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ATD Blog

Virtual Learning Often Fumbles on Application and Impact

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

While virtual learning isn’t new, it has seen an unprecedented rise recently as organizations rapidly shifted nearly all facilitator-led learning to the online classroom. With this almost overnight change came new experiences, technologies, and expectations. One new expectation is that TD professionals increasingly show the value of learning. Global leaders are trimming budgets and searching for ways to increase productivity. Although we could argue that an emphasis on value and especially business results has always been an important factor in organizational learning initiatives, it has risen to a crescendo in current times. From the rapid growth of virtual learning to the rising expectations of top executives to the increased availability of technology tools, these factors contribute to even more emphasis on business results.

The definition of learning success has shifted. It is no longer that learning has occurred but that learning is used and has an impact. This new definition of success represents a mindset shift for many L&D stakeholders.

As a result of the global pandemic, most learning programs quickly shifted to virtual formats without the benefit of careful planning or preparation. This required program owners to design virtual learning with desired outcomes in mind and demonstrate that the virtual format works. Studies show that, even before the pandemic, virtual learning often breaks down when measured at the application level (using what was learned) and impact level (the business impact connected to learning). There are four key reasons this happens:

1. Multitasking inhibits learning. Research shows us that multitasking reduces a participant’s ability to learn. As we all have witnessed in virtual conferences, meetings, and online sessions, multitasking runs rampant. The reality is if learning is diminished, then both application and impact will be diminished. This will decrease the ROI significantly.

2. Manager support is usually missing. Participants typically leave their work areas to attend instructor-led learning programs. Their managers were likely involved in the decision for them to participate and usually create expectations for the program and follow up on the learning in a valuable and worthwhile way. With virtual learning, the manager is often uninvolved and may not even know their reports are participating in a session. Without the manager’s presence, the most significant influencer for transferring learning to the job is removed.


3. Virtual programs are designed for learning, not application and impact. Very few virtual learning programs have impact objectives. Without impact objectives, key stakeholders may not fully understand why the program is being implemented. When impact objectives are in place, the team can design the program for application and the desired business impact.

4. Technology challenges. Technology failures and connectivity issues can happen to anyone. Add to this the proliferation of inexperienced users who create havoc and present challenges to the rollout of a seamless program. These technology failures rarely occur (or are easily manageable) in an in-person program.


To succeed, virtual learning must be intentionally designed with interactions that lead to learning results, application, and impact. It needs a skilled facilitator who can engage a remote audience. And it needs seamless technology along with prepared participants. These items can create a powerful learning experience that delivers business results.

To secure the support and funding that virtual learning needs, it must deliver business results. Designers, developers, providers, and program owners must ensure that technology-based learning can deliver desired results by applying design thinking principles that focus on delivering application and impact with virtual learning.

About the Author

Jack J. Phillips, PhD, is chairman of the ROI Institute and a world-renowned expert on measurement and evaluation. Phillips provides consulting services for Fortune 500 companies and workshops for major conference providers worldwide. Phillips is also the author or editor of more than 100 articles and more than 75 books, including Measuring the Success of Leadership Development: A Step-by-Step Guide for Measuring Impact and Calculating ROI (ATD Press). His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, Fortune, and on CNN.

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