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Online vs. Classroom Learning: A question of balance

It is easy to get in a position where you feel obliged to take a stance on some aspect or other of learning and development in the workplace – in particular when it comes to challenges to the status quo. Typically you’re either with the old way or the new.

I’ve never found this particularly helpful, as there are usually plenty of good arguments on either side. The issue, as ever, is getting the balance right between taking advantage of new developments as they come available, while continuing to exploit the potential of long-standing approaches.

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One of the most difficult balances to get right is between the amount of learning that takes place face-to-face and online. At present, as the slider shows, the balance is heavily weighted towards the traditional option of face-to-face. There are some good arguments for being face-to-face in special cases: you have a much richer multi-sensory experience; you can interact physically with people and things; you can pick up on body language far more easily than you can using webcams; and, with some events, you really do want to say ‘I was there’.

However, most everyday communication does not conform to these special cases – you can achieve everything you need online, far more flexibly, with much less hassle, at low cost and in less time. That slider needs to be moved right – not all the way, but towards the other end.

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Another issue is the balance we strike between learning that is synchronous (live) and learning that is asynchronous (self-paced). Historically most learning has been live, typically in the form of classroom events and on-job training. Synchronous learning can be easily blocked out in the diary, and it allows learners to get quick answers to their questions and immediate feedback on their performance.

Trouble is, live events require all parties to co-ordinate their diaries and takes away the learner’s ability to learn as an when they want. Live learning, because it is not self-paced is more stressful on the learner and allows them less time for reflection. We need live events in the blend, we just don’t need them all the time.

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This slider may seem a little confusing. After all, the majority of learning has always been informal, taking place, as it does, outside the confines of something packaged up as a course. The problem is that the focus of most learning and development practitioners is almost entirely on the formal. The informal element needs supporting too, as I explain in The New Learning Architect.

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I’ve borrowed this terminology from Nick Shackleton-Jones. Nick distinguishes between the formal nature of courses, where the focus, he believes, should be on engaging the learner emotionally with the topic and building their confidence to continue to learn independently, and the on-going provision of resources, both human and in the form of content, to support the learner as they continue to learn and apply their new skills.

There’s nothing wrong with courses as such, it’s just that place too much attention on them and not enough to what happens afterwards. By and large, we would do well to teach much less and provide much more in the way of support. See my previous posting on courses and resources.

So, it’s just a question of balance. We probably need to push all these sliders along towards the right, but how far and how fast will vary enormously from organisation to organisation.

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