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Jo Cook

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Live online learning: not a silver bullet but a useful tool

The boom in digital learning doesn’t mean live training faces extinction.

It’s part of organisational life to change, adapt and be agile. Working in new ways and making sure learning transfer is as efficient and quick as possible has always been important.

The research highlights what we’ve all experienced about good live online learning – it’s about being learners and the performance need – not on the broadcast of a presentation.

Some organisations had developed the internal skills to design and deliver live online learning sessions way before the Covid-19 pandemic. Coronavirus has hastened large-scale changes to how we work and learn, whether we felt ready, or not. Put simply, we’ve all had to adapt, and fast. 

The rising role of learning technology

The use of webinars and virtual classrooms has been on the rise for several years. An Emerald Works (formerly Towards Maturity) report from 2016 showed that 45% of organisations were using virtual classrooms, rising rapidly to 84% in 2018. This year’s (pre-Covid) report shows that 91% of learning leaders already had virtual classroom and webinar delivery skills as a priority.

Couple this with businesses responding to the 2020 pandemic, and it’s no surprise that platforms such as Zoom, Teams and Connect are expanding rapidly. Microsoft reported a 70% rise in users in April 2020 and Zoom has more than 300 million daily Zoom meeting participants.

Organisational approaches

So, what does the data tell us? I’m going to draw on research from the Emerald Works Learning Health Check. In this independent study, 1,123 senior learning and development practitioners respond to a variety of questions about their learning strategy and the impact on their businesses.

The responses I’m focusing on here compare organisations that have virtual classroom/webinar delivery capability in-house (32% of respondents in 2020) with those that don’t. 


As someone who trains L&D teams in how to design and deliver live online sessions, the speed and efficiency that L&D leaders are reporting makes perfect sense. With virtual classrooms:

  • You don’t have to wait for a physical room to be available (although you do need a software licence).
  • There’s no travel logistics to worry about.
  • Webinars and virtual classrooms can be as short as 15 or 30 minute sessions – you don’t have to add content to justify the cost of the venue, travel and lost productivity.

During March, as the Covid-19 lockdown took hold in Europe, I was supporting some of my clients to develop and deliver webinars to staff in a matter of hours. One particular organisation already had some of the capabilities in-house. This enabled them to roll the skills out to more than 400 staff in just days, as the technology infrastructure and the L&D skills were there to support it.

This highlights the important role of L&D to support organisations and truly partner with senior decision makers to deliver results. Indeed, recent LinkedIn research shows two-thirds (66%) of L&D professionals say that learning and development is becoming a more strategic part of their organisation, and 59% say they are starting to develop a stronger learning culture.

People, technology and value for money

One of the perceived problems with technology is that it will take jobs away from people, but what if the organisations that had the webinar/virtual classroom delivery skills in-house were also those that had double the number of people in their L&D team? All very well, you might say, but doubling the team means increasing the costs of training out to all employees across the organisation, doesn’t it? Maybe not.

Organisations that participated in the Health Check that had live online capabilities in-house had an average of 21 people on the L&D team, versus just ten on the team in the organisations that didn’t have those capabilities in-house. Despite this, the organisations that are averaging bigger teams are also spending less on training per employee in their company. They’re spending, on average, £614.40 versus £644.76.

These companies are spending proportionally more on technology, but reducing the overall budget of training per employee. It feels counterintuitive, yet what I’m seeing is that technology in learning allows a wider reach across the organisation, and even with more people in the team, the reduction in other costs offsets the investment.

The learning and performance link

Spending money on developing trainers and learning programmes for an organisation is of course a waste if you aren’t achieving learning transfer that improves their performance. The Employer Skills Survey reported on the causes of such skills gap, including ‘staff performance not improving following training (31%), and staff not receiving appropriate training (25%)’. The report also shows that organisations that are more mature in their learning approach and have virtual/online L&D capabilities in-house are:

  • 19% more likely to involve managers in the design of their learning solutions.
  • 14% more likely to report that their senior managers demonstrate a commitment to learning.

They also report they can speed up the application of learning back at work.

What these organisations show is that they have a better overall understanding of how learning can respond to the needs of people and the business, and how to involve the right people to ensure it makes a difference. Involving managers in the development programmes for their teams is a given for so many in L&D, and this data highlights that organisations who do it are more likely to be doing other good work to achieve overall positive outcomes for their people and for their core business.

Engaging your people to develop skills

In the Emerald Works 2019 report, The Transformation Journey, L&D leaders reported on the technology they were investing in and planning for future use. Of the respondents, 93% said they were looking to invest in live online learning. As mentioned earlier, the Back to the Future report highlighted that 91% of organisations marked virtual classroom/webinar delivery as a priority.

The development of skills for working in new ways is a must. We’ve all attended webinars where the speaker didn’t know how to use the platform, or live online sessions where trainers didn’t interact beyond the odd chat comment. There is clearly a need for excellent engagement and facilitation skills in order to promote learning.

Recent research by Gegenfurtner and colleagues echoes this. It found webinar participants were most satisfied when they could consult and question the facilitator and have synchronous interaction, feedback and support from both facilitators and other attendees. This research highlights what we’ve all experienced about good live online learning – it’s about being learners and the performance need – not on the broadcast of a presentation.

If, on the other hand, face-to-face trainers, and reluctant ones at that, are working live online without understanding the different approaches that they need to take and having the training and support to do so, the quality of those sessions is going to harm the learning, as well as the reputation of the individual and the whole L&D team.

Back to the beginning

So what does all this research tell us? Live online learning isn’t a silver bullet – it’s part of a suite of L&D tools to use with the wider organisation. Both organisations with and without these capabilities still want to increase their face-to-face learning (both by 9%), their online learning (61% with the capabilities in-house and 70% without the current skills) and the blend (72% and 80% respectively).

Whilst the Coronavirus context might change those numbers and their relative importance in 2020 and beyond, the outlook is still broadly positive for those that cherish face-to-face delivery. There’s still a place for it. It’s also beneficial to those who want to develop their skills and ensure that they, and L&D, remain relevant to the organisation long into the future. 

Interested in this topic? Read Why there’s still a place for face-to-face training in the ‘new normal’.

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Jo Cook


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