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Transforming the Classroom into a Digital Journey

Updated: Aug 8, 2020

WHY we should, HOW we should, and WHAT to Expect

There is an interesting change that is taking place all around us. The way we go about our business, especially in the public safety realm, is changing. Dramatically. It’s about training, and how we prepare our people during a time when the COVID-19 virus is shaping our operational landscape. While most leaders will say they don’t have time for training or are hesitating on changing how they do business, the need to adapt is increasing exponentially each and every day. This is no longer just about waiting until we get back to “normal”, or about changing a few things into “online” learning as a temporary fix. The changing dynamics of how we teach people, how learning will occur, is happening whether we accept it, or not. The future is being shaped, whether we watch it, or participate in it.

As we attempt to compensate for changes, adjustments, operational challenges, budget constraints and time shortages in post-virus landscape, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: learning needs to be more flexible, accessible, available and affordable to people at the precise moment it is needed. Digital tools can provide this flexibility, making the task of continuous learning easier and more effective than ever. But it requires the willingness to relook and revaluate how we do things. It’s about creating a Digital Learning Journey and transitioning your typical classroom or instructor-led training into a world where the learning experience is one that is transforming, one that accommodates the changing workforce in a way that enhances the process, rather than making sacrifices or cutting some corners just to get something online. In a world that is just now adjusting to its training needs, and looking through a different set of lenses with a different set of priorities, the creation of a Digital Learning Journey can truly make an impact that enhances the teaching and learning experience, while actually increasing the number of people you can reach, and lowering training costs.

This is just a short overview of some things to consider, when you look at your training needs in a way that will meet the changing needs of your department, agency or organization.

WHY should we transition from the physical classroom to the digital one?

When considering the transformation from Instructor-Led Training (ILT) to Virtual ILT, or mobile/online training, the first question usually becomes: “Why?” Why do this, when our ILT is the best delivery method, and the most effective? This type of thought can dramatically inhibit the actual transformation (or lack thereof) into a Digital Learning Experience. Here’s some things to consider and answers you can have ready for dispersion, before you even take the first step towards a Digital Learning transition.

A. The Times and Circumstances Demand It

In a great article titled After COVID-19 Comes the Biggest Workforce Training Challenge Since WWII by Brian Dashew, he makes the following observation;

“We must think of this challenge from both the perspective of adult educators and learners. Standard models of training will be insufficient to face this challenge because there will not be sufficient expertise for training all people. And simply trying to increase the scale of traditional “trainer” roles through train-the-trainer programs will take time and human resources that render it economically unviable. The key to our preparation will be developing new competencies and skills for designing job training that is based on our understanding of how people learn in the 21st century.”

I could not have said it any better or outlined it more succinctly. Standard models of training will be insufficient in this new world order of post-virus requirements and adaptation. And doing it the same way just because it’s the way we are used to, or the way we like to do it, are no longer sufficient for the changing environment we are operating in. There is a reason why the words “We have always done it that way” are called the seven most expensive words in business[1]. Claire Schooley of Forrester Research says it best: “The face-to-face classroom is no longer the norm. In fact, it’s an atypical and archaic approach for some organizations.”

I do believe we are currently facing the biggest workforce challenge since World War II. In fact, I think that was manifesting itself long before the pandemic in the form of the changing workforce dynamics, as was illustrated in the 2017 White Paper: Navigating the Changing Seascape of Public Safety.

The workforce is ready for the transformation. In fact they are demanding it (if we listen to them.) In a 2020 Workplace Learning Report published before the pandemic by LinkedIn, 57% of Learning and Development Professionals expect to spend more and do more with online learning, while 38% see their ILT budgets decreasing. Why do they see that increase online? Because today’s generation of workers not only want it, they require it… if we want to keep them. 94% of employees surveyed said they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their learning and development.

Now, with the virus accelerating and magnifying the issue, it is all about how we react to it, adapt to it, while moving onward and forward in our training programs, policies and practices.

B. The Dynamically Changing Workforce Wants to Go Mobile

To the last point of Brian Dashew’s observation in the section above, how people learn is a key part of the answer to “Why do we do this?” Not only do they want it (as mentioned above), today’s workers perform better in a mobile/digital learning environment. There’s quite a large body of research to suggest mobile is an effective medium for learning, with Gallup reporting that millennials find it easier to engage with learning delivered via mobile methods, rather than traditional online methods such as a desktop. And while millennials find it a more engaging medium, it appears the effectiveness of mobile-learning extends beyond the younger generation. LearnDash found 70% of all learners felt more motivated when on a mobile device as opposed to a desktop[2].

And companies are paying attention to the dynamic changes. Towards Maturity reported 47% of organizations currently use mobile devices in their training programs and roughly 50% of all organizations understand the importance of providing mobile-friendly content to their employees[3].

Now although mobile learning may be preferred, it will not satisfy all of our needs. There are some things that when delivered in a VILT type environment, more than just a mobile application is needed. The point here is to recognize that the bulk of today’s global workforce is comprised of Millennials (1980 to late 1990s) and Gen Z’ers (2000’s onward). Those generations have grown up in a digital world, with not just one screen in front of them, but three to five of them. They have been raised on technology, and are used to getting information quickly, and communicating through a digital portal.

Because of this workforce landscape, Bryce Welker, CEO of Accounting Institute of Success, believes technology will become even more deeply embedded in business processes and work duties, given the younger workforce. "Generation Z has only lived in a world dominated by technology," says Welker. "As a result, they will approach tech as a native..." Let’s make sure we are speaking/teaching in the native language.

C. It Works

Contrary to what some may think, the last point in answering the “Why” is that it works. As evidenced in a report by the U.S. Department of Education, which examined 99 studies of online vs. classroom learning, it was found that "Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction,” and that “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction[4].”

In other words, whereas online learning is relatively effective on its own (although it does improve with a blended model), in-person training is greatly improved by incorporating online elements. Today, more than one recognized educational organization is predicting that Blended Learning will dramatically increase, and that online learning will be a strategic priority for every institution[5].

So, in answering the “Why we should do this” question, I think the answer is quite clear if we are willing to adjust our glasses and see it. The COVID-19 world is forcing people to explore the online digital world of training and learning in greater numbers than ever before. Just think, worldwide there are more than 1.2 billion children in 186 countries affected by school closures due to the pandemic. With this sudden shift away from the classroom in many parts of the globe, there is a shift occurring in the adult and job-based training world as well. Whether it is language apps, virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools, or online learning software, there has been a significant surge in usage since COVID-19[6] that expands into the public safety training realm just as exponentially.

And although the pandemic forced many sloppy migrations and less than satisfactory student/learner experiences, more than half of American adults who expect to need more education or training after this pandemic say they would do it online, according to a survey of 1,000 people by the Strada Education Network. Which leads to the next question: How do we do it?

HOW do we bring traditional ILT courses online?

Like everyone moving to address the training needs in the post-COVID19 environment, when we look at taking any course from the ILT world to the VILT or digital world, we have three options (as outlined by Cynthia Clay in her book, From Chalkboard to Keyboard, Transitioning to the Virtual Classroom published in 2012):

Option #1: Take what we have and upload it all into the virtual environment. Basically, teach the same content, in the same way, in the same length of time, just do it online and have people log in from their desktops to listen to or watch an instructor.

Option #2: Teach the same content but remove the experiential exercises and discussions... By doing this, four-hour courses get shaved down to 30 minutes in the virtual world. Note that this is how many have transitioned into the online realm in the aftermath of COVID-19, and it is often a recorded version of the instruction, so very little learner engagement is maintained and/or utilized.

Option #3: Thoughtfully consider how to achieve similar learning objectives with engaging, interactive, peer-to-peer learning, delivered in 60 to 90-minute facilitated web sessions, led by a skilled virtual facilitator.

I’m pretty sure we are going to conclude that Option 3 is the best, but how do we do that… and do it well. In my opinion, it’s about creating a Digital Learning Journey, for the student/learner. If we look at it that way, our approach to the design and delivery should take on that “journey” aspect and ensure that the journey is one of reward and enjoyment.

Therefore, I’ve broken down the “How” into four parts: Planning Process, Platform, Preparation and Performance. The 4 P’s of Designing the Best Digital Learning Journey. (Note that we used the 4 P’s in the White Paper mentioned earlier: Navigating the Changing Seascape of Public Safety.)

Designing the Digital Learning Journey

1. The Planning and Process

  • Review and rewrite the learning objectives. Don’t just use the same old learning objectives that we used for ILT courses. Really look closely at how there might be some things added or tweaked in consideration of a Digital Learning Environment. They may end up being the same as an ILT, but it’s worth taking the time to re-examine.

  • Employ/apply adult learning principles to make the content relevant and meaningful, but magnify and multiply this teaching tenant exponentially. Learning principles in the ‘fact-to-face’ environment are one thing, but really examine how they might be different in the Digital Learning Journey. The digital world has many more things challenging the learner’s attention, so we need to increase and underline the teaching practices that ensure learning is occurring.

  • Keep the time length of each module or portion of the delivery, short and focused. You should present no more than five key concepts for each module/part, and ideally in a 60-minute timeframe - 90 minutes at the most. If it takes longer, make sure you pay even closer attention to the breaks, engagement methods, and student focus.

  • Create a design outline that strives to build engagement and interaction every 3 - 5 minutes of the facilitated web session. Remember, their attention is going to be up for grabs, so the window is shorter in the online realm.

  • Plan and incorporate ways to engage the students, BEFORE they get there. Make sure there are multiple engagements, contacts, and even exercises before the class starts, so that we get their minds on the right page.

  • Plan on ways to engage AFTER the course concludes. This is a good way to make sure that the relationship with the learners continues to grow and mature. Find ways to build in follow-up after the fact, and it will grow with positive and productive dividends.

2. The Platform, Production Tools and Design

  • Decide early on, before you start converting a course, as to what platform or tool you will use to deliver the training. Not all online tools are the same, or allow the same degree of engagement or interaction with the learners, so make sure you decide beforehand, what you will do and what you might not be able to do.

  • Blend asynchronous online activities (such as blogging or discussion forums) with live facilitated sessions.

  • Support learning transfer with online reinforcement tools. Just like an ILT class, you need to make sure you have built in "check on learning" points to validate that a.) the learning is occurring, and b.) that they are staying with you.

  • Use Video! According to the Brandon Hall Group and their Learning Pulse Survey, 95% of companies around the world use video to train their employees.[7] Why, you ask? Videos offer better engagement. Research by Forrester shows that 75% employees feel better watching a video rather than reading emails or web articles[8]. Presentations that include visuals like video along with slide text are 9% more effective than text alone when audience comprehension is tested right away, but become a staggering 83% more effective when those tests are delayed[9].

  • Enhance the PowerPoint slide presentation with effective photos, graphics, and illustrations. Bullet point after bullet point of information will be forgotten. Learners will begin multi-tasking after the first ten minutes of your online classroom session if all you have up there is one slide and a bunch of copy. Put simply, reduce the text and add pictures, because as John Medina says in his book Brain Rules, “vision trumps all senses.”

  • Use animations to limit the amount of content on a screen at a time. This will allow you to keep the same slides (if and ONLY if you are locked into them for some reason) while still enhancing the learning experience.

  • Use handouts, exercises, reading assignments and homework that can be done before, during and after each session. The more you include, the more it becomes something better than just listening to someone talk.

3. The Preparation

  • Prepare the students, as mentioned in the Process part of this discussion. Engage them beforehand, and often. Get them in the right mindset. Layout a plan to be in contact with them each of five days prior to the class convening.

  • Train the Instructors who will train. The new world we are in will require instructors to adapt to and get better in the virtual world. Not all ILT course instructors will be good VILT online instructors. It takes a unique skill to talk to a camera, instead of a live audience, while balancing technology that is totally reliant and depending on you to manipulate and operate. (This is where a Producer comes in handy.)

  • Have a Producer in each delivery, and train them how to produce. If you can’t have a producer, have a co-host/instructor that can be watching chat and other things, while you focus on giving a good delivery.

  • Have a delivery plan, and practice it. Decide who is going to do what, how the engagements/activities are going to occur, and do a dry-run long before the actual digital delivery.

  • Have a delivery checklist. There are a number of them out there. Make sure you have one that you use each and every delivery time. (Contact me if you’d like a sample.)

  • Have a backup plan and backup instructor… for when lightning strikes… because it will. Plan for you to lose internet service, so having another co-host/instructor is a necessary requirement.

4. The Personal Performance

  • Prepare the Practitioner with Proper Practice, Practice, Practice. Unlike ILT courses where a mistake can be covered over, it is dramatically exposed in the digital delivery world. So, eliminate the chance of blunders with the technology or the content with practice towards perfection.

  • Do a pilot, or two, before you go actually live with your Digital Learning Experience. Work out the kinks before you’re placing all your efforts on an actual delivery

  • During your delivery, provide emotional hooks in the form of powerful stories, before and after each block. That is what is going to keep them engaged.

  • Remember, “Telling ain’t Training[10]” … or Teaching. Build in ways to engage your students, before, during and after the module’s delivery. And make sure to be doing it at least every 3-7 minutes in the digital world.

WHAT to Expect

As you plan to make the transition from the classroom to the Digital Learning Journey, you should prepare for some things to occur in the process, and know that they are normal. Don’t let them derail your efforts and your journey. Some are;

  • People will resist the change. I’m talking mostly about the instructors, more than I am the learners. As already explained, the world and the learners are ready for this. In fact, they want it. It is the instructors that just may find this difficult to adapt to. So, prepare to provide ways to make them comfortable with the transformation.

  • There will be hiccups. Plan for things to not work exactly as you expect to, right out the blocks. But that is why it’s good to have pilots and practice runs before hands.

  • Fight the urge to go back to the way we used to do it. Especially in this post-virus environment, people will want to go back to the way it was. That is normal human behavior – we don’t like change. But know that if done well and accordingly, we will be encouraged by the outcomes, which leads to the next points.

  • You will have MORE engagement with students, than you do in a normal ILT environment. Why or how you ask? You will be able to engage them longer: Before, during and after. Rather than just being relegated to the time you have with them in the classroom, you can get them thinking before the class even starts by giving them some “pre-work”. And during the class period, give them some homework or practice work. Note that research has shown a higher engagement rate with students in the virtual world (if properly engaged), if you give them an opportunity to express themselves, talk with peers, and compare experiences.

  • The outcomes will be BETTER! For the instructor AND the student. This is the highlight of the journey. They will learn more, remember more, be more engaged, and apply more in their workplace after the class is completed. That’s when you know you have created an enjoyable and rewarding Digital Learning Experience, for all parties.

In conclusion

We always have an opportunity to improve the quality of instruction and the learner experience. Right now, given the challenges we have, we can take our training to a higher level. Through a Digital Learning Experience, we can shape and impact the future of training by recognizing, exploring and using the benefits of the virtual classroom.

We have training solutions that we can utilize to adeptly, efficiently, and effectively meet the needs of today, and prepare the operators of tomorrow. Let’s start the Digital Learning Journey and do it well, together. Let’s make an impact.

Onward and forward.


Mark DuPont is a Master Trainer (American Society of Training and Development), Instructional Designer, Facilitator, Coach and Consultant, who currently serves as the Executive Director for the National Maritime Law Enforcement Academy. With over 30 years experience in Learning and Development, Mark has led training and exercise programs at the local, state, federal, and levels that have become national standards and recognized by the USCG, FEMA, DHS, and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government as “Best Practices.” His unique blend of experience within the private, public and non-profit sectors training over 15,000 professionals from over a thousand agencies throughout the country, and as a training director implementing a national training program for all 50 United States and its territories, provides a wealth of knowledge, understanding, and application that he loves to share with others on the same learner-experience journey.

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