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9 Important Things We’ve Learned About Distance Learning in Lockdown

For all of us, the last six months (March-August 2020) have been a challenge for our working and home lives. Corporate learning is no exception. We describe the journey we have been on with our clients in three phases:

Phase 1: “Help us deliver all of our critical face-to-face learning virtually. Fast.”

We quickly responded, supporting L&D teams, facilitators, and Subject Matter Experts as they took effective classroom learning and got to grips with delivering them via Zoom or similar. We all learned fast how to make sessions far more collaborative and engaging than ever before.

Phase 2: “How can we deliver effective and meaningful learning at a distance?”

Our clients saw the need to deliver sustained learning, beyond single events. So we drew on our 30+ years of experience and have been developing engaging learning journeys that focus on collaboration, networked, supported, and applied learning. All developing and transforming behaviors effectively at a distance.

Phase 3: “We’ve started transforming the way we deliver our learning. Please help us deliver it more effectively.”

This is where we engage our strategic team, process, design, governance, and measurement experts, and start to put in place the foundations of a flexible and digital, but fully virtual future. We’re helping our clients develop processes, patterns, approaches, and guidelines to fit their needs.

Through these phases, and over the last six months, we’ve learned a great deal—and in this article want to share the top nine things we’ve learned about delivering effective learning at a distance.

1. Virtual Classrooms: Design for Virtual

By now, we’ve hopefully all learned this: converting from face-to-face to virtual does not mean taking the same deck or format that worked in a classroom and delivering it over Zoom.

In a fully virtual context, we have lost much of the key non-verbal communications, body language, and rules of conversation that we had before. Plus, we’re physically disconnected, allowing for far greater distraction. Our attention spans are dropping, seemingly exponentially.

The answer has to be to fundamentally reconsider and meticulously plan the way a virtual session is experienced by learners and how it plays out as a narrative.

Our top tips? Build from the ground up, with virtual in mind. Think about delivering shorter segments (never more than five minutes) interspersed with interactivity, discussion, reflection, quizzing, and polling. Give your audience breaks from listening as much as possible. Most of all, think of the session leader as a facilitator and show host, not a presenter.

2. Virtual Classrooms: Design for the New Learner Archetypes

Every learner will respond to triggers and learning in a different way. Good learning designers look closely at learner personas as they start defining the optimal learning for them. But the way we interact has changed since lockdown.

At LEO Learning, we’ve been working on a set of New Learner Archetypes— specifically in the context of virtual classroom experiences, and have been testing them in practice. They seem to strongly resonate and we’ve seen some great results.

Our model identifies four key learner types, positioned on axes of their ‘external activity’ as a learner and their ‘internal activity’ while learning at distance within a virtual classroom setting.

A quick summary of the archetypes:

The Thinker

May not contribute greatly during a virtual session, but they will prove their competency after the event. They are fully receptive but tend to process internally. Thinkers may not enjoy open interaction but have plenty to contribute if they can be encouraged to do so.

The Showperson

Contributes easily, enjoys the interaction, and needs validation, but may not be engaging with the concepts or messages effectively. Our misconception as facilitators may be that they’re the best or most effective learners because they’re so engaged, while this may not actually be the case.

The Dormant

Finds it hard to pay attention and engage on any level. The first question for the facilitator is whether this matters or not. It’s fine to have dormants in a webinar context that’s focused on awareness, but a dormant participant in a mandatory high-impact workshop is not ideal.

The Achiever

Contributes thoughtfully, processing and balancing self-driven learning with social learning. Facilitators shouldn’t need to spend too much of their time on the achievers. They can be used to lead and drive sessions by example in a learning group.

Few people fit perfectly into one archetype and people can shift from one state to another over the period of even one session. Working with these states in mind ensures you keep the learning experience fully focused on the needs of every one of your learners.

3. Find Ways to Collaborate

Collaboration can come naturally in a face-to-face environment and while it's harder in a virtual context, it can give far greater rewards. People are missing the experience of working closely together, so anything we can do as designers and facilitators to draw people together will make the experience more engaging and effective.

Firstly, use the tools that your virtual classroom platform offers you: chat, responses (emoticons, stars, clapping, etc.) voting, surveys, and shared resources. Experiment with them and try to use as many as possible to make the experience varied.

Secondly, if your platform offers it, use break out rooms. Start a session with everyone together, break out into small groups to discuss and solve a particular problem together, then bring them back to share their thinking.

Thirdly, use an interactive whiteboard to work collaboratively. Google’s Jamboard is a simple version of this. We also use Miro and Mural—both of which give you infinite whiteboards (something you don’t get in the real world!)—and many different tools for expressing yourself, from virtual post-its to pens and drawing tools.

4. Workshops Can Work Virtually

We often used to get together in project teams with our clients for longer creative and strategic sessions. Like many, we were concerned that working virtually would kill the essence of creativity and innovation that can be captured in a room. How wrong we were!

Over the past months, we’ve been trying out different new ways of working together. We’ve found that working over a sprint of one week and meeting up for four or five short virtual events over that time can bring about some powerful results.

Adding time to reflect brings another dimension and allowing attendees to develop their thinking, prepare, and re-present ideas means that you can get much further towards a solution than you could in a single day.

Spreading a series of sessions out over time also gives you the flexibility to bring different stakeholders into the sessions, which is much harder to do when the focus is on live attendance at one event.

As with any virtual experience, a workshop series needs to be carefully planned and designed, and collaborative activities are key. Once again, the role of the facilitator has shifted and requires the ability to chair the discussion at a distance, encouraging engagement from the full team throughout.

5. Think About the Learning Journey: Align, Deliver, Sustain

Fundamental to the design of blended learning journeys is our Align, Deliver Sustain approach. Developing excellent learning content is only the middle part of the journey. We need to think about both ends of the journey as well: 

  • how and why the learner engages with the learning before a learning event
  • how they apply and sustain the knowledge and skills over time, after the event

In the Align phase, we think closely about what is motivating the learner to engage. It’s about how to market the learning and communicate the benefits clearly.

In this phase we also think about their existing knowledge. Do they need to do some pre-learning to get up to speed before they engage? Are they way ahead of the pack already?

In the Delivery phase, we look at channels we can use optimally. How can we deploy learning content and engage our learners for the perfect learning experience? We may use a combination of traditional eLearning alongside ILT, resource packs, video, gamification techniques, and user-generated content, for instance.

The Sustain phase is all about helping our learners transfer their new skills effectively into their daily working lives. We may think about practice, support, and reflection, and ensuring we keep the behaviors live through refresher learning or nudging.

6. Thinking About the Learning Journey: Engaging the Learners

Learning journeys can range from half an hour to a number of weeks. We have even developed a complex blended learning journey that delivered an MBA in healthcare leadership over an 18-month period. 

With long journeys such as this, we need to think harder about how to keep our learners engaged to completion. We have many strategies for keeping learners together over longer, more complex journeys, but our three primary ones are: Context, Action, and Mission


It’s easy for a series of touchpoints in a learning journey to seem unconnected, particularly if the learner is jumping between platforms and channels over an extended period. Make sure every touchpoint is fully signposted, clearly labeled, and that it's clear how it fits into the full journey.

When we created the MBA healthcare leadership program, each of the 1,200 components were labeled clearly with how long they would take, the expectations of the learner, expected outcomes, and how they fitted into the broader topic.


There’s no such thing as passive learning. We’ve been using action learning groups for many years as part of major programs, but action is needed at every level of a distance learning engagement.

Think carefully about the actions and responses required from your learners after each event, from a simple reflection to a group exercise. Also, consider the pacing between touchpoints—learners left too long may drift off.

In the healthcare program, we never left a learner for longer than a few days before they were required to engage again with a tutor or other learners.


Many programs demand a lot of their learners. While a focus on the align messaging is important, it can get lost over time. Before you design your program, ensure the end-goal or mission is completely clear, and keep returning to it at each step of the journey.

7. Make Meaning Together: Social Learning

People learn socially. They learn by sharing knowledge, sense-making together, supporting each other, and collaborating in creative and decision-making processes. The emergence of digital learning often meant we lost some of these themes, as early eLearning tended to offer an isolated experience for the learner.

But just as we’ve fully embraced social networking into our lives, we are connecting together our learners and our organizations, for more powerful, shared sense-making and learning. Almost every program we develop now includes strategies and approaches for joining learners together effectively.

8. Embrace the Power of Video and Animation

Video serves many critical purposes in learning today. It’s a flexible, cost-effective, and ubiquitous medium that can deliver powerful stories to create the right impact at the right time.

Moving image plays a huge part in our lives away from work. Most of us subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, or one of the many other streaming services. Crucially, we can commit many hours to binge-watching a show that’s a particular favorite. We’re all steeped in visual media.

But video doesn’t have to be broadcast quality to change lives. YouTube is, without exception, the most powerful learning channel on the planet—and most of the video there is created on a phone by non-professionals.

It’s not surprising then that video has seen a new resurgence in digital learning recently. According to a report from Fosway Group, video is at the top of our list for important media or channels in our new virtual working and learning world.

9. Campfires and Virtual Workshops Work

The week that lockdown was implemented in the UK, we were due to run our next in-person Royal Institution Workshop in London (on the subject of storytelling in learning). In these sessions, we traditionally gathered 30-40 senior learning professionals, both clients and prospects. We’d spend a day hearing from expert practitioners, challenging their and our views, designing solutions together, and, most importantly, networking with new and old colleagues.

Without events like these, we suddenly felt disconnected. So we designed and piloted a new format for meeting virtually: a 90-minute discussion for 5-8 attendees, with no presentation deck, a loose agenda, and light facilitation only. We call these the LEO Campfires.

The sessions have been a great success. We found people were ready to share their experiences, talk openly, and solve each other's challenges in a way we hadn’t expected. The feedback we received from attendees was deeply positive and all participants said that they would welcome an invitation again.

In a virtual world, the campfire experience seems to have given us back some of the things we are missing from being able to be together, and we’ll be running more of them.

If you would like to join us in a future session, or want to know more about any of the topics discussed here, please contact the LEO team.

Andrew Joly, Director of Strategic Design

Andrew is the Director of Strategic Design for LEO. He joined the company in 2001 and has worked in the learning sector since 1989, when he was employed as a training film editor and producer. Having moved into the new area of multimedia in the 1990s, Andrew joined the BBC as a Commissioning Editor for learning games, and then spent time as a consultant at the branding agency Wolff Olins. Andrew now leads the consulting faculty at LEO, at the frontline of strategic learning design and learning innovation in practice

Andrew focuses on his personal passion: how technology-enabled learning experiences and communication blends can transform behaviors and performance in the workplace. Andrew is always keen to explore how new modes and strategies for learning and connection can make a real difference to people, teams, and global organizations today.

Andrew holds a BSc in Biology from Manchester, a diploma in Systemic Coaching, and is a certified Lego Serious Play Facilitator. He’s a senior volunteer for a Peak District-based charity working towards sustaining the local ecology, habitats, and natural environments of pollinators. He also plays the mandolin and guitar. By his own admission, he has collected too many examples of both instruments.

Follow Andrew on LinkedIn.

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