What’s Training’s New Normal?

training's new normalThe last year has seen organizations making an heroic effort to switch their Learning and Development programs from in person to online, remote learning. For example, the Tauranga City Council converted their learning program to digital learning in less than a month at the start of the pandemic, rolling out courses to more than 900 employees in just two weeks.

Despite the fact that the pandemic jump-started remote learning programs for many organizations, learners miss the classroom. For many, face-to-face instruction delivered by a live instructor has been the preferred method of learning at work; Training Industry’s most recent Learner Preference Report found that 52% of learners prefer instructor-led training (ILT).

Why? Learners feel that they retain more information when they are face-to-face with an expert, and appreciate being able to ask questions of an expert who is right in the room with them. According to the Training Industry Report, learners feel that live instruction is the best method of learning for every single topic, and many learners feel it’s more effective than any other kind of training.

Getting back into the classroom however, is tricky. The pandemic is ongoing, and not everyone is comfortable re-entering a classroom with other learners and an instructor. So when can we get back to normal? And if we can’t get back to normal, what will the new normal for training look like?

How did L&D programs change during COVID-19?

At the beginning of this year, the Ken Blanchard Companies conducted a survey of more than 1,000 Learning and Development professionals about their response to the challenges of the pandemic, and their plans to move forward, post-pandemic.

For many, it has been a bumpy ride; more than 40% of those surveyed said they were able to convert their live training to digital, but with considerable difficulties when it came to design, delivery, and technology. Just 24% converted live training to remote training with few challenges.

They also were not thrilled with the result: more than half of the L&D professionals surveyed felt their new digital training programs were less effective than the tried-and-true live instruction they had been providing. This was less a function of learning being delivered digitally than having to put together a new training program under duress — many of the professionals plan to keep their digital programs when the pandemic is over — but more on that a bit later.

“Normal” may be a bit closer than we think

One of the interesting findings of the survey was a prediction: the Ken Blanchard companies asked training professionals when they thought learners would be comfortable (and allowed) to re-enter the classroom. By and large, the most cited date was July 2021. That’s right: this month.

It’s a little too soon to find data showing whether or not this shift is taking place, but The Economist’s Normalcy Index shows that life – office use, flights, and other indicators like sports and movie attendance — is about halfway to pre-COVID norms. In the training world, some conferences have returned in person: ATD’s ATD21 International Conference and Exposition, which was hastily converted to a virtual event last year, is live this year at the end of August, although there is also an online option for those who don’t feel comfortable in a convention center. DevLearn, which shifted to an online format before its 2020 conference, is back in person in October. With that in mind, it’s entirely possible some ILT is back in the classroom this summer.

Training beyond the pandemic

Despite learner preferences and the fact that, pre-pandemic, 96% of companies provided instructor-led training, many organizations are planning to keep their eLearning as we move past the pandemic.

According to the Ken Blanchard Companies survey, 57% percent of companies say they feel ILT has a place, but plan to integrate it into a blended learning strategy, while 24% of companies will use ILT for their highest-impact training, but deliver all other training digitally.

LinkedIn’s latest Workplace Learning Report contains similar findings; ILT isn’t the gold standard as it once was. Instead, blended online learning — learning experiences with a mix of virtual instructor-led training (VILT) and online learning — is likely to become the status quo. Budget projections bear this out: 73% of L&D professionals expect to spend less on ILT while 79% expect to spend more on online learning.

So what’s the new normal? It’s likely to not be fully digital — people miss being with other people and value live instructors — but L&D isn’t abandoning online learning at all. They may tweak it to improve engagement— for example, LinkedIn found that social features improved both the learner experience as well as the learning itself — but digital learning and blended programs are here to stay.