Formal Learning: ILT or Online?

Gary Duffield did a wonderful post earlier this month on Why a great coffee machine is like a great (instructor led) course. While his organization offers a range of training methodologies, he writes:

I fly the flag for training delivered in the classroom, by a subject matter expert. Possibly because Instructor Led Training supported by a quality coffee machine, has many advantages and benefits for learners:

  • Face-to-face interactions with the instructor and real-time discussions are powerful ways to learn. Having an instructor answer questions and validate a learners’ understanding in real time.
  • The instructor can adapt how they deliver the learning based on the learners’ levels of understanding. Even the slowest of learners can be accommodated by an experienced instructor. Although even the best instructors will struggle when a student doesn’t meet the pre-requisites for the course.
  • Classroom training allows for some individual 1:1 attention from the instructor.
  • Instructor Led Training provide the opportunity for learners to make mistakes in a controlled environment, to learn from those mistakes and take the value of that back to the workplace
  • Classroom events provide the all-important “human touch,”  it’s hard on virtual training events to eat lunch with your instructor whilst discussing the merits of ITIL in the work place
  • Group interactions enhance the learning experience and allows for learning from different organisational cultures.
  • Hands on training in the classroom helps in learning kinesthetic skills – technical courses use real servers and routers – imagine learning to swim without access to a pool. (Mind you I learnt to programme without a computer)
  • People like classroom training and see it as a privilege resulting in better motivated learners.

So, if it’s an important training initiative, why would anyone go virtual?

For a lot of organizations, the answer to that question comes down to money.  It can cost an extra thousand dollars per student to transport folks to the training venue and put them up for a night or two.

But let’s, for just a moment, imagine that we could design the optimal learning experience, one in which cost was not a consideration.  I fly the flag for a blend of face-to-face and online activities even when money is no object, because I think online can sometimes more effectively meet our learning transfer goals.

  1. It is great to be able to ask questions, get answers, and have one’s learning validated in real time. Unfortunately, not every learner is comfortable asserting themselves in this way in a classroom, and some people are comfortable taking up the majority of Q&A time!  Furthermore, some questions don’t really occur until after class is over.  Including an asynchronous discussion forum activity in which learners may ask, and have answered, questions which occur later, as they apply what they’ve learned on the job, provides reinforcement, opportunity for reflection, and a place for the shy to speak up.
  2. Adapting the pace of instruction when the class has a wide range of ability and background  is one of the central challenges instructors face.  In the synchronous classroom, absent some prequalification of people into different tracks with different activities,  there’s no way to slow the pace down for the folks at the low end of preparation which does not require those who are better prepared to wait, and possibly lose out on material which is not presented because  time runs out.  Skilled instructors make compromises, because at some point, it’s unfair to the others not to move ahead, even if some are still struggling to understand what’s been presented so far.  Online, it’s possible to individualize the pacing in a way which just isn’t practical in a group face-to-face situation.
  3. Classroom training does allow for some 1:1 attention, but obviously, that time is limited, and again, there’s the issue of allocating time among those who clamor for more than their share and those who are “hiding” in the back of the room.  If we move to an asynchronous modality, in which, say, we ask learners to do an assignment and then give them individual coaching on that assignment, the quality of that individual attention is likely to be much higher.
  4. The opportunity to make mistakes in a controlled environment is where online solutions really shine.  Simulations are one example, but it’s not necessary to use elaborate technology.  In private coaching space, it’s possible to coach a learner on a written response to a case study, and let them continue to improve it until it meets the standard – and only then share it with the larger group.
  5. Ok, he’s got me here. Sadly, there are no lunches or coffee breaks with the instructor in online space. It is possible, though, to structure activities as conference calls in which learners reflect with the instructor on their challenges applying what’s being learned, and give the opportunity for the telling of war stories.
  6. As you’re probably noticing, at Q2, we think group work is important, so we’ve got a bunch of ways to make it work as part of a blended course.   People work with each other via computer in numerous ways these days, so just because a course activity is virtual doesn’t mean it has to be a solo experience.
  7. Obviously, some training really requires hands-on. It may be possible to learn programming without a computer, but nobody would call that ideal.  And if you’re learning how to fix engines, at some point, you need to have an engine to work on, and a coach to oversee your work.
  8. People DO really like classroom. It is indeed regarded as a privilege and as recognition of value to the organization. Plus, there’s coffee!  There is also a non-trivial boost to attention which accompanies being taken away from one’s desk to a place where one is unlikely to be interrupted.

It’s a mistake to imagine that it’s possible to accomplish everything that an ILT Classroom offers by moving those classroom activities online.  People were evolved to learn from each other in full-bandwidth, and we spend at least 12 years training young humans how to learn in a classroom, so it’s smart to leverage that investment.  But by the same token, there are highly effective strategies  we can implement online which are not easily replicated in the classroom.

My personal bias is that if you’re trying to teach people a new way to work together, it’s a really good investment to introduce them to each other in person, and give them some shared experience in a traditional classroom. But once you’ve done that, you can actually solidify those relationships  and deepen the learning by providing ongoing reinforcement activities after the classroom event is over.