If you ask 10 different trainers to define “virtual training,” you will probably get 10 different responses. To one person it might be talking a self-paced e-learning course, and to another it might mean a Second Life meeting. Virtual training is a broad term with many different interpretations.
In some ways, it’s like the word health. When you tell someone that you want to “get healthy,” they might think you will be changing your eating habits. To someone else it might mean exercising, getting more sleep, or losing weight. Health is a multifaceted word. In reality, the full scope of the word health encompasses all aspects of a person’s well-being: physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. Yet when people talk about their health, they are usually referring to just one specific aspect of it. It’s the same with virtual training. Virtual training is multifaceted, and could mean many things depending upon its context and who is talking about it.
Starting with the basics
Training classes help people learn new skills. “Traditional” training classes have predefined learning objectives, are held at a set time and place, and are taught by a trainer. Participants register for the class, show up at the pre-assigned time, and leave with new knowledge and skills ready to be applied back on the job.
These traditional training classes vary in style, length, and format. They may be highly participatory or they could be lecture-based. The class size may be small enough for intimate discussion around a table or large enough to fill an auditorium. The class may be two hours or two days in length. It may be contained in one short meeting or it may span several months.
Virtual training has the same type of options. It can vary in style, length, and format.
The most common terms associated with virtual training include:
- Online learning
- Web 2.0
- Informal learning
- Blended learning
- Virtual instructor-led training
Online Learning? E-Learning?
When personal computers were introduced into the workplace and our daily lives, we use then to automate process and simplify routines. It was natural for training to follow. Trainers began looking ways to automate learning, and traditional training moved onto the computer.
At first it was called “electronic learning,” or e-Learning for short, because it was learning via computer. The term e-Learning has evolve to refer to any type of training that requires a computer.
After the introduction of the Internet and web browsers, trainers took advantage of this new technology. When you accessed training via the Internet, it was called online training.
We can distinguish between online learning and eLearning by looking at the learner’s interaction. It’s a very subtle yet important distinction.
Some online learning is self-paced, completed individually without any interaction with others. However, most types of online learning occur in conjunction with other learners. Learners collaborate with each other and with a trainer. Online learning is an umbrella term that refers to all types of interactive training that uses an Internet connected computer.
On the other hand, eLearning more commonly refers only to self-paced individual training. Participants taking an eLearning course would log into a website and complete an assignment on their own. There is usually no interaction with other learners, or with a trainer. While the eLearning course uses a website, it is distinguished by its individual nature.
Synchronous versus asynchronous
Synchronous and asynchronous refer to the meeting time of the training. In a synchronous training event, the participants and trainer meet together at a set day and time. Synchronous training events usually use an Internet-based software program specifically created to host online meetings, events, and training.
In asynchronous training, the participants and trainer do not meet together at the same time. Asynchronous refers to self-paced learning that occurs over time as the participant’s schedules allow. Common tools used in an online asynchronous training event include threaded discussion boards, email messages, podcasts, and wikis.
Both synchronous and asynchronous training events usually include opportunities for collaboration and interaction between participants. In a synchronous event, the collaboration happens together in real time, and in asynchronous training the collaboration occurs intermittently over time. The main differences between them are the software tools used to conduct the training and the timing of the events.
Face-to-face training versus Virtual Training
When the participants are together with the trainer in the same room, it’s called face-to-face training. When participants are separated by distance and meet online, it’s called virtual training.
Virtual training can be audio-only by conferences call, however most virtual training also includes a visual connection via a shared website or collaboration software.
Online presentations, meetings, and webcast
An online presentation, sometimes called webcast, could be compared to an in-person seminar. In this type of seminar, a presenter speaks to the attendees. There is little interaction between the presenter and participants, except for possible Q&A opportunities during the program.
I recently attended a webcast sponsored by ASTD. At the designated start time, I logged onto a website and saw the speakers and their presentation slides. I estimate there were at least a thousand other participants around the word logged in as well. There was limited interaction between the speakers and attendees, except for the ability for attendees to submit questions electronically. The speakers addressed a few of the questions during the program, but the rest went unanswered. While it was an expertly produced, informative webcast, I would not consider it to be virtual training.
While it is possible to create limited interactivity in this type of event, it’s mostly just a talking head who is sharing information. This is not considered training in a face-to-face environment, and therefore would not be considered training in the virtual environment. A webcast is not training.
Webinars and Virtual training
Most of the people use the terms webinars and virtual training interchangeably. The word webinar sounds like seminar and it has become the word du jour for synchronous online training.
While most people do not distinguish between webinars and virtual instructor-led training, it is clear they have different intended outcomes and therefore are not the same thing. The goal of a webinar is to impart knowledge, while the goal of virtual training is to improve performance.
Webinars raise participant awareness of a topic. They are used to impart information to the attendees. For example, if a corporate human resources department needed to share information with employees about an upcoming annual benefit enrollment period, it may choose to share that information via webinar. This webinar could include interactivity, with polling questions and chat, but it would not be considered a training class. While webinars may have two-way communications between presenter and participants, they may or may not ultimately result in the participant’s behavior change or have an impact on participant’s performance after the event. Webinars are simply an online opportunity to interactively share information.
Webinars are helpful and useful in the right context. They have their place and purpose. There are times when participants simply need awareness of new information, and interactively will help communicate it.
A virtual training class is different from a webinar because it has predefined learning objectives. These objectives are tied to performance outcomes. And ideally, these performance outcomes will have positive impact on business results. During a virtual class, the trainer will check for knowledge transfer. In addition, participants have an opportunity to practice and apply their new skills.
Blended learning, Web 2.0, Web 3.0, Informal learning, Virtual Training and moving from traditional to virtual training will be the topics for the second part of this article.
ASTD, 2010 State of the industry report, ASTD Press, 2010.
Beich, Elaine. Training for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005.
Cindy Huggett. Virtual Training Basics, ASTD Press, 2010