For the past two decades, there has been an increasing emphasis on the use of e-learning, with many e-learning advocates arguing that not only is e-learning less expensive than bringing employees together in a classroom, but also that e-learning is actually a more effective learning method than face-to-face instructor-led training. Some e-learning zealots have even claimed that e-learning is always the better solution to learning needs.
E-learning, in my view, certainly can be an effective learning method for some subjects and an effective adjunct to instructor-led training in many other instances. There is no doubt that e-learning can reduce costs for participant travel, for building and maintaining classroom facilities, and for instructors. But there are many instances in which face-to-face instructor-led training is still the best solution to learning needs. In this article, I present 10 advantages for face-to-face instructor-led training that cannot be matched by any form of e-learning.
Advantage #1: Focus
When employees attend an instructor-led training session in a classroom, they are better able to focus on what it being taught. Compared to participating in an e-learning session, synchronous or asynchronous, from their workplaces, they have fewer distractions. People are not stopping by their office, their phone isn’t ringing, they are not getting signals from their PCs that they have a new mail message, etc. They are therefore more able to focus on the live training than if they are taking any type of e-learning in their offices. I have seen too many instances where an employee clicks through e-learning screens while “multi-tasking” and are accomplishing little if any learning, although the company’s learning management system may give them credit for completing the e-learning course.
E-learning advocates have recognized these problems and have attempted to resolve them by including frequent short quizzes or polls that require the participants to “pay attention,” but the fact remains that there are many more distractions for the learner in an e-learning environment than in an actual classroom.
Advantage #2: Confidentiality
A good classroom instructor will create a safe environment for learning and get the participants to agree that anything that is said or done in the classroom is confidential (“What’s done in the classroom stays in the classroom”). For example, in a management training class, a participant may want to discuss a specific problem he or she is having with a particular employee. In an asynchronous e-learning environment, this isn’t possible. In a synchronous e-learning environment, the manager may be leery of talking about a specific employee problem because he or she doesn’t know who else is participating in the class and is worried about the discussion becoming known by that employee.
Advantage #3: Practice
Some of the better e-learning programs I have seen provide opportunities for practice of new skills via simulation exercises, and some of these simulations are very good. But they cannot duplicate having students in a classroom practice their newly-acquired skills with the instructor and each other.
For example, I have taught coaching skills to hundreds of managers around the world. One feature of the program I present is to have participants bring into the classroom a current or past problem on which they feel they could benefit from coaching themselves. During the class, they are coached by other participants, using what they are learning. When the participants see that they can be helped by coaching, they are much more likely to use the coaching techniques they are learning when they return to the job. This experience cannot be duplicated with e-learning.
Does this mean that e-learning cannot be used to teach coaching skills? In fact, you can use e-learning to present much of the material that I teach in the classroom, for example, how to ask good coaching questions, how to set the proper environment for coaching, etc. But you cannot duplicate the practice of those skills in an e-learning environment.
Advantage #4: Adaptability
A good instructor can adapt the training content to the specific needs of the participants in the classroom. For example, while a training program may focus on a full overview of a topic, members of the class may point out one specific area with which they continue to have problems. A good instructor will follow the lead of the class and help them find ways to solve that problem. With asynchronous e-learning, there is little adaptability to address this type of issue.
Advantage #5: Individual Attention to Participant Needs
In a face-to-face instructor-led class, the trainer may notice that one or more participants is having specific problems, either in understanding some topic or in applying the learning to their particular situation. A good instructor will watch for signs of these problems and will offer to help those participants during breaks or after class. E-learning instructors, even using synchronous e-learning, can’t read these types of body-language signs.
Advantage #6: Establishing a Dialogue
With asynchronous e-learning, there is no opportunity to ask questions of an instructor. Even with synchronous e-learning, participants may type a question for the instructor, but there is little opportunity to ask a follow-up question or to establish any type of dialogue with the instructor or with other participants. In many face-to-face classes, these types of dialogues, when they take place, can add a huge value to the participants by being able to dig deeply into a subject that interests the participants.
Advantage #7: Learning From Other Participants
In every class or conference I have ever attended, I have found that at least half the value I receive comes not from the training content (no matter how good it may be), but from my informal interaction with other participants, during the class, at breaks, or over lunch, dinner, or drinks. While on-line discussion groups can offer such opportunities for informal interaction, they cannot match the experience of interacting face-to-face.
Advantage #8: Building Personal Relationships
It is virtually impossible to build a personal relationship with an instructor or other program participants using e-learning, but it happens all the time with face-to-face instructor-led training. These relationships can lead to sharing experiences, job offers, personal coaching, and reinforcement as two or more people try out what they have learned on the job, and even to marriages (yes, I have a documented case).
Advantage #9: Breaking Down Silos
Getting people from different business units and functional groups together in a classroom can help to break down the silos that inhibit cross-unit dialog and cooperation. At one company, a management training program that brought people together from different business units around the globe resulted in two managers from different business units developing an idea for a new company business that resulted in a new business unit that yielded hundreds of millions of dollars a year in new revenue, and the new business unit could not have been created by either of the business units alone. In many other cases, I have seen problems solved more quickly because a participant was able to get help from another person in a class instead of sending a request up through his business unit, across the top level to another unit, and then down that hierarchy to get the help that was needed.
Advantage #10: Building a Personal Network
This is an adjunct to the previous advantages of breaking down silos and building personal relationships. For example, in a leadership development program I designed and led, we brought together 36 high-potential mid-level managers from multiple business units, geographies, and functional areas. At the end of the first session of this program, several participants remarked that even if there had been no educational content, just having the opportunity to build a network with the other participants would have been worth the company’s investment in bringing them together for several days.
There is no doubt that e-learning can be an effective training method for specific topics. But the e-learning zealots who argue that all classroom training can and should be replaced by e-learning are overlooking the many unique benefits of bringing together a group of employees in a classroom. This article has presented 10 advantages that face-to-face instructor-led training has over e-learning in its many forms. I am certain that there are other advantages I have failed to mention in this article, and I would appreciate hearing your ideas on the subject.
Dan Tobin is a consultant, author, and speaker on corporate learning strategies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-939-4737. Visit his websites: www.nextgenerationofleaders.com andwww.whatdidyoulearnatworktoday.com.