Virtual Vs Face To Face Learning

April 28th, 2014

Virtual Vs Face To Face Learning

It seems as though most of the people I speak to consider traditional, live, instructor-led training still to be the most effective way to learn. Yet everywhere you look, more and more training delivery is being delivered online. Many of us have experienced this shift already with Webinar meetings; using web conferencing facilities is second nature so why isn't the same possible in the L&D arena? Surely the same business drivers apply, such a geographic dispersion, accelerating changes in business, increased social sharing, decreasing training budgets and finally, flexible and global working patterns.

Technology helps us navigate around these challenges of doing business in the modern business environment, so are trainers and facilitators missing a trick or does the fear of change mean our clients could ultimately miss out on the benefits that online delivery offers?

In an effort to future-proof my portfolio of business psychology and coaching services, I completed the Certified Online Learning Facilitator course last year. This was delivered completely online over a period of three weeks (approximately nine, two hourly sessions). Our experienced instructor was an excellent facilitator and my co-learners were based near and far (Germany being the furthest). We had pre and post-session work to complete and shared the agenda and related content via a social learning site called Yammer. This meant we could collaborate and access learning resources (pdf documents, TED videos and a reflective learning journal) during the three week learning journey and beyond.

During sessions, the trainer shared her desktop to view the online learning platform (WebEx) and we could actively chat with each other and ask questions via a chat panel (we occasionally saw each other using our webcam). This was all in time / synchronous - we were in a virtual training room that had a whiteboard / flipchart facility and we even had breakout groups where we 'disappeared' into separate rooms to brainstorm ideas for a period. Our facilitator was an expert at engaging us - robust design ensured that learners interacted regularly e.g. by asking questions, raising a hand, making comments in the chat panel and participating in an online poll. It all felt very real... with the exception of my kids interrupting me on the odd occasion! My final assessment was also conducted online, in real time with some guinea pig delegates (the session was recorded as an mp3 file for reference and possible audit).

In January 2014, I again experienced a synchronous online learning experience, but on a one-to-one basis this time. I received training on a new psychometric tool and within three hours (with breaks) I was up to speed. The big bonus for me, I didn't have to spend any additional time and money attending a distant venue or arrange additional childcare having passed my assessment from the comfort of my home office!

My conclusion in this debate: virtual learning can work - depending on the conditions and subject to robust design and engaging delivery.

Online psychometric testing has paved the way - yes, ability testing may be prone to risk if administered in non-supervised conditions, but as SHL have found with their VERIFY product, managing candidate expectations can significantly reduce the likelihood of 'cheating' (discouraged by the prospect of re-sitting a shorter alternate version of the full test they initially completed at home). I can see the online delivery mode adding real value to sessions like personality questionnaire feedback (minimising travel, conducted outside working day and ensuring candidate confidentiality) and coaching where video can add to the audio and screen sharing capability of platforms. Different software providers have varying functionality e.g. Citrix's "GoTo Training" allows PayPal pre-payment and evaluation reporting facilities.

By far the most powerful method of learning among all age groups is visual nonverbal: diagrams, tables, illustrations, pictures, and video. Well designed synchronous online learning is a mode of delivery that plays to these preferences for the majority of learners so we should capitalise on this 'pro', while remaining alert to the key 'cons' i.e. communication challenges and human attention span. Technologically savvy learners are likely to be more confident initially and if design and delivery isn't robust, learning outcomes will be compromised.

Manjula Bray

Manjula Bray

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