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Virtually There: Learner Engagement in the Modern Classroom

Modern classroom learner engagementLearner engagement turns on three factors: an emotional response to the training; an intellectual response to the training; and an environmental response to the learning.

These three 'dimensions' of engagement are the foundation for InSync Training's InQuire Engagement FrameworkTM . which comprises instructional techniques, design strategies, and best practice standards for establishing and maintaining learner engagement and enhancing instructional outcomes in the virtual classroom.

Engaging learners has always been a challenge. Not only has training evolved into a blended learning model, the “Modern Classroom” is influenced by multicultural cohorts, a mobile workforce, and social networking tools. Managing these influences and integrating them into a blended program requires planning, training, and understanding from all members of the training delivery team.

The first step in developing meaningful training and professional development solutions these days starts with language. Engagement, interaction, collaboration: These terms often are used interchangeably, and with little thought regarding what they actually mean, how they might be measured, and how they influence the learner experience and outcome.

This article is the first of a series of three that will seek to provide meaningful definitions for these terms, how they can and should be implemented, and insight into current research and trends in corporate training and learning. This article proposes a definition and model of learner engagement that examines the learner experience and the impact of engagement on the learner’s success in achieving the outcomes desired by that learner and the organization. Along the way, we will addresses answer the following questions:

  • What is learner engagement?
  • What is the Modern Classroom?
  • Why is engagement different in the Modern Classroom?
  • How do multicultural cohorts, a mobile workforce, new technologies, and social tools affect learner engagement?
  • Does engagement equal learning? 
  • What else do you need?

Engagement…WHAT Exactly Is It?

A casual review of current literature in academic research finds more than 300 scholarly articles and more than 2,000 trade articles in last two years alone that use the term, “engagement.” Anecdotally, we all can picture in our minds’ eye what a lack of “engagement” looks like, but when pinned down on an actual definition, things become more blurred. Some liken engagement to motivation, while others talk about causal factors affecting engagement, without providing a definition at all.

The fact of the matter is that only a couple of formal research efforts have looked at learner engagement at all, for all the ballyhoo associated with it. Organizational behaviorists long have looked at “worker engagement” and its factors of “Emotional Engagement” and “Intellectual Engagement.” Initial research has found that the traditional engagement model from Organizational Behavior and other research is a good first step, but misses a key factor that the Modern Classroom brings into the learning experience—the learning environment. Our definition of engagement, therefore, turns on three factors:

  • An emotional response to the training: How does the learner “feel” about the content and its presentation/treatment?
  • An intellectual response to the training: Does the instructional experience require and involve the learner’s intellect?
  • An environmental response to the learning: Do the learners interact with the learning environment and is the environment changed because of the training?

If we constrain engagement along these factors, differences between engagement and concepts such as collaboration (a social learning exercise using a set of tools to interact) and interaction (stimulus/response between the learner and some aspect of the instructional treatment) become clear. Engagement is an internal learner dynamic that varies throughout a learning experience, which can affect motivation, persistence, and satisfaction.

Enter, Stage Right…The Modern Classroom

For the purposes of this article series, we will define the “Modern Classroom” as the superset of possible learning environments (and related instructional treatments and techniques) in which a learner may find him- or herself in the corporate training domain. Instructional contexts in the Modern Classroom include on-the-job training, performance support, as well as formal and informal instructional treatments. The treatments leverage a wide spectrum of techniques to accomplish their objective, ranging from task and immersive simulation to YouTube videos and mobile-enabled job aids. If you are thinking about implementing a new instructional method (or already have), it likely comes as no surprise to recognize that each method has strengths and limitations that affect the implementation for your organization. These differences are important for your implementation, and are similarly important in how they affect learner engagement.

The Modern Classroom and Learner Engagement

Each Modern Classroom method directly influences the emotional and intellectual response factors based on content, treatment, relevance to the learner, and several other factors rooted largely in Adult Learning Principles. The key in properly implementing Modern Classroom treatments depends on correctly addressing these issues in development. The key factor often overlooked in development and implementation is the ENVIRONMENTAL FACTOR of learner engagement—to wit, how likely is the learner to interact with the content in that particular learning environment to achieve the desired outcomes?

To answer that question and enhance learner engagement, you need to look at the environment you are using to deliver, and evaluate the utility of that environment from the perspective of the leaner. This gets at the issue constantly asked in Training departments around the globe: “Is good for teaching ?”

There are several takes on this question. There are those who adopt, no matter what, and those who want to keep doing what we’ve always done. And let’s not forget those in the this-isn’t-how-I-was-trained camp, among a variety of others. The key is not choosing sides in this debate (they all have good points to make), but instead, looking at the world through the learner’s eyes. The question to ask is: “Does the instructional treatment in question provide the best environment to teach the particular thing?” As an example, imagine a sales training class with a live in-person seminar for negotiation skills. Participants would be coached and evaluated, until the instructor could “look ’em in the eye” and know they had achieved mastery. Sounds great, but what if I were to tell you that these students conducted their sales calls and negotiations online using a live virtual platform. Does the in-person live seminar sound as good as a well-designed virtual program that leveraged the same environment that the salespeople would be doing their jobs in?

The underlying concept is one of task and learning authenticity. In the virtual salespeople training example, the virtual platform more closely mimics the actual task environment, providing the same tools and capabilities each learner will have to master to do his or her actual job. Once learners understand they will be working in that virtual platform, they will expend as much effort learning the platform and how to optimize it in a sales call as they will on the actual mechanics of negotiation, simply as a consequence of having to negotiate online. The learning environment changes with the learners as they interact in it—slides advance, chats are discussed, annotations are made—and as the environment changes, the learners refine their perception within that environment to act on what is important to succeed in the negotiation.

Note that this is a more robust definition of blended learning that includes not just instructional technique but learning environment.

Now What?

Having defined learner engagement along three factors and established that the Modern Classroom provides unparalleled capacity to match learning environment and instructional treatment to the desired outcome, the next step is to select the elements in your program to optimize learner engagement using each of the three factors. Initial research is underway to identify how each Modern Classroom technique (social collaboration, case analysis, virtual seminar, self-paced e-learning, task simulation, etc.) affects the different factors within the learner engagement model. It is safe to say at this point that varying the instructional technique applied, and adhering to emerging best practices in Modern Classroom methods (e.g., micro-learning is less than 10 minutes, etc.) are a good first step.

As a parallel, the research underway also is looking at the relationship between engagement and outcome—that is, do more engaged learners achieve better outcomes in an instructional treatment? More on that in the Virtually There article next month.

This article originally appeared in Training Magazine Online on October 16, 2015 in the column "Virtually There."

InSync's InQuire Engagement FrameworkTM , developed by InSync’s Dr. Charles Dye, is based on an operationalized situated cognition model and neuroscience, and optimizes learner trajectory by considering the learner, the learning environment, and the learner-environment interaction through measurable and well-defined measures of effect. Access the original research here:

Interested in more depth information? Check out our Virtual Classroom Design Mastery Series certificate course by clicking on the graphic below.

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Published by Dr. Charles (Chip) Dye, Ph.D. February 4, 2016
Dr. Charles (Chip) Dye, Ph.D.