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Managing professional development in a socially distant world

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Antony della Porta reflects on the future of training post-COVID-19

Having spent almost a decade as a project management instructor, I have over time witnessed a number of changes in the way we skill, reskill, upskill or just broaden our knowledge.

When I started out as an instructor, there was a focus on ‘training’, with the end goal being to pass an exam. That’s fine – but what about understanding what you have just learnt so that you can apply it in a real-world, practical setting?

Courses back then were more like boot camps – a ‘crash course’ of slides, information and practice papers intended to make the trainee pass an exam and receive a certificate, offering them no chance to understand the topic or use the knowledge.

Change was overdue

Classroom-style delivery has many benefits – a reasonable headcount, enabling people to interact with each other and allowing for a cost-effective model. However, sometimes the logistics are not ideal, necessitating travel and time away from work for attendees. The classroom setting also comes with limitations on delivery style, materials and facilities.

Some things needed to change, and with dwindling numbers of course participants and greater competition in the professional training market, change was inevitable. But ironically, providers of professional training in project management – a discipline which is all about making change happen – didn’t seem all that keen on changing themselves.

Then 2020 arrived

It’s a curious number, 2020, suggesting perfect vision – something most of us in the professional development world seemed to lack.

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaking up the whole world, including our little world of training courses. Suddenly, the classroom-based course was no longer viable, despite still being the preferred format just months ago.

Yes, we have had online-based courses for some time, but they have historically been nowhere near as effective as a classroom environment. As instructors, we had no control over how much the learner was absorbing or taking on board.

Catering for geographically spread learners

When the pandemic arrived, we had to change the way we delivered our courses, and so the ‘virtual classroom’ came about. Courses were now being run from a ‘classroom’ of some sort (in my case, a converted room at home).

Slides were still being used, but less effectively. We needed to be a little more inventive to engage attendees and find a way to answer questions from individuals that benefited everyone. Teleconferencing, despite its many benefits, is not always a smooth process, even with a high bandwidth and two-way simultaneous comms.

In spite of this, courses can now cater for a more geographically dispersed group, even allowing for participants from different time zones. This helps to ensure we have an economical number on the course. Without the travel, delegates are more attentive and alert.

There are still some things to iron out

But how do we invigilate exams in this new world? And what about serving those people out there who would still prefer to be in the classroom?

We have no idea yet about the long-term impact of this pandemic, from both a health and economic perspective. Learning and development always gets it first in an economic downturn.

A return to the physical classroom may be a long way off. In fact, I believe it will be the exception rather than the rule in the future. This will have an impact on the sustainability of the professional development industry in its current form; it is going to be hard to survive.

Online versus virtual format

On a positive note, those organisations that are looking to broaden the capability and competency of their workforce now have ways to do this without losing team members for a block of time. In-house platforms are being looked at more seriously, as is the format for delivery.

The concern here is that organisations will adopt the standard ‘online course’ format, rather than opting for virtual delivery. The current situation is giving us a golden opportunity to look at the latter, which ought to be considered more seriously.

All of this points perhaps to a blended form of delivery. Are we not doing this already? Yes, but not effectively. Proper blended delivery will mean a mix of live and virtual classrooms and workshops. And we could drop exams – there are more useful alternatives, such as development points, and I am sure others will develop very soon.

As with everything related to this pandemic, there are opportunities and pitfalls. Whenever we do eventually emerge from this crisis, we will no doubt be facing a much-changed world.

Visit APM qualifications to find out more about online courses, from the fundamentals of project management to more advanced learning. 

As part of our ongoing commitment to provide our members with opportunities to learn, share and develop their understanding we have established APM Learning to host a range of interactive digital learning content.

Image: Jirsak/Shutterstock


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