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Rules of engagement in remote learning


For the last year our training approach has been based solely in a remote learning environment. The focus has been to ensure remote training is as effective and practical as it could be if run in a traditional classroom setting. Let's take a look at how this was done. 

Female using a laptop in her home

Nicola Hardy is a Senior Advisor, Capability at the NSW Department of Customer Service and is responsible for the capability uplift of digital practitioners progressing through the nsw.gov.au program.

The challenge  

With the onset of COVID-19, our way of training digital practitioners on the nsw.gov.au program had to change. No longer were we running training sessions in-person, but instead virtually. The goal remained to ensure learners would still receive the information, training and support they needed but at a (physical) distance.  

As COVID-19 progressed people were withdrawing inside their home offices, behind their computer screens and behind their profile screens in online calls. Training room and remote learning engagement was slipping. 

How could we address learner needs when we couldn’t even see them, hear them, or control their internet connections?  Here’s how we maintained engagement in remote learning.  

Learning from the past 

What in the world had been done to maintain engagement for remote learning and offsite learning? There was a lot of information coming out of the United States of America for home schooling.  

It was surprising that home schooling of children in America could be relevant to the remote classroom for adults in Australia but there were many lessons to learn there. Specifically, around the ideal duration of online time and creative ways to elicit involvement from people throughout a learning session. The research suggested that 60 to 120 minutes was the ideal remote session length to maximise engagement without breaks. Smaller class sizes of 3 to 5 left no room for hiding, coaxed everyone out of their shell and improved individual engagement levels.  

The United Kingdom had a lot of historical information about the large cohort of people already working from home, either part time or fulltime as a standard working practice. As this was a relatively new practice for Australians, we could learn from those early days to maintain cadence.  

This research highlighted the importance of cameras on to maintain connection, circulating agendas so that people knew what to expect from meetings or workshops and that headphones with built in mics provided better quality audio than computer mics removing any communication barriers. 

Proof of concept 

Developing a proof of concept based on the research findings involved repurposing the training materials from PowerPoint presentations into run sheets and handouts, increasing the practical exercises. With the content repurposed and honed and a willing group of trial learners, live remote learning delivery testing began.  

remote learning teams call
 Nicola Hardy on a teams call

We trialled exercises involving various engagement tools such as: 

  • whiteboarding 
  • breakout rooms  
  • virtual post it boards  
  • gamification quizzes 
  • PowerPoint presentation screen sharing 
  • video clips 
  • polls 
  • desktop research mid lesson.  

All with varying levels of success (or failure).  

It was hard at first, without the visual ques of reading body language in a classroom and often  feeling like you were talking to a blank computer screen. We were also spending alot more time on learning to use the learning tools than the actual content being delivered. We needed the feedback from learners to support the theory notes, observations and assumptions from those trials to develop a workable model. 

Learner led feedback 

The feedback came back thick and fast.  

The learners: 

  1. liked that they were still receiving training 
  2. that the session running times were an appropriate length 
  3. that they didn’t mind appearing on camera at the start of each session 
  4. couldn’t use or didn’t enjoy the engagement tools for practical systems training 
  5. liked and wanted more immersive, practical and coaching delivery 
  6. needed to be doing, with less note-taking and watching 
  7. wanted to come away with a concrete result, such as building a webpage in the new Content Management System (CMS) or a checklist of accessibility tips to follow 

Engaging remote learning delivery 

Insights from the proof of concept testing and feedback from the learners cemented what is now a robust remote learning delivery model requiring: 

  • Training needs to be short 

To engage our learners in a remote learning environment with repetition throughout to reinforce the objectives in the session, still talking to the theory yet answering an immediate need for the learner. For a simple example, think YouTube for how to sew a book parade dress up outfit, rather than a masters degree in fashion design. 

  • Delivery needs to be with smaller groups of people 

With more of a buddy training situation to keep the engagement high.  Adapting content so it works without a PowerPoint and exercises involves learners taking turns to share their screens while guiding them through the steps.  

  • Content must be highly practical  

With little use of engagement tools so the learners can focus on the skills training on their screen. 

  • Personalised/tailored delivery where possible 

The remote learning delivery has adapted based on the ongoing feedback. The engagement is high with cameras on at the start of each session. The questions are rapid-fire throughout sessions. The agenda is tailored based on the learners' needs and learning style to really answer the pain points and curiosities of the learners.  

We constantly listen to learners’ feedback and review global best practices and trends to ensure our capability approach is evolving. Do you have any learnings or research about remote learning? 

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