In the context of the current global pandemic, remote or online training has established significant critical mass to the point that nearly all training institutions or centres have adopted some form of remote training. Although it is different from traditional face-to-face training, the delivery of remote training should not be improvised.

There are indeed specific requirements to satisfy in order for remote training to be effective. In this two-part story we shall cover these requirements, and namely the awareness that there are different modalities for remote training to be delivered, that it is not always a substitute for traditional classroom instruction and that it work best when ‘blended’ with face-to-face, that the engagements of participants must be ensured for a positive learning outcome and that the trainers themselves need to be trained and qualified to deliver online training.

The Different Meanings of 'Remote Training'

Currently, remote training is a general term that includes the likes of remote teaching-learning, e-learning, virtual education, or distance education. If one had to define ‘remote training’ in broad terms one would have to refer to the teaching or learning process occurring at the remote site through information and communication technology such as e-learning and e-meeting platforms.

According to Anthony Picciano, Professor at the School of Education of Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Centre, the definition of ‘remote training’ really depends upon one’s own perspective.

“Remote training is a very broad area, and it means different things to different people. Remote learning and remote training have evolved to be the same thing,” he said. “The simplest definition would be that it entails some physical separation from the teacher or the software that is doing the teaching, and the student. Going deeper it can be found that there are a lot of different models and how one teaches remotely might be totally different from the way someone else does the teaching.”

In the United States and in other parts of the world where the pandemic has resulted in multiple closures of schools and training centres, a lot of trainees are doing what some call ‘remote learning’ or as others say ‘online learning’.

“Teaching classes is becoming possible thanks to the introduction of platforms - e.g. Zoom, through which it is possible to show charts, figures and data. Basically, that type of online or remote learning just duplicates what can be done face to face," said Picciano.

Suzanne Kearns, Associate Professor of Aviation at the University of Waterloo, observes that the term ‘remote training’ is relatively new. “Although the literature on ‘e-learning’ is quite robust and extensive, ‘remote training’ is more commonly meant to convey a course which would normally be held in-person and that has been converted to be delivered electronically due to the pandemic,” she said. “For example, at the University of Waterloo this semester all classes are only available as remote offerings. These are courses that would normally be held with some in-person activities but are online this year due to the pandemic. There is a significant distinction between remote and ‘online’ courses, as our online courses were designed to be delivered fully online and therefore are typically more media and interactive elements embedded.”

Synchronous and Asynchronous

One important distinction that must be made about remote training is the one between synchronous and asynchronous. “Synchronous involves students and a teacher being online simultaneously (such as in a webinar) and asynchronous describes materials prepared in advance by the instructor, which the learner completes at their convenience,” said Kearns.

On the one hand, ‘asynchronous’ involves the interaction in an independent time mode without participants being present at the same time. It promotes collaboration and facilitates group work if the tool has features that allow for commenting on and creating and revising of multiple drafts (examples are email, online discussion forums, blogs, wikis, Google Docs, and microblogs such as Twitter or Instagram)[i].

On the other hand, ‘synchronous’ allows the interaction in real time, and requires all participants to be present in the virtual learning environment. This method increases communication between students and instructors when they are not physically present in the same location. It also facilitates remote collaboration among students assigned to work in small groups. Examples of ‘synchronous’ are LiveBoard, Google Hangouts, and Zoom. These are tools that allow for live or virtual sessions in which users can interact from afar, such as screen sharing, tele- and videoconferencing, shared remote whiteboards, broadcasts of live simulations, and immersive or virtual experiences[ii].

It is possible to set up remote training in a way that students can participate at any time or any place (asynchronous) even by using just basic text or discussion boards on a learning management system or by using other audio or visual materials to play the audios and videos back and forth, according to Picciano. “Good remote training takes advantage of a number of different techniques. One might want to vary these techniques a bit so that students do not get bored with the training,” he said. “Concentrating on just one way to deliver the training (either synchronous or asynchronous) could work but it could lead to fatigue on the part of the students. Probably the best is doing both.”

Another activity to reduce the fatigue of the participants is when the trainer asks open questions to the trainees and they must reply. “It is useful to require students to reply to questions from other students, as long as they are pertinent to the topic or issue and they are open ended - e.g. what, when, how, in your opinion, what do you think. In this way a discussion gets going that is really student dominated,” said Picciano.

Online, Face-to-Face, or Both?

According to Kearns the literature seems to suggest that the most effective training uses a combination of online and face-to-face instruction, depending on the strengths of each medium. “In 2020, we have constant access to a world of educational material through our phones and computers. Yet, most of us lack the motivation to self-teach using freely available online resources. This illustrates that a human instructor can have a powerful impact on learning,” she said.

In an emergency - such as during the current pandemic – there is indeed a strong incentive to prefer remote training and learning over traditional classroom instruction. Commonly cited advantages of remote training and education include accessing learning material without time, space and situational restrictions, cost effectiveness, and personalized learning opportunities.

There nevertheless remain certain subject areas whereby because of certain physical requirements remote training cannot be a substitute for face to face. “For example, clinical practices in the United States require a certain amount of clinical experience, e.g. training in a hospital or a lab, working with patients. This needs to be done face to face. There are certain performing arts (e.g. music or dance) that might be face to face. Several academics believe that it is important to have the real face to face experience in the domains of chemistry or biology, i.e. in a laboratory. They feel something very important about the physical experience. These are just some examples of where the traditional approach might be better,” said Picciano.

On the other hand, there are domains where the remote approach might be more meaningful if the instructor is able to pose questions and issues to students and they are able to respond.

“There are certain subject areas where critical analysis is required. Being able to provide the capability of students to write what they think is very powerful and this is done much better in the online mode. They could discuss it in class, but they are limited by the schedule and the time they have in class,” said Picciano. “Whereas if one gives the trainees a week to discuss the problem with each other one gets a further exploration of what they are really thinking. This applies to several domains requiring critical analysis in the social sciences and humanities.”

Picciano believes that – depending on the subject matter of training - remote training can work well as an alternative to face to face also for training that is delivered to adults who may be going for additional training or seeking a degree. In this case the trainer must get the participants engaged by asking them questions. 

“The trainer should try to pose questions that might tap into their experiences. Not just what they have read for the assignment, but what they do or have done in their career. This is one way to motivate the students. This is the ‘andragogy’ approach,” he said. “One thing that should be observed with the adults is that they are not necessarily obligated to go for a training or a degree. So, there must be some deeper motivation as to why they are embarking on a training experience - e.g. they want to get promoted, they want to get a salary increase or they just want to expand their knowledge of a certain subject. The trainer with experience can tap into this motivation. This also holds true in a face to face classroom environment. By using experience on the part of adults, the trainer can get them interested in the topic.”

In the next part of this article we will go deeper into the issues of online training including focusing on learning outcomes and training on-line trainers.

[i] Dabbagh, N., Bass, R., Bishop, M., Costelloe, S., Cummings, K., Freeman, B., Frye, M., Picciano, A. G., Porowski, A., Sparrow, J., & Wilson, S. J. (2019). Using technology to support postsecondary student learning: A practice guide for college and university administrators, advisors, and faculty. Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, What Works Clearinghouse. (WWC 20090001) Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

[ii] Ibid