The 6 A’s of transitioning learning online

Transitioning workplace learning online is inevitable. Here are 6 guiding principles every business should consider as they face change.

Online training is nothing new. The bombardment of statistics and reports help us reach a simple conclusion: e-learning (no matter the target audience) is booming and there’s no sign that it will let up. In fact, the novel coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is only set to catalyze the transition towards online learning. As the stock markets crash around it, Zoom has reported exceptional growth, with shares returning over 200% and sales increasing 88% in the 2020 financial year.* The entire American higher education industry, worth around $600 billion, has been forced online. We have reached a watershed moment.

Whether businesses are ready or not, the general trend, exacerbated by COVID-19, means transitioning training to online environments is a case of when not if. For many employers however, this is a leap of faith. The uncertainty into which we must willingly go is, according to Kierkegaard, like suspending ourselves “out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water,” painfully aware of the risks we are taking. So how can we set ourselves up to float, not sink? Failure along the way is inevitable but the following six strategies can help us navigate the waters and give us the best possible chance.

1. Access

A friend of mine works for a fairly large, well-respected London law firm. The firm was initially reluctant to respond to the virus by closing their doors and encouraging their employees to work from home, not through some draconian approach to a “proper” working environment, but a fundamental problem with access to online working. Not a single employee had a company laptop; all their work was centralized on desktop computers. According to this employee, he had never conducted a video conference at this or any of the previous law firms he had worked at. As a result, the company had to order dozens of laptops to allow him and his colleagues to work from home during the pandemic.

Ensuring that all employees have adequate access to online learning is essential for its success. Access is not simply a physical practicality. Training programs should be designed to provide contextually relevant material in intuitive ways – this could be through contextually relevant materials such as applicable videos or tasks in multiple languages. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 (2018), for example, are an extremely thorough resource for program or web designers. Links to reports, studies and resources for designing and considering online training can be found in the “Additional Resources” section (pp. 20-21) of the Online Learning Consortium 2018 report.

2. Acknowledge mistakes

“Why do we fall, sir? So we can learn to pick ourselves up again”
– Alfred Pennyworth, Batman Begins (2005)

Failure is a complex inevitability in business. According to Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, executives acknowledge “truly blameworthy” failures in business occur 2-5% of the time, yet treat 70-90% of failures as blameworthy. Instead of playing the “blame game,” she suggests we adopt a candid approach to failure that accepts and encourages the ability to identify small-scale failures on a regular basis. Although it may seem counterproductive, encouraging the correct approach to failure is integral to success and psychological safety. Sim Sitkin, professor of Leadership, Management and Public Policy at Duke, expresses the importance of intelligent failure. When adopting revolutionary business strategies, he argues, failure is an essential part of development. Intelligent failure is predicated on five criteria:

  1. They are carefully planned, so that when things go wrong you know why
  2. They are genuinely uncertain, so the outcome cannot be known ahead of time
  3. They are modest in scale, so that a catastrophe does not result
  4. They are managed quickly, so that not too much time elapses between outcome and interpretation
  5. Something about what is learned is familiar enough to inform other parts of the business

Harvard Business Review, 2010

Setting up for intelligent failure and acknowledging mistakes is essential for any business venture. In the online era, with transparency and a natural aversion (or even mistrust) to technology, accountability is of paramount importance.

3. Adaptability

A popular adaptation to The Moscow Rules, the fabled 10 rules adopted by spies undercover in Moscow during the cold war, is, “technology will always let you down.” The internet will go down, video calls will cut out, programs will freeze. Program designers need to enact contingency plans for when this occurs. Students, employees, and learners will adapt over time, even if they display an initial dip in attainment. According to Jaggars and Xu, students achieved significantly lower marks as they transitioned to online community college education.

Solutions such as adaptive learning (those which respond to the immediate needs of individuals) can address these issues in the long-term, and all learners will develop the skills to excel in online environments through formal and informal educational strategies. However, frustration and apathy are natural outcomes for companies that fail to adapt to unplanned obstacles. Creating online training programs that are adaptable, or at least have some degree of failsafe, is essential for easing the transition online for users.

4. Accuracy

Believe it or not there is a reason why schools enforce timetables, scheduled periods and subjects. It’s the same reason teachers and trainers of all ages incorporate clear learning goals for their students – learners benefit from regularity, familiarity and accuracy. Think of when you moved into a new house or apartment. The new space is unfamiliar, alien, yet offers opportunity. As you begin to unpack your belongings you adopt some form of regularity – kitchenware goes in the kitchen, books on the bookshelf. Subconsciously as we enter into a new space we populate it with fresh interpretations predicated on existing regularities, new approaches to key underlying criteria. Changing the space is stressful enough, we don’t need to change the very concept of what it means to be in an apartment. The same is vital for learners as they transition to an online learning environment. The new systems for training are alien enough without thinking of new ways to learn – these can come later. The priority for moving training online should be on providing clear steps to make the move as seamless as possible. Accuracy is key. Before unlocking the full potential of your online training software, consider incorporating existing terminology, moving real-life spaces online (there’s a reason we call computer shortcuts “files” and “folders” – it’s so we know what to expect). Giving learners accurate, straightforward goals is vital to ensure they don’t become overwhelmed.

5. Appeal

Despite the zeal of university professors to continue the legacy of lectures, interactive student-centered learning has long been considered the most effective method of training and development because it promotes engagement. The internet offers tremendous potential for engaging material, so use it. There are hundreds of innovative apps, programs, and content offerings to support learning in engaging and interesting ways.

A simple approach to engaging training is by offering students a variety of tasks using different media, in which a learning platform can allow you to build learning paths and learning goals to enable this blended learning technique. This includes blogs, videos, student-led projects, podcasts – the list is endless. While research suggests students, particularly adults, may approach online learning with trepidation it is not an insurmountable challenge. In the fourth edition of Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn, Wlodkowski and Ginsberg argue that while online environments present a fresh challenge, intrinsic motivation (“finding the act of learning rewarding itself”) is “possible for everyone.”

Engagement and interest function as “emotional points” along the continuum of learning. Put simply, learning requires motivation which is made possible through engagement. Appealing content (either through personalization, variety of media or contextually relevant material) can aid initial engagement.

6. Ad-hoc, Asynchronous learning

One of the many buzzwords for online learning companies: asynchronous ad-hoc learning. Essentially, learning on your schedule. Asynchronous training is vastly more beneficial for learners, particularly those with existing commitments such as heavy workloads or families to attend to. The flexibility provided by asynchronous learning allows companies to provide training for all employees without requiring the surrender of work hours. Embracing this in the design stage is important; plan training modules aware that learners will complete them at different rates and times, include “recap” sessions at the beginning, ends and throughout modules so learners don’t feel lost, and try not to make asynchronous activities overly time-consuming. The shift from synchronous to asynchronous learning may also be financially beneficial for companies. Synchronous learning takes more planning, more resources, and a dedicated schedule.

Online learning on a mass scale is still somewhat under research; the current coronavirus pandemic is the largest experiment in online learning ever. According to Justin Reich, a researcher on online learning environments at MIT, it’s also possible online learning is not advisable in huge volumes – we have no idea if people (particularly young people) have the “attention or executive function skills” to participate in online learning. Although Reich is focused more on childhood development, he offers an interesting solution to online saturation. He suggests we consider hybrid learning environments where learners complete tasks offline and bring them online (known as “flipping the classroom” in education terms. For companies designing online training, this approach may help users less adept at online practices, and increase attention levels across the board.


Transitioning learning online is an exciting yet daunting prospect. Before even considering content for training programs, corporations should pay close attention to these six guiding principles and leverage the experts in learning and development. Once the design of online training has begun, businesses must recognize the continual importance of the six principles, alongside an appreciation of their own personal work culture and the contexts of individuals within their corporation. Online training offers enormous potential for catalyzing training in a business setting, yet there is no use reinventing the wheel. Successful transition to online training begins with careful planning, an acknowledgement of these six guiding principles, and constant reflection based on feedback.

The world is moving online – whether forced or voluntarily. Businesses must embrace the transition to online training in a thoughtful way if they are to make the most of all the opportunities afforded by the digital age. The future of work has a contingency plan; be prepared.

*Valamis has no affiliation with Zoom.