By Patti P. Phillips, Ph.D., CPTD, and Jack J. Phillips, Ph.D.

This article was originally published on August 7, 2020, on 

Today, more than ever, there is a need to ensure that virtual learning works to improve organizational outcomes. Because of the work-at-home and travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 crisis, most learning programs have shifted to a virtual format. This requires program owners to design and implement virtual learning with desired outcomes in mind and demonstrate that the virtual format works.

Studies show that virtual learning often breaks down when measured at the application level (using what was learned) and impact level (the business impact connected to learning). However, this breakdown can be avoided. To secure the support and funding that virtual learning needs, it must deliver business results. This article explains how designers, developers, providers, and program owners can ensure that technology-based learning will deliver desired results by applying design-thinking principles that focus on delivering application and impact with virtual learning.

Serious Challenges for L&D

Unfortunately, L &D has faced some challenges to deliver results that executives appreciate and understand. In our polling with practitioners, we repeatedly find the following statements to be true based on the perception of these practitioners. To deliver the value that executives need from L&D, each of the answers should be false.

  1. Most learning and development is wasted (not used). Unfortunately, there is still a transfer of learning problem as individuals learn the content but they do not actually use what they have learned. There are many barriers to this transfer, and the most important barrier is a lack of management support. For in-person learning and development, this is less of a problem when compared with virtual learning.
  2. The learning outcome desired by executives is rarely measured in organizations. Most studies will confirm that executives want to see the business connection to learning, whether it is face-to-face learning, virtual learning, or mobile learning. If they don’t use it, they lose it, and there is no business value to the organization. The challenge is to make sure that the learning is used and delivers impact.
  3. The learning providers do not have data that shows they make a difference in the organization. To make a difference, that means the individuals involved in programs must be using what they have learned and have a corresponding impact. You need both. Without use, there will be no impact. Unfortunately, not many learning and development practitioners even measure at this level to ensure application on the job and the corresponding impact.
  4. Most executives see learning as a cost and not an investment. Obviously, if executives see learning as a cost, it will be cut, reduced, paused, minimized, controlled—all those bad things may happen in uncertain times. If they see learning as an investment, they may protect it, enhance it, and even support it even in downturns. The challenge is to show executives that learning does deliver a positive ROI. The best way to do that is to measure the ROI on a major program using an ROI formula from the finance and accounting literature, removing the doubt that learning can deliver a positive ROI.

Why Virtual Learning Fails

 We have evaluated virtual learning for many years and have experience showing instructor-led learning compared with eLearning, sometimes in parallel, to show the differences. What we have found is that virtual learning typically breaks down at Levels 3 and Level 4. Why does this occur? There are four key reasons:

  1. Multitasking inhibits learning. The research is clear that multitasking diminishes actual learning. There is a myth that people can multitask and still absorb deep learning. It doesn’t happen.With instructor-led learning multitasking is controlled in some way. Not only by good design, activities, and engagement but also by managing the learning environment to remove the opportunity to multitask. For virtual learning, multitasking runs rampant, as we have all witnessed, many times in virtual conferences, virtual meetings, or virtual learning programs. The reality is if learning is inhibited, then application will be inhibited and impact will be inhibited. This decreases the ROI significantly.
  2. Manager’s support is missing for the most part. When participants attend an instructor-led program, they typically leave their work area to attend the program. The manager knows they are involved, and there is a good chance the manager is involved in the decision for them to take the learning and that the manager creates expectations. After all, the person is leaving the job, and the organization is missing the work of that person. It is in the managers’ best interest for the learning to translate into something useful and worthwhile for the department. Because of this, the managers are often involved before the program, setting a goal and then after the program in a follow-up. For virtual learning, the manager is almost always not involved. For much of it, the manager doesn’t even know that participants are involved. After all, most virtual learning is offered during normal work hours and the manager may not even know about it. With the manager absent, the most important influencer for transferring learning to the job is missing.
  3. Success is based on learning, not impact. Instructional systems designers design virtual programs to deliver learning. They don’t design for application and impact. Designers think their work is done when a person has learned. However, senior executives, who provide the budget, want to see the business connection from people actually using what they’ve learned. It is rare to find a virtual program designed for impact. Very few virtual learning programs have impact objectives. Without impact objectives, the various stakeholders do not fully understand why the program is being implemented. With impact objectives, the team can design the program for application and impact. It is more likely that designing for impact will occur in an instructor-led program.
  4. The role of the facilitator is missing. Yes, there may be a recorded or live facilitator, an administrator, host, or coordinator, but what is missing is the power and influence of great facilitators to inspire the participants, encourage them, and support them to use what they have learned. Sometimes, a group of participants will bond to deliver the required results. The designers must not only design for the delivery of application and learning but also must replace the role of the influence of the in-person facilitator.

How to Make Virtual Learning Deliver a Positive ROI

 Building on the reasons for failure, here are seven steps to design virtual learning to deliver a positive ROI:

  1. Start with why defined as a clear business need. The first step is to make sure that there is a business need clearly identified for the program by asking questions, analyzing data, and exploring what will occur when this program is implemented.
  2. Make it feasible by having the right solution. Make sure that learning is the right solution and virtual learning is the right learning solution to improve the business measure.
  3. Expect success. Define success for the program at the impact level and set objectives for each level (reaction, learning, application, and impact). Provide those objectives to all stakeholders to make sure that they design for application and impact.
  4. Design for the desired outcomes. Make sure that all stakeholders develop tools, templates, and processes, and provide the support and encouragement to make the learning deliver success at Levels 3 and 4. Essentially, you are designing for those outcomes.2
  5. Measure application and impact. Sample a few virtual programs to make sure that application and impact is there. Use simple, easy to provide, application and impact data to understand how it’s working.
  6. Think process improvement throughout the process. Make sure that anytime something is not working, it is adjusted quickly. Focus on dynamic adjustments throughout the process.
  7. Use blended learning whenever possible. Recognize that while virtual learning is effective, the results are often enhanced when virtual learning is combined with instructor-led learning. Blended learning is one of the best options.3

There you have it, the ways to make sure that eLearning works and delivers the success that you need. Together these steps can make a difference in the positive or negative ROI. Following these steps almost guarantees a positive ROI on your virtual learning programs.

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