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In the rush to convert classroom training into online learning, it’s easy to forget how difficult it is to do. On the face of it, the same design, development and evaluation disciplines need to be applied as for classroom and workplace training, except (and it’s a big exception) these have to be adapted to the different needs, behaviours and circumstances of the online learner – someone who has to self-start, keep themselves motivated and fit online learning into and around everything else that’s happening in their life.

To different degrees, and in different ways, each online learner needs structure, feedback, guidance, contact, interaction, encouragement and cajoling.  And these inputs and outputs need to be delivered in a medium where learners have a nasty habit of comparing online learning with the other online services, games and applications they use. If your online learning environment is unintuitive, hard to navigate, text heavy, lecture heavy, light on feedback, unsupported, lacking formative assessment, or out of date, learners might still give it a chance but they are unlikely to come back.

Aside from the sheer necessity of it, the main reason why the COVID-19 crisis has caused a stampede of training organisations converting their traditional offerings into online formats, is that they didn’t need to do it before. For private training organisations, classroom training and workplace training can be a profitable business. Where online learning is concerned, most have been playing a waiting game for years – waiting for innovators to test learning delivery systems, take the financial risk, and prove the demand. Now the game has changed – the balance of online, workplace and classroom learning won’t be the same again – they find themselves playing catch up.

The prizes for getting online learning right can be glittering, but the mixed history of distance learning tells us that few strike gold. In the grim context of a global pandemic, online learning is both a necessity and a trap. High quality online learning benefits the learner, the current and future employer, and the provider. Low quality offerings harm confidence, waste precious time and money, and damage reputations. Sometimes it’s better not to do something, than to do it because everyone else is.