Jennifer Mugford


Jennifer Mugford


Memorial University



While online learning continues to be commonplace in higher education, it is less so in the workplace. Online learning can provide employees with the flexibility to learn at a time and place that works with their schedules. Big corporations implement online learning sessions for their employees to save on training costs due to turnover and expensive travel, but many organizations have a single staff trainer. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, office workers are now working from home and staff trainers who have never taught online before must adjust, with little or no support.  They must also ensure their course is accessible to participants using not the technology they would normally have in their workplace, but what they had in their homes prior to the outbreak. Trainers need to ensure the distribution of instructional materials, communication between participants and access to learning resources. Depending on what the organization can provide and their capabilities with various technologies, trainers may be able to make use of learning management systems (LMS), virtual classrooms or video conferencing applications. The research on blended and online staff training finds a recurring deficiency: the human element. Transitioning to online training should not override the trainer’s approach to teaching however during this prolonged period of self-isolation and social distancing it is more important than ever before that human interaction is adopted and built in to training sessions.


staff training, workplace training, employee training, eLearning, online training, COVID-19


Click the link that follows to access the video resourcesHuman Interaction: Staff Training Goes Online (08:15)


In April 2003, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak shuttered schools and businesses in China. University classes continued online but at that time, working from home was not an option for most office workers. Business could be conducted over the phone, or by email. The SARS epidemic was the catalyst that drove the large-scale expansion of broadband access to Chinese homes in the summer of 2003 (Liu, 2006). While online learning continues to be commonplace in higher education, it is less so in the workplace. Online learning can provide employees with the flexibility to learn at a time and place that works with their schedules. Some of the challenges of in-person training for a trainer are high turnover, geographic separation, and differing work schedules. Some of the challenges for learners are access to the trainer and the training resources once the training has been completed (See & Teetor, 2014). The COVID-19 pandemic has added the additional challenge of limiting the tools available to the trainer and the trainee to the technology they have in their own homes. This chapter will discuss the research on online learning and blended learning in the workplace and how to apply the recommendations therein when making the transition to online training.

Literature Review

Since the inception of eLearning, corporations have turned to virtual learning environments to save costs. Food services and facilities management giant Sodexho reported a $1 million savings after implementing a virtual learning environment for employee training and development. Sending managers to traditional, in-person training sessions was replaced with e-learning programs consisting of webcasts, social media presence and gamification techniques (Heinrich, 2013).

Moore’s (1993) Theory of Transactional Distance suggests that when teachers and students are separated, as in the case of online learning, the separation affects teaching and learning, leading to potential misunderstanding between what is being taught and what is being learned. Moore considered the concepts of distance, dialogue and structure and determined that some learners preferred discussion to structured lessons and others preferred structured lessons to dialogue. He also discovered that some students used the instruction to determine their own objectives, outcomes and learning experiences. Moore referred to this as learner autonomy, however, it corresponds with the Knowles’ constructivist concept of contract learning, which demands that the learners themselves set their own learning objectives and outcomes, based on learning needs, prior experiences, goals, and capabilities (Ruey, 2010). In constructivist learning, learners are encouraged to actively participate in their own learning through discussions, experiments and collaborative problem-solving. Employees who are required to participate in an in-service or professional development training session are less likely to be motivated to engage in training content unless they can see the immediate relevance to their roles. They may not be prepared to manage their own learning needs and may lack enthusiasm if they are not receiving feedback (Ruey, 2010). In the perceived absence of an instructor, learners may feel that they do not know enough about the subject matter to know if they are applying their new knowledge correctly (Moore, 1989). Therefore, trainers who want to take advantage of the flexibility of online learning but prefer the face-to-face style of instruction may find some benefit in taking a blended learning approach. Blended learning is a combination of traditional, face-to-face learning and computer-mediated learning (Bonk & Graham, 2006). Research on blended learning tends to focus on the learner experience, and the effectiveness of the learning experience in educational and workplace contexts is often measured by examining learner engagement (Hewett, Becker & Bish, 2019).

Learner engagement occurs in three ways: behavioral engagement, or participation; emotional engagement, which reflects feelings towards teachers, classmates and the learning environment and influences motivation; and cognitive engagement, or commitment to participate (Fredricks, Blumenfeld & Paris, 2004). Learner engagement is also influenced by learner interaction. Moore (1989) proposed three types of learner interaction: learner-content interaction, which is how the learners think about the information they encounter; learner-instructor interaction, and learner-learner interaction, both of which suggest human interaction. Hewett, Becker and Bish (2019) studied a professional development workshop that was delivered using a blended learning approach and found that during the online component of the workshop there were no interpersonal interactions. The behavioral engagement consisted of passive learning; reading online and printed texts, watching videos and completing quizzes. In the face-to-face module, behavioral engagement involved activities such as role-playing and having discussions with the trainer and other participants. The researchers asked the participants to assign a verb from Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2000) to describe their own cognitive process during each component. Participants reported using the higher-order processes more often in the face-to-face component. They also asked the participants to identify the emotions they experienced during each component. The participants reported few negative emotions while participating in either component, however, they reported feeling enjoyment and hope only in the presence of human interaction. The researchers concluded that the participants exhibited “a wider range of behavioral engagement, a higher level of cognitive engagement and a stronger emotional engagement” (Hewett, Becker & Bish, 2019, p. 12) in the presence of human interaction.

Human interaction is not limited to face-to-face training. It can occur through online interactions. Falloon (2011) studied a class of thirty adults taking an online course through Adobe Connect Pro, a virtual classroom environment, and collected data to understand how the participants felt about communication, relationship formation and knowledge acquisition in the virtual classroom. He determined that when given the opportunity to work together with their peers in the virtual space, the participants valued the ability to see and hear one another. They reported that hearing the presenter, in particular, allowed for personal nuances that would otherwise be absent.

An online training program was implemented at the University of Arizona Libraries to train new staff. This replaced frequent one-on-one or small group face-to-face training sessions. The library staff reported that they enjoyed the pace of the online course delivery as well as the opportunity to refer to the training materials but disliked the monotony of the text-heavy content. In their analysis of the training program, the instructional designers recommended that online training should provide more opportunities for interaction and the ability to ask questions (See & Teetor, 2014).

The overarching lesson learned from the research on staff training and workplace learning is that employees crave human interaction in online learning and development activities. As the threat of COVID-19 compels trainers to shift to online learning, they should bear in mind that human interaction is in even more demand than ever.


See and Teetor (2014) explain that when the University of Arizona Libraries decided to implement an online training program for their staff, they were able to take advantage of the learning management system (LMS) used by the university; in their case, Desire2Learn (D2L). Other widely used LMS options are Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard and Absorb. An LMS makes it easier to deliver training courses, however, if even no LMS is present, the trainer will need to ensure the distribution of instructional materials, communication between participants, and access to learning resources.

Distributing Instructional Materials

Virtual classrooms, like Adobe Connect and Google Classroom, allow trainers to distribute instructional media. There is a gentle learning curve with Google Classroom (Winstead, 2016) which is free, and greater functionality with Adobe Connect (Sangtani, 2019), which operates a monthly subscription service. In March 2020, many tech companies began offering free trials for training products to assist with transitioning to online learning, and Adobe Connect was no exception. Employees suddenly working from home with varying technology can open PDFs with Microsoft Edge, but not all PDFs are accessible.  Therefore, Microsoft Word documents, which can be read by Google Docs or Apache OpenOffice, or HTML are preferable formats for written materials (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2018).

Communicating with Participants

Staff training sessions are often exceeding short seminars. In-person training events with no formal assessments may be replaced with virtual webinars. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, BlueJeans and GoToMeeting are all popular choices for video conferencing. These products differ from basic telephony apps like FaceTime or Skype as they provide desktop sharing, giving the trainer the ability to present a slideshow or give a demonstration. They include user management functions and admin feature controls, allowing the instructor alone to add or remove participants and enable or disable recording, chat and other functions.  They can accommodate a hundred or more participants at once. Participants may speak with the facilitator and with one another via audio and/or video. It is important that even if they lack the technology that they can ask questions and get feedback.  Another advantage to using GoToMeeting and the other corporate video conferencing products is that participants who do not have access to a microphone or webcam may call a toll-free number to join the audio conference (LogMeIn, 2020).  If the training will be more than an hour or two, encourage students to make videos on their phones to introduce themselves and ask them to share their introductions with the group, using FlipGrid or YouTube. Allow extra time at the beginning of the session to help participants who are struggling with the technology. Set rules for the videoconference, that is, explain to the participants how they should signal that they would like to speak, and communicate what is expected of them in terms of participation.

Adapting Instructional Content

When designing instructional content, the media must be engaging to the user. See and Teetor (2014) found that excessive text-heavy content used in their online training program caused fatigue for the library staff. In addition to the text-based content, they used Articulate Storyline and Adobe Presenter to create online tutorials. Adobe Presenter is a plug-in for Microsoft PowerPoint that provides the ability to create interactive quizzes, surveys, screencasts and audio recordings (Adobe, 2018). Storyline is an eLearning authoring tool that allows the instructional designer to create professional-looking interactive tutorials. Storyline may be particularly useful for trainers who will employ scenario-based training (See & Teetor, 2014). See and Teetor found success with these tools, but these recommendations come with a caution. Some of the criticism of using digital technology in teaching and learning is the tendency to add too much and the introduction of tools that are clumsy and difficult to use, leaving the learner dissatisfied (Bonk, Kim & Zeng, 2005). In shifting to fully online training, a trainer may find herself overwhelmed with technology. As she begins working from home for the first time, she may lack the digital technology; and IT support team; afforded by the office. This is not the time to experiment with fun new apps or gamification. Use familiar software that is proven and dependable. Microsoft PowerPoint, for example, gets a bad rap but it is easy to use, familiar and those slideshows can be converted to videos and uploaded to YouTube to allow for asynchronous instruction. Neither the trainer nor the participants should have to grapple with the technology, especially at this stressful time. Transitioning to online training should not override the content or the approach to teaching it and reliable strategies will work online as well as they did face-to-face (Pufahl, n.d.)

Embracing the Human Element

The literature on blended workplace learning has taught us that online modules of blended learning interventions could be enhanced by adding human interaction. Hewett, Becker, and Bish (2019) suggested an online discussion board. Learner-instructor interaction can be enhanced using the functionality built in to LMS and virtual classroom environments, like surveys and announcements, but common communication methods like social media and email are simple, lower-tech ways that a trainer can incorporate elements of human interaction to online training.

After taking an EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative course, Schmidt (2017) learned and summarized several ways to add authenticity and human interaction to online courses. These ideas can be transferred to staff training. First, establish a presence as an instructor. This can be done by storytelling, but the audience will want to put a face to the name, so she recommends uploading a video or hosting a synchronous session. Next, develop a social and cognitive presence. For staff training courses, which tend to be shorter this means understanding who the learners are and engaging with them during the learning intervention. Ask them what it is they want to learn.  Establish a learning contract. Interact with them after the session to offer support and provide a human interaction.

Learner-learner interaction among peers should not be overlooked, as it is an important resource for learning (Moore, 1989). It may be valuable to encourage participants to work in pairs or small groups to establish a rapport with their peers. Adobe Connect, Zoom, and BlueJeans all have breakout rooms, allowing students to work in smaller groups away from the main group. If those technologies cannot be employed, participants can communicate in other ways, synchronously and asynchronously. During the SARS outbreak, it was reported that student discourse took place within a social constructivist framework, that is, when students communicated with the teacher and with one another, they were better able to construct their own knowledge. Students preferred to communicate at that time through text messaging, instant messaging, and chat rooms, rather than the Yahoo discussion groups prescribed by their teachers, (Fox, 2004). In 2020, computer-mediated communications among colleagues are more likely social networks: Facebook, Twitter, FaceTime, Snapchat and WhatsApp.


Large corporations like Sodexho implement virtual classrooms and eLearning for their employees to save on training costs but many organizations have a single staff trainer. Management may think that if their employees have a high-speed internet connection, they can continue all normal tasks, but for the staff trainer working from home for the first time, it is far from business as usual. Finding the right resources to distribute instructional material and communicate with participants will increase learner-content interaction however the research on blended and online staff training finds a recurring deficiency: human interaction. Online training must include learner-instructor interaction and if possible, learner-learner interaction. Human interactions are positively correlated with learner engagement and thus the effectiveness of the learning experience. However, as the period of self-isolation, quarantining and social distancing drags on, it is more important than ever before that human interaction is adopted and built into online staff training sessions.


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Integration of Instructional Design and Technology to Support Rapid Change Copyright © 2020 by Jennifer Mugford is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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