Virtual Training: It’s All About the Learner

Columns - Beyond the Plant Floor

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October 12, 2020

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Please allow me to again start by saying thank you to all you heroes who are still going to work at the manufacturing plants, providing consumers with safe and consistent quality products. You risk more exposure to the coronavirus than those who are able to home quarantine, and for your willingness to do that, I salute you. You are my heroes.

This virus and its mechanism of spreading through respiratory droplets has caused many changes in all industries. As a consultant and trainer, I can only imagine many of the changes that have occurred in the manufacturing plants and food distribution plants as well in international trade. Production floors have been rearranged to provide physical distancing. Cleaning and sanitation efforts have added a disinfection step to the routine. Laboratories have had to create zones for workers and process flows to minimize multiple personnel contacts with samples. It is definitely a brave new world. Please stay safe.

In my world where I’m not able to provide in-person consulting services, I am now able to provide training classes and courses using virtual means. And this has me rethinking training.

In the January/February 2020 issue of QA, I discussed training and the development of training programs. But now, I’m having to dig deeper into the topic because more training is taking place in a virtual world. We use Teams, Zoom, Adobe Connect, and other platforms to provide our training to employees and even to guests in the facility. So I’ve been thinking about how we ensure this new paradigm of virtual training is effective.

By effective, I mean if it is attended, understood, practiced, and then measured. A 2015 study, Microsoft found the average attention span for adults to be eight seconds. Knowing that, how do we assure the effectiveness of virtual training?

I think I can be a reasonably good teacher in-person, but I’ve had to go “back to school” and learn how to teach and be effective in a virtual environment. Let’s think about a public training class on the topic of, for example, HACCP principles: A lot of what happens in the in-person class is interaction with other learners. We use class time to learn about how we each work through a risk assessment, how we set critical limits and confirm validation of those.

Can this interaction take place in a virtual class?

Let’s start by thinking about what it could be like to be an attendee at a two-day (eight hours per day) virtual class. In-person, you are able to stand and stretch. You can look around the room at other attendees and “read” their body language.

As an instructor, I can react to these things as well. When I note a person’s body language saying, “I don’t understand,” I can review the material again or focus on that item a bit longer to assure understanding. How does that happen in a virtual environment?

Imagine that you are sitting in front of your computer screen for eight hours straight attending a training course. Most of us have trouble sitting that long, especially if the leader is monotonous. How can a virtual class be interesting enough for two days straight? In addition, as a learner, how difficult is it to get engaged with the class virtually? Do you have to sit and listen all day as the instructor reads their PowerPoint slides?

Certainly, all of these things need to be considered when you are creating a virtual class.

In building your company’s virtual training classes, you need to consider these as you create and present your courses. What I have learned in my few months of virtual training is to always remember: “It’s all about the learner.”

A class needs to be insightful, personal, engaging, and actionable. A course needs to draw in the learners and cause them to want to know more; it must provide them with information and actions they can take when returning to work.

To be engaging, we need to be encouraging and build the confidence of the learners. We need to create value for the learners while assuring that the message is interpreted and understood.

In the plant, this also may mean that you need to assure that the right subject matter expert (SME) is used to present the virtual class.

We also need to assure that the learner knows how this new learning will translate to increased compliance or possibly profits and improved wages and working conditions for the individual. Will understanding and compliance with this new knowledge result in a pay raise or promotion? What is the value to the company when the new knowledge is shared and actions taken after the classes are implemented? Will this help the company achieve a goal or maintain a certification?

I’ve also learned that the virtual course should be condensed. The teaching part should be condensed so that the engaging part can be expanded. I need to stop talking so much and get the class engaged with breakout groups or assignments, maybe even a game to help the knowledge sink in better.

I need to break it up, so that the learner stays virtually engaged. Maybe the eight-hour class can be reduced to six hours and the learners left with time to engage with their teammates.

Another consideration for in-plant virtual training is to assure the right platform is used. Is Zoom the right place to have these classes? Is there a more accessible platform that is easier to use and understand? Can you save all your virtual classes on an in-house server, or do you need to post them to a cloud-based location so that they are easily accessed by remote learners? There is much to think about to ensure learners learn.

I’ve taken to heart various bits of advice that I found helps me be a better, more engaging trainer. Hopefully, too, you have some new fodder for thought, and together we can improve our virtual training techniques, assuring that the learners gain more from this new mode of training.

BRUCE FERREE Independent Consultant/Trainer Eurofins Laboratories