At Texas A&M University’s Center for the Advancement of Literacy and Learning (TCALL), learners and educators are accustomed to using digital learning tools. Users have relied on TCALL’s learning management system, the PD Portal, to complete their annual required educator training for the past five years. Still, moving to exclusively-online engagements during the COVID-19 pandemic was a seismic shift.
With no in-person, in-classroom discussions to fall back on, both TCALL users and learning material providers had to make digital training work—despite the learning curve. The surprising outcome? According to Laura Greer, Manager of PD Logistics for TCALL and Kathryn Snow, PD Portal Coordinator, cost savings, an increase in digital fluency and continuous improvement to content and process along with other benefits.
In a webinar moderated by Melissa Asher, CPS HR Consulting Director, Training and Development, Greer and Snow shared the obstacles they faced when the PD Portal became the sole source of learning for users—and how they tackled them through trust, communication and thorough support.
Leveraging a History of Trust
The Texas Center for the Advancement of Literacy and Learning was founded back in 1989 by Texas A&M’s Board of Regents. In 2015, TCALL received funding from the Texas Workforce Commission to serve as the primary professional development resource center for educators throughout the entire state of Texas. Part of the responsibility that came with the grant was the introduction of a learning management system to support development: the PD Portal was born.
But what may have sufficed stylistically back in 2015 wasn’t cutting it in 2018, and Greer and Snow were tasked with modernizing the portal and creating a user experience similar to that of Netflix, Facebook and other familiar, intuitive platforms. It was a major transformation that— although Greer and Snow couldn’t have predicted it at the time—prepared them for the COVID-19 pandemic and all of its disruption in 2020.
Back then, when the PD Portal welcome page was being overhauled to improve design, Greer and Snow previewed it with end users six months ahead of launch, created instructional PDFs to address FAQs, launched short how-to videos with training on using the portal, hosted webinars to demonstrate functionality and rolled out a Google Form on the welcome page to collect questions or help requests. There were minor bumps along the way, but by communicating regularly and transparently with users, TCALL ensured that even those that weren’t inherently tech-savvy enjoyed a smooth transition. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit and more changes to the PD Portal were imminent, users weren’t worried.
"We had built this trust since the LMS had been deployed that our users knew going into COVID that we would support them," Greer said. In the past, TCALL was able to supplement online materials available in the PD Portal with in-classroom learning, but the pandemic made this impossible. Online resources and courses became the only available option. TCALL had to adapt. To continue to offer live courses, for example, the center pivoted to delivering them as webinars through Zoom.
TCALL also had to offer built-in support and constant communication during these webinars, especially during high-volume sessions where participants were at mixed skill levels of technological familiarity. "What made a real difference was having housekeeping slides at the beginning to explain expectations and the platform’s different features," Snow said.
Though it was a trying transition because of how quickly it had to take place, Snow and Greer were both pleasantly surprised at how effectively it unfolded. For one, TCALL was able to save money on travel budgets because educators no longer had to travel to deliver trainings—they were executed remotely. Plus, the added education about using the PD Portal, Zoom and other tools boosted digital fluency for users. And, lastly, the transparent communication surrounding the transition opened the floodgates to continuous feedback that will only continue to improve the PD Portal, Greer and Snow agreed.
Learning in the "Now" Norm
In the latter half of the webinar, Asher, Greer and Snow shared their additional learning from this experience and how other organizations can prepare for the future. The verdict is still out on if and when in-person learning will return to "normal," but one thing is certain: Digital learning is here to stay—and there are key best practices to ensure its effectiveness. Keeping the focus on the goal of a specific learning experience rather than the platform it’s delivered on, optimizing engagement and ensuring that technology operates smoothly are just a few strategies that Asher emphasized, in addition to Greer and Snow’s insights.
"There’s a temptation to focus first on the platform that you’re working on and not the learning piece. People are used to working in a classroom environment, but we have to change. So how do we do that without losing what we want participants to learn?" Asher asked.
The answer comes down to letting go of what worked in the classroom and fighting the desire to make old techniques fit into new formats. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new tools and resources to determine what works best to ensure learning in the new setting—from live polls to breakout rooms, there are features that educators can use to resonate with learners differently but effectively, nonetheless.
Choosing the right feature to implement will likely boost engagement, Asher said. To maintain learners’ attention in a remote setting, engagement activities (polls, chats, etc.) should be peppered in at regular intervals—as frequently as every 4-6 minutes, she recommended. Visuals, especially videos, are also a key tool for engagement. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a video is worth 1.8 million, she explained. And, people typically remember only about 10% of what they’ve read or heard—with video that goes up to 68%.
Finally, because the effectiveness of remote learning depends so heavily on the technology that powers it, Asher urged users to always test tools (audio, slides, etc.) regularly to confirm that everything is operational before learning takes place.
In the "now" normal, digital learning is king but it’ll take some getting used to, the panelists agreed. But big journeys start with small steps, Greer said, and now’s the time to start taking them.
To view the full session on demand, click here.
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