By Pamela S. Hogle

Digital learning took the spotlight in 2020, as schools, corporations, and organizations of all types abruptly moved to remote learning and working. With hope for rosier days ahead, what does 2021 hold for learning and development (L&D) professionals and online training? These 7 notable trends may influence our lives as L&D pros, learners, and employees:

1. Virtual learning continues to gain traction

Virtual training expert Cindy Huggett, who conducts an annual survey on live, instructor-led virtual training, released her 2020 findings in early December. Unsurprisingly, 90% of her nearly 900 respondents are doing more virtual training this year. Many of them “realize it’s the way to do business going forward,” in the words of one survey participant. LinkedIn Learning’s Leading with Learning report found similar attitudes, with three-quarters of respondents anticipating “a lot more” online learning and nearly 80% expecting increased virtual training even after the COVID crisis ends.

Typical virtual classes are an hour long, and nearly half are part of a blended learning strategy, Huggett reports. The most common challenge reported was technology issues, and a quarter of respondents hoped to move to a different platform. Survey respondents report that the average hourlong virtual class requires 9 hours of development time.

2. Agile Project Management is hot

As an approach that excels at coping with frequent change, iterative and nimble Agile Project Management seems ideally suited to the COVID and post-COVID work environment. Benefits to using an Agile Project Management approach include “MVP” or the minimum viable product concept and the flexibility to adjust the project scope as it progresses. MVP prioritizes getting a simple “draft” version of a product into the hands of stakeholders — ideally, people who will be actual users of the end product — as early in the development cycle as possible. For an eLearning product, that would mean initial testing of basic iterations with real learners. Their feedback provides information that improves future iterations of the product. Using Agile Project Management can improve efficiency and quality.

3. Adopting Agile and Scrum approaches in L&D

In tandem with the embrace of Agile Project Management is the increasing use of Agile and Scrum principles and tactics. With an emphasis on collaboration and continuous improvement, these approaches strive to “delight customers.”

Scrum is a framework often used to implement Agile. It formalizes some project management best practices, like having regular check-ins with the entire team, regularly reviewing the work-in-progress with the customer, and conducting reviews of team performance with the goal of identifying and correcting weaknesses and continually improving processes. Agile Project Management teams might include a “Scrum master” to support the team in implementing the Agile approach.

4. Hiring managers are turning their gaze inward

Internal recruiting is a win-win. Companies that are known to promote from within or facilitate internal transfers are attractive to employees, who consistently express interest in skill-building and career-advancement opportunities. Organizations benefit by retaining top performers, reducing recruiting and hiring costs, and reducing employee turnover. LinkedIn’s 2020 Global Talent Trends report called recruiting and L&D “the new power couple” and encouraged businesses to implement or improve their formal internal hiring processes. One suggestion: Map current employees’ skills and link them with upskilling opportunities.

5. … And turn to upskilling & reskilling current employees

The trend toward reskilling — teaching workers new skills needed for a new position — and upskilling employees — updating existing skills to improve a worker’s ability to perform their current job — was tagged in early 2020 in a McKinsey report. Changes forced by the pandemic dramatically increased the urgency of teaching new and updated skills to employees as their businesses pivoted to remote work, online ordering, or contactless delivery, and adopted new safety and operating protocols. 

In May, McKinsey predicted that reskilling will become even more central to companies hoping to emerge strong and resilient from the COVID crisis. The ability to “produce and deliver digital content rapidly to a broad base of employees” will enable companies to build skills needed for the “distance economy,” adjust to changes in how people work, eat, shop, and travel — and cope with shifts in global supply chains, according to McKinsey. Companies that reskill with an eye to helping employees in key parts of their business respond well to changes and will be positioned to respond effectively to whatever challenges the COVID and post-COVID eras present.

6. Increased demand for training focused on power skills

So-called “power” skills including critical thinking, communication, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability top lists of in-demand skills for jobs at all levels, but especially leadership roles. Training for these skills, which improve team performance, business relationship management, and leadership across industries and business functions, is also in demand. 

7. Peer / learner-generated content

This power-skills training is apparently paying off in greater collaboration among peers. Peer-to-peer learning and learner-generated content are among emerging trends for 2020 and beyond. This reflects learners’ experience as self-directed learners and consumers, as well as an emphasis on sharing knowledge in companies with strong learning cultures. Peer-to-peer learning develops leaders within the organization, preserves and passes on institutional knowledge, and deepens relationships among peers and colleagues.

Looking ahead at professional development trends in 2021

These trends indicate a bright future for online training designers, developers, and vendors. Remote work leapt into the forefront of many business plans and learning at all levels will remain heavily focused on digital options for some time.