Virtual Classrooms

Why learn in real-time?

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As we’ve seen, communication can be synchronous or asynchronous, and when you design a learning intervention, you have the choice between the two. Given the advantages of being asynchronous - self-pacing, freedom over when you learn and for how long - there has to be a good reason for going synchronous. Here are some arguments for starters:

• When real-time interaction with experts is critical; participants must have questions answered before they can move on.

• When it is important for people to interact and share ideas concurrently.

• When the facilitator must be able to observe that participants have mastered a skill.

By engaging in practical exercises in a live event, participants can demonstrate real-time skills and thinking.

• When a live event will help to ensure that a learning task is completed.

Participants are more likely to carry out a self-paced task, such as reading or writing up an assignment, if they know a live event is coming up at which they will have to report on their progress. Nancy White describes how “synchronous events can provide a heartbeat for an ongoing community, group or network. We put them on our agenda instead of saying ‘I’ll do that later’ and they focus our attention.”

• When conveying late-breaking and timesensitive information.

• When there is a need to adjust the level or complexity of material in real-time based on the way participants are responding to the material.

• When questions and areas of difficulty cannot be easily predicted in advance.

• When there isn’t the time or budget to develop asynchronous materials, such as some self-paced e-learning.

• When the presence of a trainer will contribute significantly to learning.

As Jonathan Finkelstein reports: ”People need not be present concurrently with an instructor to simply have information passed on to them, yet the active construction of knowledge by learners through a process of real-time give and take is well served in a live online setting.”

• When a guest expert is available for a limited time only and couldn’t respond to questions in a forum over a longer period.

When live online learning is not enough

It’s probably already occurred to you that, in many cases, a learning intervention will benefit from a mix of synchronous and asynchronous elements: some of which may need to be face-to-face, while others will be more efficiently conducted online. In other words, you need a blended solution. A blend is likely to be the best option when the intervention is lengthy; when there is more than one type of learning to be accomplished (i.e. a mix of knowledge, interpersonal skills, physical skills, problem-solving skills, attitude change); and also in those situations where the target audience is varied in terms of prior learning, interests, motivation and preferences. A live online learning event can stand alone, but it’s just as likely to be part of a blended solution, which could include self-paced activities and perhaps face-to-face events. Your use of live online learning is likely to be influenced as much by the potential efficiencies of the medium as it is by its effectiveness in achieving learning and performance goals. There are several ways in which you can measure efficiency:

• Bums on seats: This is a measure not only of the popularity of your offering, but also the extent to which you are utilising capacity. If your sessions are half-empty, you are wasting trainer time. If you regularly have to cancel sessions and reschedule, then you are inconveniencing your participants.

• Cost: Online sessions are likely to yield major cost benefits when compared to face-to-face alternatives. Don’t forget to look at all the savings, both direct (money that has to be paid out, such as for travel and subsistence) and indirect (overheads that can be applied elsewhere, such as staff costs).

• Time: Sometimes it seems that time is more scarce than money. Online sessions save a considerable amount of time that would otherwise be spent travelling. They can also be implemented in a more timely fashion, without so much advance notice.

• Environmental benefits: By reducing or even eliminating the need to travel for training, you could see a dramatic reduction in your organisation’s carbon emissions. Use tools such as Learning Footprint to calculate the environmental benefits of this approach. You’ll want to evaluate your session in terms of both its effectiveness in meeting your learning and performance goals and its efficiency.