authenticity and context in learning, and specifically in virtual learning.

Context refers to placing learning within a larger picture. Where will learners use the new skill? What will they do before and after applying this knowledge? The answers to these questions can provide the context learners need to understand the relevance of the information.

Authenticity focuses on appropriate treatment. Blended learning allows us to select different design choices for each learning objective, providing flexibility. Consider each learning objective and ask yourself, “How can I best instruct learners so they can hit this target?” For instance, your design for teaching a new hire on-the-floor sales skills will differ from your design for teaching employees how to sell the same product over the phone.

Consider teaching a new customer service phone representative how to interact with customers while collecting and inputting data. Traditionally, we would bring the rep into a face-to-face environment – but that’s not realistic in terms of their day-to-day work. The work will eventually be performed at a desk using a telephone to communicate with customers. Using a virtual classroom to deliver this content is much truer to task, allowing individuals to learn in the environment in which they will be performing a task.

All the required skills can be assessed in the virtual environment. Software competency can be observed using application sharing and incredibly realistic role-plays can be conducted in breakout rooms. If the learner can be at his or her own desk while training, using the actual computer, phone, and headset that would be used with a real customer, the training outcome will definitely be more real-work oriented. And then there is the mobile virtual classroom and BYOD.

Learners are using mobile devices often because they are, well, mobile. To take advantage of that, be sure to think about what skills they need when they’re on the go. For example, if you are teaching a warehouse supervisor how to manage inventory using a tablet, delivering the training via the tablet is a more authentic (‘real-life/real-work’) way of teaching the skill; therefore the learners will leave the lesson with more skills than when training is taught in a less authentic environment. (“If he is going to perform the task that way, then he should learn the task that way.”)

This is called “contextual learning.” If we are teaching someone how to create pivot tables in Microsoft® Excel®, that content should be designed for a virtual desktop environment because that is the environment in which learners will be applying the skill. Learning this skill on a mobile device is not only not contextual, it’s difficult to see the detail involved with the tasks.

In this example, a virtual classroom is more authentic because it is more contextual.

When you are trying to determine virtual classroom, eLearning, or any other delivery modality is a viable option for particular content, take a close look at the desired performance outcome.

Conclusion

When we first started to adopt the virtual classroom more than 20 years ago, there was a tendency to skip over the instructional design process. We used subject matter experts and a slide deck and hoped that the virtual classroom platform technology was enough to ensure that people learned. After 20 years of lecture-based webinars trying to pass themselves off as training, we have finally realized that ‘hope’ is not a good foundation for learning, and the industry is finally refocusing and reaffirming the importance of instructional design.

To me, strong design is a function of alignment. If we ensure that the business goals are in sync with the design intent (as expressed by the learning objectives) and with the learner intent, we will be able to create programs that maximize intellectual engagement and ensure that learning transfer is taking place.

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Published by Jennifer Hofmann October 7, 2021
Jennifer Hofmann