One of the most frustrating parts of delivering training online is that the people who pay for it still don't seem to understand that it is just as effective as training that takes place in a traditional classroom. Here's what I mean.
Traditionally, when someone signs up for training they block time off of their calendars and travel to a physical classroom with the expectation that this is an investment of time and money that will be worth it to the organization and the individual.
When people sign up for virtual training, though, it's often the case that they (and maybe most importantly their managers) don't feel the same way about it. Because they're not physically absent, they are bombarded with emails and Instant Messages, get pulled out of the online class by their bosses to help with a meeting or otherwise distracted.
This is bad for a couple of reasons. Obviously, if someone isn't participating or allowed to focus on the training, the odds of them actually learning whatever is at hand is somewhat slim. This means they've wasted time and money. Moreover they've sent an implicit message that virtual training isn't as important or "real" as traditional classroom training.
I could spout all kinds of figures about how effective webinar-style training is, but let's just look at the reality. As budgets shrink, teams work more remotely, and time becomes more scarce, it's not going to go away. If we're doing more training using these tools, but it's less effective, then we are seriously impairing the organization's ability to help its people learn. Here are a couple of things to consider:
So, if you are the online learner: This is your time to learn and invest in yourself. If the program matters enough for you to register, treat it as real. Block the time in your calendar and treat it as seriously as you would if you were going to a classroom. Set do-not-disturb messages on your email, instant messaging and phone. Politely tell people who pester you that you're in class, and will get to them when you can. Actually getting the time and space to concentrate might mean moving to a quiet corner, conference room, or working from home that day.
If you are that person's manager: Support their training efforts by respecting their time. Know when someone is taking online training and treat them exactly as if they were going away to a physical classroom. If they are training from 1-4pm, then they aren't there, regardless of whether you can see them from your desk or not. If you absolutely do have to talk to them, ask them to get back to you during breaks.
Most people don't want to refuse their boss and aren't comfortable saying no to you. So set the standard for your team. Help establish group norms (when somoene's in training, either find another resource or jolly well wait til that person is available). Run interference for the trainee if you can. Many managers and their teams are stunned to discover that many things that are considered emergencies actually can wait an hour or two.
If you're responsible for training in your organization: Spread the word that virtual training is every bit as "real" as classroom training. Help people understand the expectations of an online class and hold them responsible. For example, credit for completing the class is based on full participation and attending every session, instead of just their name on the roster.
Hold managers accountable for trainee participation. If the training is coming out of their budget, it's in their best interest to make sure people actually learn whatever's at hand. Help people by giving very explicit directions about attendance, how to set their do not disturbs, and other logistics.
At the end of the day, it's a cultural shift that isn't impossible to make, it just takes some time and effort. What you'll probably find is that with the money saved on travel, the time spent back on the job rather than in class (online classes tend to be shorter than their classroom counterparts), as well as with new, improved skills virtual training is a great investment. But only if everyone treats it seriously.