Six fundamentals of virtual learning

Delivering virtual learning

Six fundamentals of virtual learning


COVID-19 transformed virtual learning from an option to a necessity overnight, accelerating an already well-established technological trend.

Some organisations already have a strong track record of virtual learning, but for others it is a relatively new and daunting means of delivering impactful development. Based on our extensive research into how adults learn, and particularly drawing on our experience with our clients since the pandemic began, we’ve compiled six evidence-based principles that underpin great virtual learning. You can read the full guide, Real Learning in the Virtual World, here.


Three virtual design principles


1. Keep it simple

The latest technology and all its flashy capabilities can be exciting, but it should be used with care. While it may be tempting to use all the tools at our disposal, it can have a negative impact on learners, leaving them feeling overwhelmed and over-stimulated.[1] Just as you would for face-to-face learning, always start by asking “what do I want my learners to achieve and how do I want to shift behaviour?” and keep focused on that. Resist the urge to add in that cool new virtual karaoke feature, unless it really adds something to the learners.

2. Re-create for virtual, don’t convert

There is often the assumption that you can take face-to-face courses and deliver them virtually.[2] Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as that.

Many things simply don’t translate across to video calls; for example, how do you welcome people to the course and build rapport with your learners when there’s no way for small groups to chat casually before the session starts? Think carefully about how to create some of the more informal moments that you have in face-to-face learning because learners need to feel welcomed.[3]

It’s also worth establishing ‘virtual etiquette’ such as microphones off, raising hands and using the chatroom when others are speaking. It helps get off to the right start and is particularly important for those who may be new virtual learners.

3. Divide learning into chunks

Now that many of our workplace interactions take place online, our average daily screen time has increased significantly. Prolonged use of our devices can negatively affect our health through increased headaches, blurred vision and neck and shoulder pain.[4] Building in frequent breaks to virtual courses helps to protect people’s wellbeing, but it’s also a more effective way to learn. Dividing learning into chunks helps our brains retain more information.[5]


Three virtual delivery principles


1. Set up a winning workspace

Our lives are full of distractions, especially when on our devices. Notifications pop up with emails, messages or breaking news stories so it’s critical to help learners manage this; performance suffers when we engage with multiple online activities while trying to learn.[6]Encourage learners to think about the environment in which they’ll be learning and what they can do set themselves up in the best way to learn, such as turning off certain notifications for the duration of the course.

2. Shift focus frequently, but stay on topic

Human attention is crucial for learning and memory,[7] so understanding it better can really make the difference when delivering a virtual session. While there are many different opinions on how long our attention span lasts (anything from 8 seconds to 15 minutes), there’s not a great deal of hard data to back those numbers up.[8] Rather than focusing on the exact length of our attention, it’s more important to appreciate that our attention fluctuates.

Recent research has shown that our attention fluctuates between a state of general awareness of our environment to one of precise focus four times every second.[9] Think carefully about how you switch regularly between slides, cameras, voices, chat boxes and other tools and well as flexing between theory, reflection and interactivity throughout your session.

3. Master the technology, don’t let it master you

Technical issues are one of the main frustrations shared by learners using virtual platforms.[10]Before delivering virtually, make sure you have mastered the basics such as sharing your screen, playing videos and sending learners into virtual breakout rooms. These actions should feel seamless for the learner. Also, don’t assume by now that everyone has mastered working in a virtual world, take the time to check everyone is up to speed and use slides to show clear instructions if necessary.


The increased prominence of virtual learning has meant that getting the design and delivery of these programmes right is more important than ever. Going forward, it is critical that L&D practice is informed by researched strategies that work.

Discover more tips for designing and delivering impactful virtual learning by downloading our guide, Real Learning in the Virtual World.


[1] McBrien, J. L., Cheng, R., & Jones, P. (2009). Virtual spaces: Employing a synchronous online classroom to facilitate student engagement in online learning. International review of research in open and distributed learning, 10(3).

[2] Steed, C. (2011). Facilitating live online learning. Lulu. com.

[3] McDaniels, M., Pfund, C., & Barnicle, K. (2016). Creating dynamic learning communities in synchronous online courses: One approach from the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL). Online Learning, 20(1), 110-129.

[4] Sheppard, A. L., & Wolffsohn, J. S. (2018). Digital eye strain: prevalence, measurement and amelioration. BMJ Open Ophthalmology, 3(1).

[5] Murphy, M. (2008). Matching workplace training to adult attention span to improve learner reaction, learning score and retention. Journal of Instruction Delivery Systems, 22(2), 6-13.

[6] Junco, R., & Cotten, S. R. (2012). No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and academic performance. Computers & Education, 59(2), 505-514.

[7] Muzzio, I. A., Kentros, C., & Kandel, E. (2009). What is remembered? Role of attention on the encoding and retrieval of hippocampal representations. The Journal of Physiology, 587(12), 2837-2854.

[8] Bradbury, N. A. (2016). Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more? The American Physiological Society, 509-513.

[9] Fiebelkorn, I. C., & Kastner, S. (2019). A rhythmic theory of attention. Trends in cognitive sciences, 23(2), 87-101.

[10] Mangen, A., Walgermo, B. R., & Brønnick, K. (2013). Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International journal of educational research, 58, 61-68.