In today’s technology-driven world, working remotely has become commonplace and, as such, virtual workforces have become increasingly prolific. This new world of work has come with unique benefits and challenges – as well as new sets of skills, traits and competencies required within the digital workforce.
According to Global Workplace Analytics (2020), the reliance of organisations on virtual teams has increased by 173% since 2005. With this upswing – particularly since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – it’s worth considering what it means to be an effective member of a virtual team. As we know, the digital age has stimulated a growing demand for technical skills. However, this two-part article series will specifically unpack the soft skills that enable individuals to thrive within a virtual professional environment – and, particularly, in the eLearning industry.
Soft skills for eLearning professionals
In an eLearning environment, soft skills are becoming increasingly important for successful team collaboration, as well as for the delivery of innovative and engaging learning experiences. However, in addition to leveraging their skills to support learners in online education contexts, eLearning professionals need to navigate their own challenges in a remote work setting.
For example, there may be fewer opportunities for face-to-face collaboration or brainstorming sessions with colleagues and stakeholders; team communication may be more challenging; and opportunities to learn from other professionals and industry leaders may be limited to a purely online environment. Additionally, like other remote workers, eLearning professionals need to manage the everyday challenges of remaining productive, motivated, creative and engaged while working in isolation.
Thankfully, there are a number of key soft skills that can serve to overcome such challenges. In particular, we can identify two categories of soft skills (Stauffer, 2020):
- Life skills: The intangible abilities and behaviours that equip us to address the challenges of everyday work life.
- Learning skills: The cognitive competencies that are vital for learning, developing and adapting both personally and professionally.
This two-part article series will unpack these soft skill categories, to illustrate how eLearning professionals can thrive within the dynamic and ever-changing context of Industry 4.0.
Life skills: FLIPS
First, we’ll unpack five life skills that are essential for eLearning professionals, using the ‘FLIPS’ acronym.
(Source: EDGE Education (Pty) Ltd, 2020; adapted from Stauffer, 2020)
Like most 21st-century work environments, the eLearning industry is fast-paced and often subject to change. This is especially true at present, where ‘emergency remote teaching and learning’ (ERT/L) has become prolific. Here, it’s key for eLearning professionals to be able to task-switch rapidly, as well as fulfil various different functions to meet the unique needs of both learners and clients (Taylor, 2016). This may range from using different technologies and software (e.g. authoring tools, LMSs, video editing programs etc.), to creating various learning media (e.g. written course materials, activities, videos, quizzes etc.) for different modes of delivery (e.g. online, blended or face to face).
Leadership can be viewed from two perspectives. On the one hand, it involves leading projects and motivating team members – and, when working with virtual teams, leaders need to be even more intentional about ensuring team engagement and driving projects to completion. On the other hand, leaders within the eLearning industry need to be visionaries and pioneers, driving innovative edtech solutions and engaging in thought leadership on industry trends and best practices.
However, as mentioned, remote work may limit opportunities for regular team check-ins and brainstorming sessions, as well as opportunities for learning and development. As such, self-leadership and leading by example also form part of the essential leadership skills that are required of eLearning professionals in virtual teams.
In addition to being flexible, eLearning professionals should be self-starters, capable of initiating and assessing each stage of the development process independently, as projects need to move swiftly between teams and departments. Working remotely can create obstacles in this regard, due to geographically dispersed team members, a lack of face-to-face communication, or logistical issues such as connectivity (especially where large file transfers are necessary).
Taking initiative is particularly important when it comes to iterative, agile approaches to learning design and development; for example, the successive approximation model (SAM), which was designed ‘to create meaningful, memorable, and motivational learning experiences that drive measurable gains and performance’ (Allen Interactions, n.d.). Using this approach, many smaller steps are repeated to ensure that performance goals and objectives are met in an iterative manner. As such, eLearning professionals need to be highly perceptive during each stage of the development process, and should respond to project requirements as and when needed.
Closely linked to initiative is productivity. Among the primary goals of an eLearning professional is to produce high-quality instructional materials and learning experiences, and to be consistent and efficient in doing so. In an age of distraction (which, for some, is especially pronounced when working remotely), it has become ever-more important to remain focused and committed to productivity. In an eLearning environment, productivity also relies on one’s ability to wear a ‘researcher’s hat’ – i.e. to remain up to date with industry trends, best practices and innovations, as well as emerging pedagogical research and educational technologies.
Without the benefits of in-person interaction, social skills (or ‘people skills’) have become highly sought-after – especially by employers hiring remotely (Doyle, 2020). Because remote work is often associated with higher degrees of isolation, virtual team members are expected to be more intentional about reaching out to their colleagues and team members on a regular basis – not only to strengthen relationships, but also to foster collaboration and enable interpersonal learning and development.
Additionally, social skills and collaboration play a key role in the online learning experience itself. Interactions between learners and their educators, as well as between their peers, enable learners to ‘engage in active cognitive processing’ (Castaneda and Rentz, 2020). We’ve seen that social learning isn’t simply an eLearning buzzword, but rather, has become a best practice for enabling meaningful learning experiences. This is because it ‘demands that [learners] participate in making meaning out of content; and, it forces them to contextualize that meaning among a social group’ (Castaneda and Rentz, 2020). From this perspective, eLearning professionals need to leverage their social skills not only for their own professional growth, but also in designing and developing quality learning experiences for others.
The FLIPS skills go hand in hand. In other words, they all play a key role in equipping us to address the unique challenges of the virtual work environment, and to develop the skills and competencies that allow us to flourish, specifically in the eLearning industry. Additionally, nurturing these life skills paves the way for enhancing the appropriate learning skills, which will be unpacked in Part 2 of this article series.
Allen Interactions [website] ‘e-Learning Development With SAM’. <https://www.alleninteractions.com/services/custom-learning/sam/elearning-development> accessed 3 March 2021.
Castaneda, D. and Rentz, S. (2020), ‘The Power Of Discussion: Activating Learning Online (And In Person)’. eLearning Industry [website] <https://elearningindustry.com/social-interaction-in-online-courses-discussion-activating-learning> accessed 3 March 2021.
Doyle, A. (2020), ‘Top Skills and Attributes Employers Look For’. The Balance Careers [website] <https://www.thebalancecareers.com/top-skills-employers-want-2062481> accessed 12 March 2021.
Global Workplace Analytics [website] (2020), ‘Latest Work-At-Home/Telecommuting/Mobile Work/Remote Work Statistics’. <https://globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics> accessed 4 November 2020.
Hibling, A., Fourie, K. and Eicher, J. (2021), ‘Social learning: Buzzword or best practice?’ EDGE Education [website] <https://edgeeducation.com/social-learning-buzzword-or-best-practice/> accessed 31 March 2022.
Stauffer, B. (2020), ‘What Are 21st Century Skills?’ <https://www.aeseducation.com/blog/what-are-21st-century-skills> accessed 8 October 2020.
Taylor, T. (2016), ‘Top 7 Skills That Today’s eLearning Jobs Demand’. eLearning Industry [website] <https://elearningindustry.com/elearning-jobs-demand-top-skills> accessed 8 October 2020.