Using Digital Tools to Build a Learning Culture
Learning is a key factor in any company's success. In rapidly changing, highly competitive times, we all need to have up-to-date knowledge and skills – plus opportunities to keep adding more.
And organizations need strategies to support effective learning, so that they're ready for every new challenge.
One important part of this is choosing the right tools. And whether you're looking to improve your own learning, or exploring better ways to provide learning for others, there are many options to choose from. These include e-learning providers, online courses, MOOCs – even virtual reality!
Investing in Learning
Technology has transformed the world of work. Unsurprisingly, many organizations have also turned to technology in a bid to keep up and stay competitive.
Digital tools can deliver learning flexibly, at a distance, and on a large scale. They can offer rich, up-to-date learning experiences that are tailored to different people's needs and aligned with an organization's strategic plans. Since 2010, their use has more than doubled.
However, these strategies don't always work as well as they should. OECD, ILO, World Bank, and other institutions have highlighted an urgent need for employers to upskill their current workforce, if they're to survive and remain relevant. And a recent McKinsey Global Survey reported that 87 percent of executives were either experiencing skill gaps now, or expecting to see them in the next few years. 
So learning technologies alone aren't enough to keep pace with change. As well as being chosen and used with care, these tools need to be integrated into a wider culture of learning.
What Is Virtual Learning?
"Virtual learning" uses technology to improve the learning process, rather than relying solely on a face-to-face, teacher-pupil approach.
At its most basic level, it might involve people taking part in a lesson remotely – often called distance education. This can be useful if you want all of your learners to hear the same message at the same time, and to be able to interact with the teacher and one another.
But technology also allows people to choose what they learn, how they want to learn, and when they want to learn – this self-determined learning enables learners to make choices about their own development.
Technology can also add different elements to the learning process, such as audio and video. It can improve learning engagement – with other learners, experts, and the material itself – through communication tools, interactive exercises, or even immersive technologies such as virtual reality.
Virtual learning can provide individuals with carefully tailored learning opportunities that are effective and enjoyable. It can benefit learners as individuals, and also support their organizations to achieve their overall learning and development goals.
Many organizations use a Learning Management System (LMS) to provide virtual learning. This is a software application that can deliver a range of content chosen by the organization. It often allows users to learn together or individually, helps them to recognize and fill any learning gaps, and lets their managers make suggestions about their learning.
Virtual Training Vs. Virtual Learning
Some learning involves gaining specific practical skills or mastering processes and procedures. In those cases, it's often categorized as virtual training, since there's a clear instructional process and a clear end point. (See our article, Online Training, for more information on this.)
But not all learning is training. Many of the most important professional skills don't come with a simple set of instructions and have no defined end point. Instead, they need to be developed and enriched continually to enable us to thrive at work.
Skills like these can be gained and strengthened by using a range of e-learning resources.
What Is E-Learning?
The term "e-learning" is short for "electronic learning." This refers to learning through digital resources that are delivered online.
Some e-learning is synchronous, which means that multiple learners take part at the same time. They can often interact with one another, and with the person leading the session.
Asynchronous e-learning, on the other hand, is done by individual learners whenever they want. This can provide people with more choice about their learning. Some systems even adapt automatically to suit different learners' needs.
Mind Tools offers virtual learning through a huge collection of articles, videos, podcasts, quizzes, infographics, and blogs. This means that you can control your own learning, doing it when, where, and how you want.
With "on-demand" learning like this, you can either choose topics to study in depth, or brief yourself on key information as and when you need it. For example, you could use several resources to gain a strong understanding of team leadership. Alternatively, before tackling a difficult conversation with a customer, you could read a short list of tips for this specific situation.
Some e-learning products act as content platforms, collating material from external sources. These can offer a very wide range of materials, but users may need more guidance in order to judge their quality and usefulness.
When you want to embark on a longer-term program of study, virtual courses offer tiered learning modules online.
At other times, it's useful to have a large collection of material devoted to a single topic – so that you can dip in whenever you like, and stay as long as you want. MOOCs, for example – Massive Open Online Courses – let you explore a topic of your choice (often a specialized one) through text documents, video lessons, interactive quizzes, and other learning formats.
Choosing the Right Virtual Learning Tools
With so many options available, it's important to weigh up the pros and cons carefully.
One big advantage to virtual learning is that it's cost-effective – it reduces the need for travel and accommodation, cuts out printing costs, and can provide learning on a very large scale. The initial spend on licenses or subscriptions needs to be weighed against the potentially larger long-term savings.
But the biggest consideration should always be the effectiveness of a particular virtual tool. Does it offer the sort of learning you need? And does it match the needs of the people who'll be using it?
Think about how much flexibility you need to build into your organization's learning. Is it important for your people to be able to access learning anywhere, at any time, or would it be better if you did some (or all) of it together?
And how much choice do you want to allow? Sometimes an organization may want to direct people to particular skills or subject areas, while at other times give them free rein over their learning.
A recent Mind Tools research paper revealed that only 19 percent of organizations proactively seek to understand how their people learn, and what they need to learn for their jobs. And only 21 percent of organizations involve users themselves in designing a suitable learning approach. 
Other considerations include how much you want to foster collaborative learning; what sort of feedback learners will need; and how much – if any – of your people's learning outcomes should be visible to others in your organization. Virtual learning tools can give you plenty of control over factors like these.
Many organizations opt for a blended learning approach. This combines different types of virtual learning, but also includes some degree of face-to-face support. For example, classroom-based sessions could be backed up with online resources, along with tools that allow people to share ideas and practice key skills together.
Also, keep in mind that learning doesn't only happen during a designated learning period. The 70:20:10 Model suggests that 10 percent of learning should take place through specific learning activities. A further 20 percent comes from watching others who are more advanced or confident. And the remaining 70 percent happens simply by doing your job, building up your knowledge and skills through experience.
Using Virtual Tools to Build a Learning Culture
Mind Tools' research suggests that in many organizations the impact of virtual learning has fallen, despite growing investment. However, some have bucked the trend.
In 2020, the 10 percent of organizations who got the best results from their virtual learning recorded a 1.7 percent increase in profitability (compared with an average drop of 1.3 percent elsewhere), and their productivity was up by more than 2 percent.
So how do they do it? As well as choosing the right technology, successful organizations have created a culture where learning thrives.
The following five habits can help you and your team to create an effective learning culture within your organization:
- Lead learning with purpose. Have a clear idea about the learning you want your people to do, and base your investments in technology on the value it will create.
- Practice transformative leadership. This means supporting people to adapt their behavior – to make them more engaged in the learning that will help them and the business.
- Encourage connections. Collaboration and knowledge sharing – often via digital technology – allow individuals' learning to have wider impact.
- Drive experiences that matter. Aim to create a culture of self-determined learners, who focus on gaining the knowledge and skills they need to solve the problems they face.
- Adapt learning strategies when necessary. Gather feedback and involve users themselves to pinpoint the types of learning that will drive them forward.
Mind Tools' research shows that organizations which develop a learning culture in this way are 12 percent more likely to increase on-the-job productivity, and 24 percent more likely to develop a better-qualified workforce.
Four Ways to Make Virtual Learning Work
Here are some additional tips for getting the most out of virtual tools:
- Equip and support. Be sure that everyone has the equipment and access they need, and that support is available if they run into problems.
- Train with the technology. Make sure that everyone has appropriate training to use the tools you provide. Some people may lack experience and confidence with digital tools.
- Get organized. Encourage people to schedule time for virtual learning. Using time-management techniques will help them to devote enough quality time to their learning.
- Plan to learn. Make learning a key part of personal goals and development plans. Agree learning targets that match your organization's needs, but also support people to direct their own learning.
Virtual learning uses digital technology to improve the learning process. Examples of virtual learning tools include online courses, content platforms, and MOOCs.
These tools can save your organization time and money, and give more people access to the specific learning they need to do their jobs. However, the technologies used have to be chosen and implemented with care.
Organizations that get the most value from virtual learning have clear learning strategies, and use technology flexibly to support them. Above all, they create a culture of learning and encourage everyone to adopt effective learning habits.
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