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Dear Designer: 3 Considerations for Length When Shifting to VILT

“Dear Designer” is a blog series on orienting novice practitioners to the discipline of instructional design and learning experience design.

The first quarter of 2020 has contained a host of global challenges, and many organizations and their L&D professionals may find themselves in unfamiliar ground, with the demand to quickly adapt. For many, there will be questions of how to take existing learning material, courses, or workshops and deliver them using a digital platform. e-Learning is one option, but what do you do with your instructor-led training (ILT)? Virtual Instructor Led Training, or VILT, is a natural answer.

Transferring ILT to VILT starts with asking and answering some key questions.

  • What will the video or communication platform be?
  • How can I use that software to share material (PowerPoint decks, PDFs, infographics, charts, data, etc.)?
  • How will I keep track of learners’ progress?

In addition to these questions, an important, and perhaps overlooked, consideration is the length of effective VILT, and how that time should be spent. 

There is no one “silver bullet” answer to each of those questions. However, there are three factors you can examine to determine the right length for your VILT.

Consideration 1: Learner Engagement

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If you’ve ever presented in front of an audience, you may have noticed signs of learners struggling to remain fully attentive. This can be true even if learners have keen interest in the material or intrinsic motivation to listen to what you’re saying.

Research shows that a learner’s attention span can drift in and out throughout a lecture; an effective method for maintaining learner engagement is to deliver lecture material in sections that are divided by an activity. It’s your choice what those activities can be: Q&A rounds, group discussions, or an opportunity for learners to practice a newly learned skill.

Ask yourself: Are you offering learners variety in their experience to maximize their engagement throughout the seat time of your VILT? Is lecture time divided up between moments of active engagement from learners: Q&As, activities, role-plays, or polls? How about actual full 5, 10, or 15-minute breaks from learning? These are all vital for the effectiveness of your VILT.

Reflect on the overall length of the experience.

I attended a 9-hour ILT not too long ago. I learned a lot of new information, formed some interesting questions, and reflected deeply on how the content applied to me—all outcomes that would likely have pleased the facilitators.

I also left tired, drained, and foggy from the last 90 minutes of those 9 hours. Even with a few 10-minute breaks throughout the day and break-out sessions for role-plays, at some point, around 7 hours, in I’d given about all I had to give—and this was material I was deeply invested in.

Even with well-timed activities and breaks, the overall length of any one unit of learning is something to be mindful of. Consider how much time you’re asking from a learner in one sitting. There are many reasons why we may ask a full workdays’ worth of time from learners during an in-person ILT. Perhaps we only have access to the physical space to conduct the ILT for so long, or perhaps learners are being pulled away from their typical responsibilities to complete training and there is a need for them to return to those responsibilities quickly.

Creating a VILT experience may or may not free you from some of these constraints, but it can free you up to structure the learning experience differently. I suspect that if the location used for my training wasn’t rented for a day, my 9-hour seat time could have been a 5-hour day followed by a second 4-hour day. It may be the case that the ILT you are converting to VILT needs to retain overall time commitment from learners, but virtual delivery may allow more flexibility in how that time is divided and used.

Here are guidelines for your VILT:

  • Break up lecture with activities that engage learners, not only to enhance learning, but to keep engagement throughout the learning experience.
  • Examine the overall time you’re asking from a learner in any one unit or sitting: Less can be more when it comes to attention and retention.

Consideration 2: Identify the Essentials

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If you’re experiencing concern that your VILT may be too long or that it includes too many sessions, you may consider reducing the length of the experience. If you’d like some clarity in making decisions in where to cut or streamline content, it can’t hurt to reflect on what the essentials of the VILT are. What do you really want your learners to know, and what do you want them to be able to do following the learning experience?

Clear course objectives are the key to making decisions about what and where to cut.

If you have not already, consider how each content area of your VILT ties back to your learning objectives. If there is a part of the VILT that does not seem to be anchored strongly to any learning objective, it's a good candidate to omit. Also consider delivering content in a different method that compliments your VILT; downloadable hand-outs or other resources can be used to give learners the option to explore content further, while your VILT covers the critical elements of the course.

Consider these options:

  • If you haven’t done so already, identify the learning objectives for your VILT. Match each content area or activity to one or more of these objectives.
  • If content does not seem to strongly tie to a learning objective, it may not be essential for the VILT. Consider if it can be removed or delivered to the learner outside of the VILT.

Consideration 3: Find Your Pace

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Determining the pace of an ILT can be a tricky thing. If you move too quickly through content or activities, the retention and impact of the learning may be adversely impacted. If you move too slow, you may lose the engagement of your learners. As a facilitator, it’s never pleasant to receive feedback that “I could hardly keep track of what was being covered” or “this training dragged on way too long for what I took away from it.”

Navigating the challenge of pacing is equally true for VILT. The right pace will depend on the breadth and complexity of the learning objectives, the content, the activities, and your presentation style. However, a factor you may consider closely is how pace impacts the structure of the learning experience.

So, does pace determine structure or does structure determine pace?

Only you can answer based on your circumstances and needs! If you know you have 3, 1-hour sessions or units of your VILT, that limit will probably inform the pace of how you move through that material. A difference between VILT and ILT is you may not have as robust an amount of opportunities to adjust time or be available to all learners immediately after the learning experience for questions or discussion, so the flexibility of your pace could be more limited in this regard as well.

On the other hand, perhaps the duration of each session and/or the number of sessions is flexible to you, allowing your optimal desired pace to determine that structure.

Here are some pacing guidelines:

  • Avoid moving too fast and too slow—no different from how you would approach ILT.
  • Leave some wiggle room. Video communication platforms can experience connection issues, lag, or other complications and allowing some time to address these may benefit your learners experience (and your own).

It won’t be perfect, and that’s OK

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If this is your first time transferring an ILT to VILT, or perhaps your first experience with a brand new VILT, you can save yourself some stress by accepting that the experience won’t be perfect. But perfection shouldn’t be your goal.

“The goal is connection, not perfection.”

You may consider being transparent about this to your learners, especially if this is a first round. Afterwards, you can ask for feedback using whatever method suits you to learn how you might change the experience for the next set of learners and iterate your VILT to make it as effective as it can be.

 

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