With public-sector budgets tight and conference-related spending under continuing scrutiny, how are government agencies adapting to develop their employees without compromising quality? One response: Many public agencies are increasingly moving training online and out of the traditional classroom setting.
GovLoop, an online training and collaboration community that describes itself as "the knowledge network for government," surveyed its members and found that almost 90 percent of respondents had attended at least one virtual learning event in 2014, up 2 percent from 2013. It's not hard to see why that number has been growing: Going virtual eliminates geographic, spatial and time constraints, since learners can attend from any convenient location. Webinars and virtual classroom tools such as surveys, whiteboards and text chat facilitate session engagement and appeal to participants' different learning styles. Archived recordings of sessions allow for on-demand and repeat viewings. And the cost savings related to travel, lodging, and lost time and office productivity are significant.
Virtual training is not without its challenges. The move from live, in-person training to virtual learning is a novel one and takes some getting used to. The transition must be handled appropriately in order to get agency leaders, staff and public employees alike on board. Overcoming negative perceptions and past experiences with early efforts at virtual training may present hefty obstacles, as is managing the bandwidth of system resources required for effective operation.
Given virtual training's benefits and challenges, how can a public agency reliably and effectively achieve its learning objectives in the virtual classroom? Here are five steps for successful implementation:
Assess the landscape. Engage your users. Ask them what type of training would be most useful to them. Have they participated in virtual training before? If so, who led it, what platform was used and how was the experience? If not, what are their concerns and interests? Engaging early and often helps reduce fear of uncertainty.
Choose the right online learning platform. Consider what you need to create a vibrant learning environment. Do participants have the necessary equipment to participate fully? Does your agency already use a platform? You have a wealth of options: Adobe Connect, AnyMeeting, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, MaestroConference and WebEx are just a few. Consult online-training experts and well versed public leaders. Sit in on a free GovLoop, Emerging Local Government Leaders or International City/County Managers Association training session or webinar. Note your experience. Many commercial platforms offer 30-day free trials, so take a test drive.
Engage participants in the learning process. Virtual curriculum design and delivery requires its own set of skills to keep participants interested and engaged. Adults are active learners. Minimizing lecture-based instruction and incorporating meaningful engagement every few minutes is critical. Incorporating chat-based feedback loops, Q&A and group exercises throughout makes learning more effective. Keep modules clear and concise. Use video and imagery as appropriate. Most importantly, provide your virtual participants with a platform overview before the start of the session.
Prep your instructors. Do a pre-training run-through with your instructors. This familiarizes them with the platform's functions and boosts their confidence. You may find that some exercises do not work in a virtual setting, while others -- such as role playing in mediation training -- can work very well. Moreover, run-throughs allow you to minimize potential issues that may occur in the actual session.
Evaluate. Embed a simple evaluation into your "thank you" slide. Were learning objectives met? How was the platform? What worked well? How can you improve the experience for the next offering?
Learning, after all, is about experimentation and iteration: assess, decide, develop, act and reflect.
This article was originally published on Governing.