By Bill Ryan
The news is not that we are continually shifting most of our knowledge-economy work time online, but rather that we are learning more over time about what works and what does not when doing so. Take the Training & Development (T&D) field. Here is an industry which experienced a head start long before Covid in providing digital and distance learning opportunities. By designing and preparing virtual and hybrid instruction programs for a relatively long period it is reasonable to expect there are lessons which can be derived by this industry informing other business sectors about how to disseminate intelligence in an online environment.
Another area sharing distance learning, admittedly more than they want to currently, is the education arena, both K-12 and higher ed. Like T&D, their shared mission is to leverage the power and ubiquity of computers and similar devices, along with the public’s basic tech literacy abilities, to deliver teaching and learning possibilities when it is impractical to house students in traditional classrooms. Here too, best practices are being identified as teachers, schools, and communities face the challenge of providing quality education online.
Together T&D and education are revealing methods and conditions to consider establishing when the online work place involves information sharing, change management, customer engagement, and staff development. An analysis of peer-reviewed literature, the T&D/education marketplace, and anecdotal reports from distance learning practitioners suggest key practices when formulating and implementing remote instruction courses and programs. However, it is insightful to understand the finest of these procedures are not merely disjointed techniques produced through trial and error, but rather rest upon a philosophical foundation.
Lev Vygotsky was a Soviet-era psychologist renowned worldwide to this day for his scholarship on how humans make meaning, in other words, cognitive development. His theory in short is that people acquire cultural values, beliefs, problem-solving strategies, and practical knowledge through collaboration with others, in particular more knowledgeable persons. Comprehension and meaning, according to Vygotsky, is derived in a social context, which makes community the fertile ground from which people learn. Today, Vygotsky’s theory compels developers of online educational and training curricula to migrate characteristics of in-person community to the digital environment. In doing so, instructors and trainers are better able to facilitate concept and knowledge acquisition among their students and trainees.
We need therefore, to trust in the inter-connectivity and interplay possible through virtual contact. Although still a novel concept for older generations, society is clearly moving toward a norm characterized by remote connections with others, whether through our use of social media, FaceTime, or online short-term credentialing courses. Three ideal practices which take advantage of social cohesion include:
Being Present – This can range from presenting direct instruction in a synchronous or live-time manner to being available for individual student/employee questions to mentoring. There will be occasions where asynchronous (non-live time) communication, such as message boards, forums, and course policies, need to be visible for all participants, but in general being directly available or on call during set hours leaves participants feeling less abandoned and insecure.
Interactions – Encouraging participant interaction advances information sharing and social learning, which leads to literacy. Three key dialogues to learning involve teacher to student, student to student, and student to content. Promoting such exchanges generates effective growth oriented connections among teachers and students, purposeful explorations conducted within a student to student context, and investigations between a student and the topic areas’ facts and concepts.
Discussion – Promoting opportunities for students to participate in synchronous and asynchronous discussions creates substantial educational value. Encounters involving questions, reflections, responses, and decisions support participant growth. Thanks, to digitization, including well-structured discussions and deliberations can strengthen any course.
When tasked with planning for distance training and teaching opportunities keep in mind the importance of generating social coherence. You may find less has been lost going virtual than you initially feared.