Creating a Better Blended Learning Experience: How Soon is Now?

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Sandra Elliott
May 26, 2021

We’ve all been there — endless Zoom meetings where half of the team has their video cameras turned off and microphones muted. Is anyone listening? Is anyone learning? How would you know? How do we improve this experience for everyone involved? The shift from in-person to online learning is only accelerating, and with it comes increased expectations from educators and learners alike.

Enter Patti Sanchez, CSO at Duarte, Inc. She has decades of experience and expertise to share to help move the conversation forward. On June 15, Thought Industries is excited to host Patti for the virtual roundtable discussion, “Raising the Bar on Virtual Learning Engagement: An Inside-Look at Duarte’s Blended Approach to Engaging Learners in a Hybrid/Virtual World.” Duarte, Inc. has been changing the game for companies and professionals whose business depends on great communication and audience engagement since 1988.

In this intimate, discussion-oriented session, Patti and I will be guiding participants through some of the most important questions and topics to keep in mind when developing and delivering virtual learning. If you haven’t signed up yet, we hope you will!

To whet your appetite for this upcoming roundtable, I asked Patti a few questions about virtual engagement. Here are the answers she provided, along with a promise that she’d share more in June.

What would you say are the top skills virtual instructors need to develop to keep both virtual and hybrid audiences engaged?

Distraction, it seems, is the biggest enemy in keeping people engaged. “Learners in a virtual or hybrid setting are prone to distractions, so it’s hard to hold their attention, whether they’re working from home or from an office,” Patti says. Referencing a 2020 study by HR services firm JDP, she tells us that 54% of over 2,000 Americans who had recently switched to remote work said they were more distracted at home, and 29% said they were more distracted at the office.

What does Patti recommend we do to combat distraction? “Trainers need to understand this reality and adapt their content as well as delivery style to create a more engaging experience for online participants,” she tells us. “The best facilitators are not only subject-matter experts but great presenters who deliver training in a dynamic and empathetic way.”

How can trainers sustain engagement throughout a virtual training session?

Anyone who’s facilitated virtual learning sessions knows it can be exhausting, so we asked Patti how trainers can keep the energy up in a session without wearing themselves to the bone. “You need to infuse contrast into your training,” Patti explains, “including contrasting content, interactions, visuals, and delivery.” Since part of that can be done before the actual delivery, it can save the virtual trainer’s energy for the important task of keeping learners on topic.

And in case you feel bad for being distracted or not engaging when you’re in virtual training yourself, Patti has some words of comfort. “The same parts of the brain that want to protect us from threats are always on the alert for changes in our environment,” she reminds us. Instead of fighting that instinct, Patti recommends that we work with it “to purposefully inject change into the training experience” to keep people’s attention.

And, finally, Patti explains why this approach works: “studies have shown that novel stimuli and experiences flood the brain with dopamine, the chemical associated with rewards, which makes us happier and accelerates learning.”

How can we incorporate interactivity into virtual training, especially considering that many tools aren’t optimized for it?

“Interactions can increase engagement, but they can also put extra cognitive load on learners,” Patti warns. “Asking them to do too much too soon can backfire by causing them to withdraw if they don’t feel prepared to share.”

To help learners manage this cognitive load, Patti recommends different levels of interaction matched to the learning that participants have achieved to that point. “For instance, if they’re at the start of their journey, simple interactions like multiple-choice polls or quizzes can feel like safer ways to contribute,” she explains. Later, as their skills and confidence grow, you can introduce more complex interactions like brainstorming or prototyping. “When the learner’s confidence grows, their passion will kick in, and they’ll need less prompting from you to put themselves out there and contribute.”

And after the session? What recommendations do you have to keep people coming back so their skills remain fresh?

We all know how hard it is to fit continuous learning into our day-to-day grind, but we also know it’s essential to keeping learning fresh.

So how can we encourage learners to find the time? “To make it easier for [people] to weave into their day, reinforcement should be fast, functional, and fun,” Patti recommends. A single email or short video (2 minutes or less) can reinforce learning better than longer content, since they can consume them during a break or at lunch without feeling like it’s taken up all their free time. Patti also recommends using tools like scripts and worksheets, to help remind people what they learned; such aids “help learners apply the principles you taught them in a specific situation on the job, making it more likely they’ll apply them.”

Patti also reminds you that learning can and should be fun: “When those emails, videos, or tools incorporate an element of fun—playful images, an engaging story, or a bit of humor—it’ll make learning feel less like work and more like refreshment.”

Finally – if you could give designers one piece of advice on how to keep learners involved, what would it be?

We couldn’t say it better than Patti did: “Predictability is the enemy. Fight it with variety. Mix up the formats you use for training. Try new types of interaction. Alternate between facilitators. Change the stories or cases students work on. The novelty will feel like a pleasant change of pace to learners’ brains, reigniting their curiosity and interest.”

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