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Virtual Learning is NOT for everyone

With schools, universities and workplaces going virtual, there is an important principle I am not seeing addressed. I learned it the hard way doing virtual teaching and meeting facilitation for over 20 years. Since you may be forced into this new world it may be helpful:

Virtual learning is NOT for everyone.

This is not just about learning styles, but about human traits. (It applies to the workplace as well.) Here are a few examples to illustrate.

Example one - 15 years ago we had just moved to a new state at the same time our daughter was a senior in high school. The decision was made to finish high school online. We located an accredited online school and made application. The school administrators warned us - online learning is not for everyone. Their experience had shown learners have to be highly motivated or they lose focus quickly. It made more sense when we learned her classmates were child actors, Olympic gymnasts, and other young people with exceptional reasons to learn virtually. We are proud of our daughter who adapted and graduated with honors, she made the adjustment. The school provided meet ups, a prom and a real graduation ceremony at a brick and mortar school auditorium trying to simulate the school experience. But most of the students had other social connections and networks (actors/olympic team) outside of the school that motivated them and kept them focused.

Example two - at the same time, I was a director of training for a software company tasked with training customers to use our software. A small department with global clients, the only way to accomplish it was to take the entire training curriculum online. It was radical at the time, but pretty commonplace today. However, back to the principle. We saw the same principle applied to business people. Some professionals thrived and others struggled to keep focused through the process.

Why? Humans are social and many require EXTERNAL discipline to accomplish a task. Some students appear to need the building, a teacher and a schedule to be productive. Adults are the same. For example, why do adults belong to a gym, can't they workout alone in their garage? No, many adults prefer external social motivation to push them to accomplish their goals. The same is true of office work. It took motivation to make WFH successful over the years. Most preferred to be "in the office." (I did) Face time with the boss, socialization with co-workers, and having those hallway conversations that often led to breakthroughs and new understanding were advantages of the office that just don't translate online -- yet.

That trait shows up in other ways -- I remember the back row people. All trainers and teachers know what I mean. Certain class members choose the back row as far from the instructor as possible -- others run for the front row and the rest of us are somewhere in between. Back row people tend to be, well to be charitable, less focused on the lesson. They are not good candidates for online learning. In the workplace they could be star performers, they just require the discipline of an office structure, both the social aspects as well as the physical presence.

Sub-principle (is that a word?) - teachers need to watch student screens, not faces. The online school knew it and we learned it in the workplace, too. We created training centers where the learners worked on our computers allowing the instructor to watch the learner screens. We had them work on our computers through a browser, eliminating privacy issues. During an early class, I noticed a meeting professional attempting to play solitaire on the screen. (It was built into the Windows OS) When I called her out on it, she shut it down immediately. But the whole class realized - he's watching our screens and all were immediately focused. Similarly, our daughter was issued a MacBook configured by the school so the teachers and the IT people could also watch the screens -- not just the faces. One administrator told me they found kids playing games and even doing unsavory things online. The students thought they were unseen but that evening their parents would get a warning call from the school threatening to remove the computer and expel the child. Once the students were aware the screens were being watched, it tended to focus them on the lessons.

So while online learning is not for everyone, our hearts go out to teachers, students, and office workers forced into this behavior by the pandemic. Since it appears to be the future of learning, there is much work being done to re-imagine the entire learning process to accommodate a virtual component. Hats off to those on the front lines, they are struggling under duress to accomplish this sea-change. While it was coming all along the pandemic is hyper-accelerating the adjustment. As they are successful all will be better off in the new environment. But only if they embrace and account for the principle, virtual learning is just NOT for everyone.



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