Strategies to Reinvigorate Classroom Learning

For three Training Top 10 Hall of Famers, the future of classroom training is all about architecting development experiences and optimizing the learning environment.

Classroom training isn’t just a lectern and whiteboard anymore. Even before COVID-19 struck, corporate classrooms were being turned upside down and inside out to reflect the many ways individuals learn.

In fact, “the classroom” often isn’t even a classroom. “Best-in-class organizations that have invested in classroom learning facilities have focused on hybrid spaces that allow for a workshop- style approach, but are also flexible enough to be utilized in a highly interactive approach that engages peers in discussions of issues, sharing of ideas, experiences, and problem solving,” notes Nancy Ortega, partner, Keystone Partners. “Organizations are planning for spaces that can support a large group format but also small group and one-on-one discussions, as learning shifts into a new hybrid design. Technology supports the different ways adults learn from group meetings, chat discussions in a subgroup, collaboration tools for small group activities, and one-on-one peer coaching.”

However face-to-face learning occurs after the pandemic and subsequent worldwide lockdowns, these modern iterations all have one thing in common: They put the learner front and center to ensure each person has the best opportunity to learn.

VR in the Classroom

Training Top 10 Hall of Famer Verizon uses virtual reality (VR) to bring content to its more than 2,300 retail stores. Right now, VR is used for Verizon’s virtual reality robbery training classes.

“VR headsets have been a huge leap forward for us from the classroom technology standpoint,” notes Robert Cole, Global Operations manager, Verizon. “VR transports learners to a place we can’t replicate any other way. It lets us put people in dangerous situations without endangering them.”

Robbery training is the current application, but it also could be used to train linemen in Verizon’s landline group, who work in manholes or on transmission lines high above ground.

“The content lives on the actual VR goggles,” explains Cole, who is a former trainer. “It’s neat to see a class of 15 that normally would have side conversations or check their phones during training be completely silent because they’re engrossed in the virtual world.”

While the VR headsets have disposable ear buds and always have been cleaned between uses, the COVID-19 pandemic has made sharing the VR kits among stores more challenging than it already was.

When the pandemic hit, Verizon recalled all its VR training kits. “We’re looking at how we manage the equipment to keep it clean and safe,” Cole says. He’s investigating the use of UV light to kill any germs that may be present. Additionally, the kits now include a paper mask-type covering that learners wear around their eyes to prevent makeup and skin oils from contacting the goggles. The masks and other consumables—ear buds and cleaning wipes—are replenished as needed.

“We have five wireless headsets in a kit that includes a Pelican hard shell, a remote management device that lets us push updates or content, and a jet pack that provides Internet access without having to rely on the store’s WiFi,” Cole says.

Verizon also offers more traditional classrooms in its call center facilities. With as many as 1,500 people on site, these classrooms provide space for call center employees and management groups to learn about operations or new systems. “When you bring large groups together, you feed off energy that you don’t get with small groups,” Cole says.

In that setting, Verizon has replaced projectors with 75-inch and larger TVs and added a wheeled podium so instructors can move around the classroom with their devices. “We have two to four TVs—depending on the room—on the wall as visual anchors, rather than facilitating from the screen,” Cole adds. “We’re trying to get away from lecturing.”

Training at KPMG Lakehouse

Having immersive, interactive learning experiences and the opportunity to network with peers and leaders and experience the firm’s culture in new and innovative ways was the goal for Training Top 10 Hall of Famer KPMG when it opened its new learning, development, and innovation center this past January.

“Called ‘KPMG Lakehouse,’ this is an all-inclusive facility that provides our people with the social, learning, and technological environment that engages our people inside and outside the classroom,” says Cyndi Bruce, executive director of the KPMG Business School. “Our people indicated that face-to-face learning was still an important delivery method. Part of their developmental experience includes networking and collaboration with their peers, as well as with the firm’s leadership, while being immersed in our culture throughout their time at Lakehouse.”

So KPMG designed Lakehouse from the ground up to bring people together. The classrooms are designed with access to the outside so learners can easily transition from inside the classroom to outdoor breakout sessions or relax on cushioned nooks built into the stairwells. It includes dining facilities, social areas, sleeping quarters, a wine bar, a gym, and a jogging track.

The design features classrooms with large windows that let in natural light. “Every space was designed to foster collaboration and networking,” Bruce says. So classrooms are designed with no designated front of the room. Instead, classroom space is set up with tables in pods to support groups of people working together.

“We wanted to ensure the technology built into Lakehouse could meet today’s needs and accommodate any new technology that’s coming in the next decade,” emphasizes John Failla, Digital Solutions manager in the KPMG Business School. KPMG built in more than enough WiFi bandwidth to enable every person there to use multiple devices simultaneously. “At peak capacity, our network used only 30 percent of its capacity,” Failla says. That’s ample bandwidth to also host virtual speakers or broadcast out to all KPMG’s offices.

Most classrooms have cameras, high-definition speakers, and whiteboards, and the larger spaces have microphones in the ceiling designed to suppress background noise and distinguish voices from the ambient noise. “We have all the technology, but you’d hardly know it,” Failla notes. “It’s hidden from view.”

Lakehouse spaces range from 1,500-square-foot classrooms down to breakout rooms for 2 to 20 people. In all, there are approximately 90 classrooms and breakout rooms. Larger classrooms each have two 9×16-foot screens to enable viewing of detailed documents from anywhere in the room.

KPMG Lakehouse opened two months before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and survey data indicated an immediate impact on learner engagement. During this current time of social distancing, the team continues to enhance technology, along with other dimensions of the Lakehouse experience. “We’re adapting to our new reality,” says Bruce. “When we are able to reopen, we hope to take engagement to the next level.”

Focus on Design

Deloitte pioneered its approach to classroom learning with the opening of Deloitte University in 2011. The Training Top 10 Hall of Fame organization was already working to reduce its reliance on formal learning even before COVID-19, and now “those efforts have been accelerated,” says Graham Johnston, leader, Development Strategy & Innovation. “When we are able to resume live, in-person learning, our focus will be on the right use of that and all other methods to optimize the overall learning experience.”

In response, Deloitte is becoming more judicious about what learning must be delivered in-person and what can be delivered through other modalities. “We were always sensitive to how formal learning takes our people away from the work,” Johnston says, noting that “now, we’re understanding what learning can be effective through other means, and what learning should remain in the classroom.”

For Deloitte, that means that classroom learning—including that which takes place at Deloitte University—will continue to focus on simulation-based, multi-day programs that include team-based exercises, role-plays, and other methods for application, as well as opportunities for networking and culture-building. It may be more about what is no longer part of the live, in-person experience, where content and some practice/application activities are shifting to virtual, digital/ on-demand, or on-the-job modalities. That said, Deloitte University and local office learning spaces are being refreshed—in terms of technology and classroom design—to better enable the future in-person experience. These spaces already featured natural lighting, modular furniture for learning pods, whiteboards, comfortable chairs, and multiple large screens. Further enhancements include high-top tables for standing work, more variety in seating options, and interactive learning and networking mechanisms inside and outside of the classroom—all meant to drive collaboration, connection, and multi-modal learning, with an added focus on well-being.

“It’s about how we architect development experiences and design the learning environment,” Johnston says. “We’re maintaining our investment in and commitment to development, knowing that our people recognize it is critical for driving performance.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work and, quite possibly, the way organizations foster learning. Whatever happens, flexibility will be imperative as L&D seeks ways to immerse learners in the learning experience. Concludes Cole, “If you can do that, you’ll get the most bang for the buck.”