How can employers support online learning? Think differently!

This is the text of a 15 minute talk I gave to the Institute of Learning & Management‘s Virtual Conference, Online Learning: Challenges and Solutions on Friday 22 May.

Well, the Coronavirus has done what few CEOs have been able to do – it has pretty much overnight changed the workplace and at the same time made us realise the value of online learning.

I’ve been watching how many organisations have been putting their training online. Many have opted for Zoom – the video meeting platform. But unfortunately, that has led to other problems, for as meeting after meeting takes place on Zoom, interspersed with live virtual training, people have ended up with Zoom fatigue. Dazed and overwhelmed by the whole thing.

So, there’s one big thing I want to start by saying when we consider online learning, it’s remembering that it’s not about replicating or automating traditional training practices but innovating – thinking differently about what we can do online to help people learn. So, I’d like to spend these few minutes with you helping you think differently about how to support learning online in new ways.

The first thing we need to do, is think differently about the word “learning” itself. Learning doesn’t just happen when we are trained or taught or study something – that’s definitely the traditional view of learning. You know, sitting in a school classroom or university lecture hall or in a corporate training room or working through an online course on your computer.  Of course, training is important – but it’s not the only way we learn at work.From the results of my Top Tools for Learning survey – that I’ve been running for the last 13 years, I’ve identified that people use digital tools to learn in 4 different  – although highly interconnected – ways that I’ve been calling the 4 D’s of learning – i.e all the words begin with D!

  1. People learn through DISCOVERY – that is by finding things out themselves (mostly on the Web) through searching or serendipitous browsing. We might also refer to this as Informal learning
  2. People learn though DISCOURSE – that is by interacting with others (whether it be in their professional social networks (like Twitter or LinkedIn) or with their work colleagues. We can refer to that as Social learning.
  3. People learn from DOING the day job and from their everyday work experiences. We might refer to that as Experiential learning.
  4. And of course, people do learn through DIDACTICSbeing taught or trained – what we usually refer to as Formal Learning. But, although this is the dominant way of learning for L&D departments, research shows that only around 10% of what people learn at or for work happens in this way.

So, when we talk about online learning, this means we need to think about how we can promote and support ALL of these 4 ways learning – DISCOVERY, DISCOURSE, DOING as well as DIDACTICS –  digitally or virtually. In this short talk I can’t cover everything that might be done; there’s just not enough time for it, so let me just pick out a few things.

I’ll begin with DIDACTICS because that’s most L&D’s starting point.

You might be interested to know that some other research I’ve been carrying out for the last 10 years has consistently shown that people actually rate classroom training and e-learning as the least valuable ways of learning at work.  There’s lots of reasons for this (boredom, frustration, lack of time) so, if we simply replicate the classroom online we just repeat the same mistakes. So, here are two things to consider.

  • If you are thinking about converting your classroom sessions into live virtual training (on Zoom, for instance) then these sessions need to be short – 30 mins works best, give or take 5 mins either side. They also need to be highly interactive (either using the platform’s own interactive features, like polling, chat or Q&A) or by incorporating other online or even offline activities. In other words, a live training session shouldn’t just be used to broadcast content.
  • But don’t think creating an online course instead would be a better option! Rather create short flexible online resources in different formats – video, audio, even text and graphics – so that they can be used for different purposes – JIT learning, performance support, reference etc.These resources can then be used in the way that the individual wants – whether it’s working through them in a linear fashion or just dipping in and out of them. This approach reflects how people prefer to learn for themselves on the Web. Simple resources can be very effective – you don’t need to create highly sophisticated materials.Furthermore, it’s not then about monitoring course completions in an LMS to measure learning; it’s about making these resources available in the workflow – on the intranet for instance – so that they are easily accessible (and not locked away in another system) and people can use them as they will to do their jobs- and then measure their effectiveness in terms of improved job performance.

But it’s important to remember that L&D can’t possibly create everything everyone needs to learn to do their job or to prepare them for the future; so it’s really time to think how to help people become self-sufficient and DISCOVER more for themselves online. In fact, that’s what a lot of them are already doing – and probably more so now they are in lockdown. So, it’s about promoting incremental learning (that is gradually building on what they already know) – as an important part of online workplace learning.

I recommend encouraging everyone establishing a daily self-learning habit. That means spending just 20-30 minutes a day discovering something for themselves (on the Web) to support their own professional goals. It might not sound like a lot of time, but it all adds up – to around 2 ½  hours a week, 10 hours a month, and over 100 hours a year – that’s equivalent to around 10-12 training days!

Some managers who recognise the importance of continuous and incremental learning are already giving their people time to do this, but if your own managers are not quite ready for this, then your people might be encouraged to do this in their own downtime (on their commute – if they still have one) or perhaps at a coffee break. It’s for their benefit as much as the organisation’s since there is no longer such a thing as a job for life, and everyone needs to take responsibility for their own continuous career development.

And there’s a lot you can do a lot in 20-30 minutes. You can read a couple of blog posts or articles, listen to a podcast, watch a video. People should do whatever suits their needs, interests and preferences – there’s no one size fits all. And just to add, that this is the way I have been learning for the 30 years or so, and it has brought me enormous value. Every day I add to my own understanding of how the workplace is changing and what organisations are doing differently.

In fact, if this were a virtual training session, this is where I would pause and show you exactly what I do on a daily basis, and then ask you to share what YOU do for your own daily self-learning  – but it isn’t so I am just going to have to press on!

Whereas lots of people are “modern learners”, learning for themselves in this way, others may need help to understand what’s possible and to acquire some of the new modern learning skills, like searching, curating, subscribing, sharing and so on.  If you are a modern learner yourself, you are in a great place to help them build these new skills to get the most out of the huge range of learning opportunities available online.

But there are couple of other things you might do to get the ball rolling. For instance, you might curate some relevant online resources for them EITHER to build a collection of useful stuff your people can delve into on different topics OR by offering some daily micro-learning – that is small pieces of curated or (even created) content to help them build their knowledge on a topic.

And that also might include providing links to key people to connect with on Twitter or LinkedIn, because building an effective professional network with whom they can regularly interact, is, as we have seen, another key way of learning –  through DISCOURSE. In fact, for me, interacting with my own network on Twitter has been essential, and I often say when I’m presenting at a conference, if it weren’t for Twitter I couldn’t be standing there talking to them, because I have learned so much from the people I follow on Twitter.

Interacting with ones colleagues is, of course, vital too. Remote workers are, undoubtedly, now making greater use of online social platforms like Microsoft Teams, Yammer and Slack for their work, but helping teams use these very same platforms to share their knowledge and experiences with one another, so that they can continuously learn from one another online as an integral part of work – still needs some encouragement and support.

So, there is a lot of value in working with teams to help them share resources effectively and discriminately on their social platforms – to make sure they don’t over-share and overwhelm one another, perhaps in order to try to get to the top of a leaderboard —  and how to add real value to what they share, so their colleagues get something meaningful from it.

Teams might also benefit from support to help them “work out loud” and share their key work experiences so that the learning from the daily work doesn’t go to waste, so duplications can be spotted and people can get help from others with their projects, or their challenges and issues

And to help teams in these ways you can make use of the same platform they use for the work – Microsoft Teams or Slack or whatever it is – to host an online workshop so that you can guide their social learning experiences and help teams learn and share as an part of their daily work, which of course is a big part of learning by DOING.

I run regular online workshops for L&D practitioners and I host these on Slack for the very same reason – to show these practitioners how you don’t need a separate social learning platform, you can make good use of an enterprise collaboration platform for both formal and informal social learning – so that learning and working become inseparable partners, which really is the point of it all.

Anyway, as you can see there are lots of things you can do to support learning online at work – rather than just creating online courses and running virtual live training.

But if you still consider an online course or programme of some sort is required, then all these elements – resources, activities, social experiences – can be combined to provide a varied, flexible online learning experience.  And, why not offer it in the form of a learning campaign – which provides a varied stream of resources or challenges over a fixed period – perhaps 30 days. This is a very useful way of changing behaviours (like helping to establish a daily learning habit) which can’t be achieved by a one-off online course.

So, my key message to you today is when you are thinking about online learning don’t just consider how you can convert your training into an online format but what else you can do online to help your people to improve, grow and develop in many other ways. That’s where the real value is going to be in the new normal of the workplace, particularly since people will be emerging from lockdown with very different expectations of how they want to work and learn in the future. We are all going to have to adapt to new practices, habits and behaviours when we are back at work, so this is prime time to start preparing for the new world of workplace learning.

Thanks for listening, and if you would like to read more about my work, see some graphics that visualise today’s content, please take a look at the first (free) section of Modern Workplace Learning 2020.

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Jane Hart

Jane Hart helps organisations and learning professionals modernise their approaches to workplace learning - through public workshops and bespoke consultancy. She is the Editor of the Modern Workplace Learning Magazine, and is the author of a number of books including Modern Workplace Learning 2020 as well as the resource for individuals How to become a modern Learner. Jane was the 2018 recipient of the ATD Distinguished Contribution to Talent Development award. You can contact Jane at