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Six Critical Success Factors for Distance Learning

Distance learning and training is a highly efficient approach for organizations whose participants are based in different locations. With Covid-19 restrictions impacting on group meetings all over the world, it is a safe solution to training needs.

I have delivered distance training all over the world over the last 18 years because even before Covid-19 changed the world, global organizations found it to be an effective, economic, and motivating way of training people; travel costs are eliminated, new bonds form across the world, and participants do not have to sacrifice work or personal time to get to the training.

In the current digital age, people are accustomed to attending conference calls, online meetings and managing their jobs away from their physical workplaces. However, there always lurks the danger that online training sessions can carry ‘dead’ time, where people surreptitiously read their emails instead of focusing on the training.

The following elements are key to delivering motivating and inspiring training, where everyone remains engaged all the time. The approach is very much a group coaching method, which engages and inspires participants to think for themselves and make the learning their own:

The six critical factors

1. The number of participants

If more than 12 people attend a webinar, not all of them will have the opportunity to contribute or have one-to-one attention from the trainer. That means the session will be dominated by those who like to speak up, while the more shy (or less enthusiastic) participants will find a more fulfilling way of passing the time – like answering their emails.

2. Length of the training course

The ideal length of a course is 4-12 weeks, long enough to embed new skills but short enough to maintain motivation.

3. Length of each session

Sessions should last no longer than three hours: most people cannot maintain concentration in front of a laptop for longer than this. Two three-hour sessions (with mini-breaks in the middle) can be attended on the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, as long as they contain a variety of discussions, exercises and break-out sessions.

Another effective option is to deliver two-hour sessions a week or a fortnight apart, which enables participants to embed the skills more thoroughly because the syllabus is delivered in bite-sized chunks, giving people the opportunity to practice and absorb each module before moving on to the next.

4. Practice sessions between training modules

Having practice sessions between each section of training is a golden rule in our organization. The natural way for humans to learn is through trial and error, but people cannot risk mistakes or awkwardness with their colleagues and customers, so tend not to use new skills taught in training courses and quickly forget them. They need to learn to ride the bike before taking it out on the road, by working with each other in the safety of practice exercises, where they can make mistakes, stretch themselves and make the skills their own.

5. Create rapport between each participant and the trainer

There tends to be a reluctance to speak up during the first session, particularly when participants have never met. Even on a video platform, seeing a digital image is not the same as sitting with another person in the flesh, in terms of reading body language, sensing the mood and creating empathy. During the first session, the trainers should facilitate special exercises that enable people to build trust with the trainer and each other. It is important for everyone to put on a friendly face and make positive comments wherever appropriate, because people are less able to sense finer emotions through digital platforms.

6. Make it interactive:

If the first session starts with an introductions module, where everyone speaks up, they will find it easier to contribute later in the session. Thereafter every session should begin with a review of the practical use of the learning from the previous session, to get everyone talking and understanding that they all share similar challenges, wherever in the world they may be based. Ending each session with a round-up to which everyone contributes consolidates the learning and raises motivation to continue.

If these guidelines are followed, virtual learning can be as energizing and inspiring as face-to-face training. In fact, many participants say they prefer it.

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