In learning and development (L&D) we have benefitted from an increasing variety of delivery models. Some provide self-paced courses and others provide virtual classroom instruction. Some of our colleagues in education go so far as to refer to virtual classrooms as “virtual labs.” This recognizes the different nature of the learning models used in those two types of learning experiences. 

Virtual labs

Self-paced courses primarily make it possible for employees to fit formal learning into their day. Virtual labs are interactive, digital simulations of activities that typically take place in physical settings. Virtual labs take time, offer the involvement of co-workers in realistic settings, and simulate the tools, equipment, tests, and procedures used in many disciplines. That’s an important distinction to make. In this article, I will explore the importance of virtual software training delivery.

Virtual labs are especially important when it comes to helping users develop facility in the use of computer software. It is even more critical to enterprise systems and understanding cybersecurity. Apart from ensuring the safety of the workforce and the physical integrity of systems, there is no training more important to the well-being of employees and the prosperity of enterprises than training employees in the use of these simulations.

Critical gaps

Since 2018, Learning Solutions has published a number of articles on cybersecurity and on virtual lab software training. Zvi Guterman, founder and CEO of CloudShare, has shared his expertise in this area, and Jeremy Davis, CloudShare's head of product marketing, responded in writing to my questions about virtual lab software training.

Virtual software training

In his May 8, 2018 Learning Solutions article, Guterman addressed the gaps in IT training, particularly software training. “It has never been more important for the enterprise to ensure that their information technology (IT) technical training programs are effective. The IT skills shortage is real, and it’s not just limited to cybersecurity.”

“The shortage of cybersecurity specialists is especially severe. Twenty-seven percent of enterprises cannot fill cybersecurity positions, and 59 percent receive just five applications on average for a cybersecurity vacancy, most of whom are not qualified, according to the ISACA State of Cyber Security 2017 report. And, depending on which study you look at, the number of cyberattacks from 2015 to 2016 increased by anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent, and all agree that the rate of increase is growing every year.”

The importance of upskilling

Guterman concluded: “Not surprisingly, with so few qualified candidates to fill these critical positions, IT organizations are looking to strengthen the skills of their current employees. Forty-two percent of enterprises in the Interop ITX survey said they are relying on internal training to beef up the skills of current employees, and 37 percent said they are evenly split between training and recruiting.

“Current training methodologies, unfortunately, are not doing the job. According to recent Deloitte research surveying more than 700 human resource (HR) and business professionals, corporate learning and development received an extremely low Net-Promoter score of -8, about as low as such a score can get. In the current IT skills crisis, L&D needs to evolve to become even more effective.

“Enter the cloud. With the right cloud—and there are a number of specialty cloud services that have this capability—it’s easy to recreate an on-premises environment, even preserving extremely complex networking… Organizations can throw the most sophisticated, dangerous, artificial-intelligence (AI)-powered cyberattack at trainees in this cloud replica, because there’s no risk to the production network at all. If the attack melts down the replica in the cloud, it’s not a problem. Just restart it, and the trainee is ready to try again.”

How L&D can shrink the skills gap

I asked Jeremy Davis for his thoughts on using what we know in 2023 and on what resources we have in the cloud to begin turning ineffective training into virtual skills labs in order to reduce skills gaps. For the most part, these are things L&D can support in-house.

Learning Solutions: What strategies for virtual software training delivery have been most effective?

Jeremy Davis: Our users have found the most effective strategy for delivering virtual software training is giving them hands-on experiences. This means moving away from just having Zoom/video conferencing sessions and giving learners play and break capabilities. Customers have consistently received positive feedback from their learners whenever a virtual lab is used in training sessions

LS: How are you measuring learner engagement in virtual software training delivery?

JD: There are several methods to measure learner engagement in virtual software training. By using analytics, we are able to measure learner engagement directly through their activity level in their virtual machines, messages through group and individual chat, and participation levels. This gives enterprise leaders and instructors a holistic view of the degree of engagement. We can also add in quizzes and course material for learners to engage with during the course.

LS: What are the largest changes in user behaviors seen in virtual training responses? How do you account for these changes?

JD: We did see slight increases in course completion rates when using video conferencing. The biggest change was in how many more companies are using self-paced training courses. This was a huge jump as companies realized how much easier and more cost-effective it is to offer self-paced training. With staffing and scheduling being major issues many software companies are dealing with, self-paced is being used to help them through these challenges and still deliver impactful virtual training.

LS: What do you see as the next step to increase the effectiveness of virtual training? 

JD: The next step to increase effectiveness is directly connected to the answer to your third question. Since more companies are leveraging self-paced training, they need to find ways to keep students engaged and active when the instructor isn’t in front of them. Utilizing integrated tools like Slack or webhooks in their self-paced training classes will help instructors create more effective training courses. This allows instructors to constantly be available to help learners get through the course material more easily before getting frustrated and quitting.

The next move is up to you

As you can see, the challenges are really not new. We have been addressing key elements of the solution in Learning Solutions and in Guild conferences for over 20 years. What makes the difference between Zoom lectures and virtual software labs?

What makes the difference is reframing our understanding of what a laboratory is and how people learn. We can’t physically change lectures into “hands-on” experiences. What we can do is change our models for online learning one day at a time to active learning experiences.