Earlier this year when governments issued lockdown orders and corporate offices were forced to shutter, organizations everywhere had to scramble to move their learning programs online. In making this transition, however, most organizations have treated virtual learning as a sort of second-best modality, assuming it to be inherently less effective than learning in person.
The NeuroLeadership Institute recently conducted an informal audit of corporate learning strategies, speaking to more than a dozen large organizations to assess how they’ve handled the transition to working from home. Unfortunately, our conversations revealed that many organizations have taken in-person learning programs that were already faltering and made them worse, not better.
What most organizations don’t realize is that virtual learning has the potential to be dramatically more effective than traditional in-person workshops—when it’s done right. And now is the time to do it, since this is a moment when people are uniquely willing to change.
The science of learning
To understand why virtual learning programs fail and how to make them better, let’s define the purpose of learning in the first place.
In the organizational context, the purpose of learning is to change behavior. For change to occur, new learning must be remembered.
In the simplest terms, the goal of organizational learning should be easy recall under pressure.
Let’s say you teach a manager how to run meetings more inclusively. If that manager is then able to remember what they learned only if they pause to think deeply and consult their notes from class, the program has failed. For learning to be effective, the learner must be able to easily recall it even when they’re tired, behind on a deadline, or otherwise preoccupied.
Easy recall under pressure is possible only when four conditions are met during learning: Attention, Generation, Emotion, and Spacing—a framework defined in the NeuroLeadership Institute’s AGES Model.
Research has found that the key to effective learning is activating the hippocampus, a brain region that helps consolidate new information into memory. For ideal hippocampal activation to occur, all four AGES components must be optimized.
Attention: For learning to occur, participants must pay close attention to what they’re learning.
Generation: Since we form memories by making associations, learning works best when participants generate their own connections to the material, linking new ideas to their own existing knowledge.
Emotion: We can stimulate people’s emotions to activate the hippocampus, accelerating the formation of new memories.
Spacing: Learning is most effective when learning sessions are spaced out over time, especially when the gap between sessions includes one or more nights of sleep.
When deployed correctly, virtual learning is capable of activating high levels of attention, generation, emotion, and spacing. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re seeing in organizations. Instead, many organizations have taken flawed practices from in-person programs and simply migrated them online—often at great cost.
The most common mistakes
Mistake #1: Running online learning sessions of 2 to 4 hours in length. Anyone who’s ever had to sit through a long university lecture knows that the brain loses focus quickly. When learning sessions are long, learning is low, since participants are unable to pay attention for hours on end at the level needed for strong memory encoding to occur.
The solution: For virtual learning to be effective, sessions should be 50 or 55 minutes long. But that doesn’t mean the learning itself is shallow. When learning is designed well, learners can achieve intense insights in short periods of time.
Mistake #2: Failing to make learning social. Most learning programs are content to let participants walk out the door and not give material another thought until they return for the next session, if there even is a next session. This is a squandered opportunity to leverage the power of social learning.
The solution: To maximize recall, learning programs should engage participants’ social networks every week, encouraging them to share what they’ve learned with teammates, friends, and family. By connecting learning material to social interactions, participants will link new ideas to the brain’s social memory network, resulting in better recall later on.
Mistake #3: Designing for Net Promoter Score instead of behavior change. Most learning programs are designed to be fun and popular. But since effective learning is effortful, such programs are often ineffective.
The solution: Rather than trying to create content people will like, focus instead on activating habits. That means not just teaching skills, but also gauging a program’s effectiveness by measuring change—as NLI does with the Behavior Change Percentage metric.
Mistake #4: Cramming learning into a single week. Most learning programs attempt to cram as much learning as possible into a short period. Back when most learning occurred in person, that approach made more sense, given the costs of reserving physical space and the time required for facilitators and participants to commute to the location. But virtual learning makes it easy to space sessions out over time without incurring extra costs. Since no commuting is required, it’s easy to break learning up over multiple sessions on different days.
The solution: Organizations should make virtual learning sessions shorter and allow more time in between, stretching learning out over three weeks or more. The result is powerful learning that’s far more effective than a single session could ever be.
Maintain the momentum
This is a unique moment. Even as the coronavirus pandemic inflicts tremendous pain and hardship in our society, it’s also unleashing newfound energy and motivation in organizations. With so many processes in flux, employees are more willing than ever to do things differently.
But the momentum of this crisis won’t last forever. Leaders should seize the opportunity to redefine their approach to virtual learning before the energy dissipates.