For many companies, virtual learning is a necessity. It simply isn’t feasible, financially or physically, to get global employees together to meet their learning objectives.

With technical tasks, virtual learning is highly effective. But in high demand, ‘soft skill’ areas, virtual learning has its drawbacks. How can you teach communication and teamwork to someone sat alone in front of a computer?

Increasingly it is these interpersonal relationships that matter in business. With automation taking over many basic roles, the human employees left must have excellent social and emotional skills, making them good communicators[i]. In the future, the most in-demand skills will be adaptability, problem-solving, logical reasoning, creativity and leadership[ii].

How can you deliver those all-important social learning experiences, within the bounds of virtual training?

According to Mika Kuikka, Co-Founder and President at Valamis, social learning can take place in a virtual context when working on group assignments and other collaborative forms of learning. “Learning together helps people build relationships with other learners. In a virtual setting, learning together is about using the necessary tools to share and collaborate, such as screen share or screen capture. Learning from another person builds trust, respect and a relationship both in virtual and live situations. The right technology can support and encourage communication and collaboration to make it happen.”

Technology and learning design are vital

When virtual learning platforms were first introduced they became little more than ‘virtual blackboards’, with very limited, if any, actual interaction between teacher and learner. But as technology has progressed, the opportunity to have real-time conversations and work on projects in a group environment has advanced the ability of virtual learning to successfully transfer information to the learner. Psychologist Katie Woodland cites ‘Social Learning Theory’ (Bandura, 1977) which proposes that we learn by “first watching and then modelling the behaviour, therefore highlighting the importance of ‘role play’ style activities during a training environment. This should be considered alongside ‘Social Identity Theory’ (Tajfel, 1979) when trying to ensure information learned in a virtual learning environment is effectively integrated back into the workplace. The effectiveness to which the facilitator ensures that participants identify alongside team members is extremely important in relationship building and increasing learning effectiveness. Research has shown that the type of environment (whether virtual or face-to-face) is not important in knowledge transference as long as the right psychological principles underpin the training design and the accompanying social interaction.”

Interactive team-based learning experiences such as business simulations can deliver virtual learning in a way that is still shared and social

By working in small teams, even when physically apart, participants gain the important social and networking aspects of group learning. Drawing together people from diverse geographic locations, simulations engender a sense of team spirit, often with a competitive edge as teams compete against each other to deliver the best result.

These rich learning experiences offer three layers of learning. Learning from the actual simulation itself, learning how the team works together during the simulation, for example, their communication and decision-making processes, and the specific context of the simulation, such as stakeholder management or leadership skills. All of these learning layers are just as applicable when a simulation is run face-to-face or virtually. Technology enables the delivery of the learning experience and the opportunity for collaborative social and virtual learning to take place.

Young people are growing up totally at ease with virtual social relationships

Those of us that grew up before the digital age might still be adjusting to the virtual world. But the latest generations are growing up with virtual social interactions engrained in their psyche. Katie Woodland says: “As social media, text messaging and email continues to become the dominant form of social interaction, these modalities become the normal way in which to make friends, maintain friendships and even start romantic relationships.” Take the recent Fortnite competition and final in New York, where more-than 100 Fortnite World Cup finalists competed for a $3million top prize, after successfully coming through an online qualification with over 40 million gamers. This was a huge event with real, life-changing prizes, yet totally based on a virtual world. I have seen the value of these virtual social relationships myself, watching my son collaborating and competing with friends based all over the world. Particularly for this generation, virtual learning does not act as a barrier to the necessary social aspect of learning. It is their new normal. It is up to us as learning providers to deliver it.



[i] Manyika,James; Lund, Susan; Chui, Michael; Bughin, Jacques; Woetzel, Jonathan; Batra, Parul; Ko, Ryan; Sanghvi, Saurabh. Jobs lost, jobs gained: What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages. McKinsley Global Institute.

[ii] CEO Survey Global Talent. PwC.