2020 will not be remembered fondly by many of us, but for me it came with the added shock of realising that it has been 20 years since I finished my first degree at Lancaster University, which suddenly made me feel very old!
Back in those days, opportunities to learn depended on a person’s ability to attend lectures, libraries, seminars and training in person and broadly on a specific time and date; something I found particularly difficult at times during my tenure at Lancaster. A missed lecture often meant hours spent in the library photocopying and trying to decipher pages and pages of badly handwritten notes, borrowed from a friend.
In 2013, I went back to university to do a Masters and the landscape for learning by this point had totally transformed. I completed an MBA in just under four years and gave birth to my two daughters during the same period (I like to multi-task). I was able to maintain a level of continuity during that time by completing a number of modules via distance learning. But even then, the parameters of distance learning were relatively narrow. There would usually be a small number of face-to-face sessions followed by independent study, research and learning. There were no video calls, webinars and no virtual group work.
In the last two to three years the advances in virtual learning have increased as technology has developed, but the adoption of that technology in our day to day lives has been nothing short of dramatic since March, with the knock-on impact of COVID-19.
As with any change that happens at pace, there are always lessons learnt along the way. Indeed, the learning will continue. At Solace over the last eight months we have moved all of our development programmes, skills days, apprenticeship programmes and recruitment services online, as well as our events, including our annual Solace Summit.
This year, the Summit was due to take place over three days in October at the Bonus Arena in Hull. With five months’ notice and a lot of uncertainty at the time, our events team completely reimagined the event and delivered over 45 hours of content online over a five day period in mid-October in the form of our first Virtual Learning Week.
So, what have we learnt and how can we use some of this learning to further develop the relatively new concept of virtual learning? What are the pros and cons and what does the future of learning look like, regardless of the short and medium term restrictions a global pandemic may present?
On reviewing delegate feedback from the various programmes we have delivered this year, the overwhelming feeling is one of appreciation. It is clear that local government colleagues have felt motivated to prioritise their own development during the last few months and have recognised the importance of doing so. The continued access to key learning and support, in whatever format has been largely valued and recognised.
That said, the virtual format will need to offer something more if its use is to be continued in any significant way once live events are back on the table. The stand-out benefit that we’ve observed at Solace is the increased reach virtual learning can have through improved accessibility. Comparing the traditional Summit to our virtual alternative, our delegate numbers were approximately eight times higher for the virtual event. That can be down to delegates being better able to fit bite-sized virtual learning into a busy day or attending a session they may not have been able to make it to in a live format. Virtual learning has also proven to be more democratic, broadening the audience for what might have traditionally been an event aimed at one specific group of people.
The content delivered as part of our Virtual Learning Week this year was accessible to thousands of delegates, at all levels of leadership. The feedback we received from middle managers who attended the event was that they appreciated listening to inspirational leaders from across the sector, with whom they have limited access to on a day to day basis. Similarly, feedback from one executive leader was that widening the audience to other levels of management has enabled useful conversations to spark at all levels of the organisation, which has been incredibly helpful in driving forward some key agendas.
The ability to catch up on recorded sessions at a time and date convenient to the individual has also significantly increased engagement across our programmes. In our own staff development programme at Solace, we have seen a real increase in participation since we started recording our learning sessions. No matter how much an organisation champions staff development and encourages engagement, there will always be individuals who feel more able or willing to focus on their own development at a time convenient to them.
One of the key components of an effective learning event is the speaker or facilitator, the majority of the feedback we get on our development programmes and events focuses first and foremost on how engaging, knowledgeable and inspirational the speakers or facilitators were. In our experience securing speakers for a virtual event is more straight forward and cost effective than a live event due to the minimal time commitment, no travel and ease of access. Of course due care and attention will need to be paid to the selection of speakers for a virtual event because even the most engaging live speaker may not be comfortable presenting virtually and a basic level of IT skills will be required to ensure the session runs smoothly.
So, the benefits of virtual learning are clear, but what are the disadvantages? And what have we learnt along the way that might help to overcome some of these issues? First and foremost it is clear that learning on a screen is not everyone’s cup of tea. Many people find extended periods of screen-time exhausting and struggle to focus and learn effectively. In this respect we have learnt that the selection of speaker is absolutely key and the criteria mentioned previously is important. Secondly the sessions should be time limited and as interactive as possible; use collaboration tools to share ideas and opinions and encourage questions and debate throughout, use virtual breakout rooms to simulate workshops and smaller seminar groups. If possible, leave the agenda relatively flexible so that delegates can discuss a topic and influence how their learning develops throughout the event.
The opportunity to ‘meet’ people in similar roles and on similar development paths still came out in the feedback as a leading benefit from our development programmes over the last few months. Most delegates saw benefit in meeting their cohort even in a virtual setting, although clearly the opportunity to network in a live setting is missed at this point in time. Our delegates have suggested including an informal breakfast session with virtual breakout space for networking, before the full programme begins or breaktime desk yoga or a similar activity to break down the formality of communication via a screen. The desire for these informal opportunities to connect with people is driven by human nature and thought must be given to how this can be best enabled in a virtual setting.
Finally and perhaps most obviously, consideration should be given to the technical side of virtual delivery. Although on the one hand virtual learning is more accessible than a live event, if the technology doesn’t work or the user is less technically aware/able, the virtual environment can feel very confusing and frustratingly inaccessible. We have learnt here that selecting your platform carefully, having experienced technicians on hand and offering a personal technical support call prior to the event can all be helpful. For now, we are in a period where a number of different platforms are vying for being the video conference platform of choice.
They say ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and there is no doubt that the pandemic has nudged us all into a position where virtual delivery and access is a key tool in continuing our learning and development. It has opened doors and broken down barriers. There are clear advantages and disadvantages to both live and virtual settings, but in our view, both have a clear place in the future of learning delivery.
Jessica Mullinger is head of interim management at Solace