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by Jennifer Diamant Foulon, ESCP Affiliate Professor 

Now that face-to-face delivery of technical, leadership, and change management learning is once again possible, it is important to reflect on what we have achieved and learned since 2020. The pandemic forced us all, educators, consultants, and adult learners, into remote teaching and learning circumstances with very little notice. 

Questions to be addressed and answered include:

  • How did European adult learners respond to remote learning between 2020-2022?
  • What did we lose when we urgently went remote? 
  • How can a return to face-to-face learning in 2022 incorporate best remote practices while bringing back face-to-face design and ROI elements that everyone has missed?

How did European adult learners experience remote learning between 2020-2022? 

2020 adult learners responded to remote learning based on their existing comfort and experience with online video platforms. For those who had already begun working in hybrid teams, there was a familiarity, an ease, and low anxiety. But this was a minority of the remote learners I met.

During 80 days of degree and customised executive education teaching in 2020 and 2021, I watched adults struggle to engage and focus on remote learning amidst work-from-home conditions. This is related to the obvious stress of pandemic conditions, but also has to do with preferences in learning. The OECD published research on this topic; before 2021, the majority of European adult learners strongly preferred face-to-face learning over remote learning, if offered the option. 

By Spring of 2021, we saw a shift. Less resistance, more engagement, and increased agility with online platforms. Remote learning had become extremely effective for many participants. People were playing more, less afraid to resolve small technical issues, and many were seeing the possibilities of connection via Zoom and Teams features.

Remote learning best practices for Executive Education in 2021 included the following:

  • Visible online support – presence of an ESCP Coordinator. 
  • Adjusted design – fewer models, frameworks, and topics.  6 hours max per day.
  • Clear expectations – cameras on, opportunities for live collaboration every hour.
  • Adapted slides – visually simple, with less text and clear questions for discussion.
  • Smart time management – 50/50 time split between plenary and break-out sessions.

And then came 2022. “January 2022 was the 25th month of 2020”, one blogger quoted. A combination of socio-political events and 2nd and 3rd pandemic waves across Europe deeply impacted many of us. Renewed health risks resulted in a return to full-time work from home for some, while others grew frustrated with limited face-to-face conditions and frankly a bit bored with remote learning. I tracked the following trends during Q1-Q2 2022 participant groups:

  • Reduced text chat during and following online workshops.
  • Less engagement with links and references offered in real-time during the workshop.
  • Less “camera on” and engagement to annotation and whiteboard features.
  • Declining focus and autonomy during break-out session time. 

Things shifted again by March 2022 with requests to explore how to return to face-to-face learning. And we wondered… what would it be like? Had 2 years of limited face-to-face contact changed the way people interacted with each other and with learning content? I started hearing stories of awkward off-site meetings with too much forced social time, and people quite anxious to do what was considered normal business travel in pre-pandemic times.  So, before we could transition to face-to-face interactivity, we needed to reflect on what we had lost. What did we leave behind and lose when we were 100% remote and dependent on learning on our PCs?

What did we lose during remote learning?

There is extensive data about the challenges and advantages of the shift to a digital workforce. The articles address the productivity of remote work, as well as the loss of social capital or affiliation – the “ties” that people do or don’t feel to a company purpose, a team, and their role. 

My facilitation notes from over 100 online learning days between 2020 – 2022 highlight 4 specific losses that link to the decrease in social capital:

  • I.    Cross-learning. While rarely on the agenda, good educational design and company culture contribute to a cross-learning environment. Participants learn just as much from meeting colleagues and people from different offices, or deepening knowledge of existing team members, as they do from the workshop content.  
  • II.    Brain stimulation. The visual and physical environment of a learning initiative stimulates the brain. Seeing colleagues in a different location creates curiosity which contributes to learning of expected and unexpected information.  Visual, audio, and kinaesthetic learning styles have all been challenged during remote learning since they did not leave their desks. 
  • III.   Affiliation with company culture and network connections. Remote logistics did not enable the kind of relaxed networking that results from a shared physical setting. Affiliation to company culture did not deepen with online learning and networks were only rarely extended. This impacts engagement and can contribute to attrition. 
  • IV.    Retention and the hyperactive hive mind. In 2021, the New York Times published an interview with Cap Newport, author of Deep Mind, about what it is to work with so many streams of information. It seems the brain has a “use it or lose it” approach to learning and application; so remote learning while people were multi-tasking created a decrease in retention for many adult learners. The calls for refresher sessions, workshop re-boots, and concept reinforcement are everywhere in 2022. 

ROI - how do we bring back the cross-learning, brain stimulation, affiliation, and knowledge retention, in 2022-2023?

People have missed face-to-face learning, so the time to bring it back is now. We can absolutely keep best practices from 2 years of remote learning, while optimising face-to-face time to ensure multi-faceted ROI. At ESCP, we are calling this approach Optimised Blended Learning. 

Optimised Blended Learning gives learners the opportunity to begin learning autonomously and remotely, followed by face-to-face sessions that allow them to socialise the learning, while remote or socialised follow-up increases accountability for learning application. 

  • Pre-work online, with output to be used during the face-to-face workshop. 
  • Face-to-face workshopping or training that emphasises participant interaction.
  • Follow-up or “anchoring” of key concepts and tools to optimise learning retention, deepen connection to fellow participants, and socialise learning for increased application.

Here are specific best practices for Optimised Blending Learning:

  1. Pre-learning communication. Communicate across multiple platforms (email, chat groups, WhatsApp). 
  2. Pre-work content. 30 minutes of online pre-work. Communicate 10 days, 3 days and 1 day before training.
  3. Visual agenda in the classroom. An agenda and wall clock prevent people from checking their phones. 
  4. Adjust agendas for energy. Longer morning session, shorter afternoon session. End day by 4:30. 
  5. Longer breaks. People need breaks for alone time or social interaction. 20-30 minutes it best. 
  6. Focus concepts and interaction with 2-3 main concepts per day, 2-3 small group discussions. 
  7. Increase retention by anchoring the learning with follow-up work. Socialise the learning. 

Each learning or company group and initiative is different, and each company and group have a culture of remote, hybrid and in presence interaction that must be taken into account during the design phase or any learning initiative. We look forward to exploring how Optimised Blended Learning can work with your company culture, align with your most pressing change and learning initiatives, and utilise the existing online platforms everyone has worked so hard to master.

We can’t wait to speak with you about it… in person whenever possible.

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