The challenges faced by learning and development leaders have never been more complex. Not only must learning leaders grapple with the need to educate and develop employees in a frenetic and global business environment, they must do so with easy-to-use, engaging and evolving learning-content streams that maximizes the use of the latest technology. At the same time, learners’ expectations have never been higher.
Virtual learning may help in combating these challenges. With virtual learning, content can be consumed anywhere, any time and on any device. Content can also be more organized and tracked. Online learning, to a large extent, is slowly becoming the new normal.
According to a 2012 survey by virtual communication company ON24, 91 percent of human resources and learning professionals plan to increase virtual learning use this year; 33 percent said they would be increasing use by more than 25 percent.
Similarly, a separate ON24 survey found that 74 percent of learning professionals are considering virtual learning environments in the next six to 12 months, and 72 percent are considering learning webinars.
Virtual learning is more convenient, interactive and engaging for both learning leaders and trainees. It also costs less. For example, service provider Sodexo — which has 420,000 employees around the world — posted an annual savings average of $1.5 million through its virtual management training program.
Moreover, learning leaders have found virtual learning retention to be just as good — or even better — than in-person training retention.
In late 2011, ON24 conducted another study evaluating the use of virtual communication and training tools compared to traditional in-person methods. The findings indicated that professional trainers feel that virtual learning alternatives are just as effective as traditional training methods — some 60 percent of the respondents said that virtual training retention is better than or as good as in-person training retention.
There are other factors involved as well. Another ON24 survey from earlier this year found that 84 percent of learners said there are problems with employee learning. The top concerns: learning only happens occasionally and learning content is inconsistent; learning material is boring and not up-to-date; and learning is inconvenient. Virtual learning, if properly designed, can circumvent these concerns.
The applications best suited for a virtual learning environment include customer or product learning, new hire on-boarding, administrative and management topics, and employee learning.
A big part of virtual learning is so-called social learning. According to data from learning and development consulting and research firm Bersin by Deloitte, in 2012 U.S. companies spent $13,675 on average on social learning tools and services — a 39 percent increase from 2011. Large companies are making the heaviest investments, spending more than $46,000 on average in 2012. That’s nearly triple the spending of just two years ago.
Illustrating the trend is Rosetta Stone. The language learning company uses a webcasting platform to create a social online environment to facilitate connections between learners and trainers as well as social media sharing via Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. When confidential information is being shared, however, social learning does not occur through social media. Instead, chats are scheduled within a virtual environment, allowing experts and mentors to share insights and exchange information.
Despite its benefits, virtual learning is unlikely to completely replace in-person learning, however.
For example, the Institute of Management Accountants provides both in-person and virtual learning. In-person learning is typically offered at small regional meetings, at which time networking and the development of personal relationships are stressed. For reaching global participants and providing ongoing access, virtual learning is used.
Tom Masotto is vice president of product management for ON24, a virtual communication provider. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.
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