The importance of virtual in-person classroom learning

Image of researcher learning on her laptop in a coffee shop

Many of us have likely considered online classes to learn something new, review previously learned ideas or build our capacity to improve our career development. Similarly, many institutions have likely toyed with the idea of providing virtual learning environments for their researchers. 

The concern? Time. We never seem to have the time to take these classes or to develop and implement these courses. In theory, it sounds great… In practice, it is much more challenging.

COVID-19 has disrupted everything.  

Researchers are now working from home or returning to adapt to socially-distanced workplaces. Institutions and companies are now zealously revisiting the idea of digital delivery options to support researchers worldwide. At Nature Research, we have been actively converting our Nature Masterclasses and Nature Research Academies, which are our face-to-face training workshops into a virtual learning environment. It is something we’ve considered doing previously, but never really seemed to find the time to do it. And I am sure many other institutions are in a similar position. We now appreciate that there is never a time to stop learning or improving our skills and institutions have a responsibility to ensure these opportunities are available for researchers, particularly in the case of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Dr Jeff Robens, Nature Research Academies trainer writes:

How many of you have explored online learning during this time? I am sure many of you are nodding in agreement. I know I am! I have recently completed a course on Design and Interpretation of Clinical Trials that is delivered online by Johns Hopkins University and looking to begin another one on Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses also by Johns Hopkins. 

I think many of us now recognize how useful these online courses really are, and likely wish we have come to this realization sooner. And as any avid business traveler can tell you, not having to worry about visa applications, immigration queues, and airplane meals before delivering training is an added bonus. 
That said, I am still a strong supporter of face-to-face workshops; I love working directly with the participants. I miss having discussions with the attendees during the workshops and during the breaks. It’s a great way to connect with researchers worldwide.

What will happen after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides? Will these virtual learning opportunities simply fade away? We don’t think so and believe we are all now coming to the realization that both modes of delivery, face-to-face and virtual, are important and useful for researchers.

We have noticed several key benefits to virtual workshops as we have started to develop them at Nature Research. Conducting a full-day training workshop is a great experience for researchers - if they have time. Some may have tight grant deadlines that make it challenging to escape from the lab for a full day. Clinicians have many responsibilities at the hospital that often pose barriers to attending a full-day workshop. And there are many other cases as well; such as classes, experiments, meetings, conferences, family commitments and many more. The convenience of virtual learning; often spread across multiple short webinars over several days, help to circumvent these challenges. Further, these webinars may be recorded as well, which will give those who missed the live virtual workshop an opportunity to still view the material.

Another key benefit is the recording. Not only to assist absentees but also to those who wish to review the material. We have all been at conferences, workshops or seminars where our mind started to wander or we failed to grasp a key point. Sadly, unless you were recording the presentation on your phone, which most people don’t, that information is lost. But if a recording was available to you after a virtual workshop, you would have the opportunity to go back and review it. 

A recording is also particularly valuable for non-native English speakers. Although professional trainers are very careful with word choice, speaking speed, and enunciation, other trainers may not have that level of experience. In these cases, non-native English attendees may find the workshop challenging to really understand it thoroughly. But if a recording was available, they could review it at a later time and ensure they clearly understand all the valuable advice that the trainer was trying to provide.

A last key benefit to think about now (although there are many more) is scalability. Face-to-face workshops require editors or trainers to fly to the institution. And while it’s great to work directly with all the participants in this manner, it does cause restrictions on timing and locations for other institutions. With virtual workshops, however, this is no longer an obstacle. A morning session can be delivered at an institution in one country while an afternoon session can be delivered at another institution thousands of miles away. This is a real opportunity for globalization and with much less harm to the planet. 

At Nature Research, we are all looking forward to being able to recommence our in-person workshops once the COVID-19 lockdown is over. In fact, we are already beginning to organize Nature Masterclasses in China with our locally-based editors and will conduct a series of Nature Research Academies workshops later in the year. By 2021, we hope to be able to reconnect with researchers worldwide in our face-to-face workshops as well.

Dr Jeff Robens:

There is much speculation that COVID-19 is going to restructure society going forward, and I think the adoption of virtual learning programs is no different. Not because of its necessity, but rather because we are now clearly understanding its benefits. I think we all now appreciate that virtual learning platforms nicely complement face-to-face workshops to train researchers worldwide. Therefore, while many institutions are using virtual delivery options currently as a surrogate for training their researchers during the pandemic, I hope they will not give up this approach post-pandemic. Instead, we encourage institutions to adopt an integrated training approach capitalizing on the strengths of both face-to-face and online workshops to best support your researchers.

Contact us today to find out more about our virtual workshops. 

Digital learning