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Zoom for improvement

David Sharp, CEO at International Workplace, believes there might have been a missed opportunity for employers in learning and development over the past year

While it’s been a tremendous year for digital learning providers, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that employers are barely scratching the surface where the opportunity of online learning is concerned. For many, the move online has allowed them to focus on continuity (keeping the show on the road) rather than opportunity (growth).

Research suggests that employers have taken training digital, but at the same time become less innovative. The initial response among employers was to put training on hold, either cancelling it or deferring it until COVID-19 was “over”. As the pandemic struck, 60 per cent of employers had a training plan in place to respond to it. However, a rapid transition to remote learning allowed businesses to continue to train their people by moving learning online, with 69 per cent of employers providing learning during the early stages of lockdown in the UK.

This apparent contradiction is borne out by more recent survey data. While use of digital learning during the pandemic has grown – with 70 per cent of CIPD survey respondents reporting an increase in use and 36 per cent reporting an increase in learning technologies spend – overall investment in learning budgets and headcount has dropped (31 per cent and 32 per cent respectively).

Going strongly against long-established trends, the number one issue in digital learning among learning and development professionals in 2021 is reskilling / upskilling. A new entry in Donald H Taylor’s Global Sentiment Survey (a leading indicator of trends in online learning), it’s turned the focus in recent years on emerging technologies on its head – the 2021 survey shows a big drop in interest in learner analytics, artificial intelligence and the use of virtual / augmented reality (VR/AR) technologies.

What it would seem has happened is that employers have switched to Microsoft Teams and Zoom to carry on providing instructor-led training, but remotely (‘live online’) instead of in the classroom. The label given to this is a virtual learning environment (VLE), but at the simpler end of things, it could just be using Teams meetings to deliver a training course. It’s proved ideal for collaborative training in management (International Workplace has seen a six-fold increase in demand for IOSH courses online) and soft skills; and to meet the demand for training, coaching and support in health and wellbeing, the number one topic for employers during the pandemic.

Using Teams and Zoom isn’t innovative to the learning technologies sector. But its sudden adoption, borne of necessity, has been innovative for many employers. And I think this explains the apparent contradiction here.


It’s important to keep an eye on what good looks like where digital learning is concerned. As a medium it’s proved to be a flexible tool. Some of the intimacy and serendipity of physical in-person learning is inevitably lost, but it can be quick and easy to set up, can encourage collaboration and social interaction, and can track activity and attendance to provide detailed learner engagement data.

As attention spans are getting shorter, so is the length of courses. Microlearning (resources of five minutes or less) has moved from being the exception towards becoming the norm. The same thing is happening with the technology we use. This month sees the biggest change to Google’s search algorithm in years, which will prioritise mobile over desktop performance when ranking results. In digital learning, mobile-first design is now the norm, not at an afterthought.

If the training you’re providing to your people isn’t fostering collaboration, broken down into smaller digestible chunks, or mobile phone-friendly, the chances are it’s not working for them. If it doesn’t let you track and report on who’s undertaking which learner activities, and whether the outcomes from that learning are valuable to your organisation, the chances are it’s not working for you as an employer either. There are too many eLearning content libraries out there that fail to tick either of these boxes.

Artificial intelligence and learner analytics may appear to have been side-lined as employers have sought to maintain training programmes during the pandemic. And physical in-person training will of course return – something I’m sure we’re all looking forward to. But a data-driven approach – one that integrates learner engagement across the physical, virtual and digital spheres – is what learning and development professionals should be aiming for. Anything other than that is a sticking plaster: perfectly fine in an emergency, but little help in the long term.

About Sarah OBeirne

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