What do online learners really, really want?

Jo Cook shares four important trends that she’s identified from new research with people who use online learning.

There’s a huge amount of research, opinion and commentary in training – but not a lot is with the people that matter the most: the learners themselves. I teamed up with PeopleStar to put together a research survey to find out from learners more about their experiences using live online learning, in order to help design and deliver webinars, virtual classrooms and hybrid learning sessions. We had more than 100 people respond to the survey and are collating all the results. Our reports will be out later this year, but let me share some early analysis, themes and top tips.

The respondents of the survey were around 30-60 years old, mostly from the UK, US and a few other countries. They were from different types and sizes of organisations, including charities. This is important from a research perspective because it shows me that these trends aren’t exclusive to one age group, one sector, or one size of organisation and are insights we can apply to all situations.


Theme one | Learners love virtual classrooms, but keep groups small

We asked people what kind of live online environment they preferred to learn in. The most popular answer was a small virtual classroom, with up to 10 participants. This is the number of people that I recommend as making for the perfect virtual classroom, so it’s good to share that other people do that too! But most people surveyed reported that the numbers they typically find in virtual classrooms is far higher, with more than 20 learners often attending. In fact, only 13 respondents said they experienced the smaller group that they preferred. 

This is important. The benefit of having smaller sessions means that you can really focus on the learners, and getting feedback on what is challenging them. We often end up with larger classes because it feels like we should be able to make the most of virtual sessions and get more bang for our buck. As our research shows, that’s counterproductive. 

Top tip: Encourage your trainers, managers and subject matter experts to have smaller sessions to focus on learning transfer. Evaluate the results to see if you notice a difference in how that translates to changes in skills and behaviour in the workplace. 

Top tip: If you are using PowerPoint, so you can still see webcams and chat

Theme two | Learners want to see facilitators, not just hear them

Back in 2019, none of our attendees used their webcam on our virtual train the trainer courses, and I usually only did at the beginning of sessions. This is definitely something that has changed dramatically – most people are more comfortable being online and learners expect to be able to see presenters. We asked learners whether they liked seeing their facilitator on webcam. In our survey, 41% said they like having the webcam on when it’s appropriate while 33% like it on throughout. 

According to research by Zoom – with more than 700 Zoom users – 91% report that there is more engagement if they turn their webcam on. Being able to see your facilitator can make things more personable, so do encourage your presenters to use their webcam

Theme three | Barriers to the virtual experience

We found the top three barriers to good live online learning sessions were:

  • The facilitator not understanding the technology (29%)
  • The session wasn’t designed and/or updated for virtual delivery (37%)
  • There was too much talking from the facilitator (31%)

Instead, the top three things that enhance learners’ experiences were:

  • The facilitator (70%)
  • Opportunities to interact (67%)
  • A well designed session (66%)

When the pandemic started and there was a speedy response to getting online, people forgave facilitators for not knowing everything about the learning platform they were using, or having zero time to update their sessions for virtual, and perhaps there not being as much interaction as everyone would like. Two years on and everyone’s expectations and needs have changed. 

We need our facilitators to be trained, experienced and supported in how to use technology, to design and facilitate differently for live online learning and to support their attendees, whether it’s a one-off session or part of a bigger course. 

Top tip: Who is the expert – or most experienced – in using your virtual classroom platform? Work with them to share their expertise with colleagues, so that everyone is comfortable with the technology, and can support each other with feedback and ideas for developing online learning.

Top tip: If you are using PowerPoint, share it in a window so you can still see webcams and chat

Theme four | Design really matters

Organisations want to fit too much learning into a short space of time. This is a common issue when converting to virtual delivery – it can be easy to fall into the trap of simply adding more people to a session, then cutting the interaction or activities to make it manageable, and generally end up talking at people rather than focusing on an interactive learning experience.

But to achieve good design, and adapt existing resources and courses for virtual delivery, takes time and effort. Cindy Hugget, in the 2022 State of Virtual Training, finds that designing an hour for a live online session takes 12.5 hours on average. If that’s the case, then you may need a few days to create an effective two-hour session. Your stakeholders and decision makers, however, may have unrealistic expectations of just how long good design takes. It’s up to L&D practitioners to find a balance between these often conflicting demands. Surely all stakeholders, alongside L&D practitioners, want to ensure that their digital learning offerings are fit for purpose in 2022, and are not just an extended Covid stop-gap?

If you’d like to know when the research report is released, subscribe to Jo Cook’s newsletter.

Perry Timms

About Jo Cook 

Jo Cook is a speaker, instructional designer and classroom facilitator who specialises in virtual classrooms, webinars and live online learning. Jo’s passion is in helping and supporting teams, professionals and organisations embrace the benefits of the virtual classroom. Jo’s background includes: further and higher education; the charity sector; small and large organisations, including CNN News and Bupa International.

Through her company Lightbulb Moment, Jo has specialised in training learning professionals about virtual classroom design and delivery since 2013. She has spoken on various topics at conferences such as Learning Technologies, Online Educa Berlin and keynoted for Colleges Wales and E-learning Fusion.

Find out more about Jo and her work on her website: www.lightbulbmoment.online or follow @LightbulbJo on Twitter

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