Oh, to have had shares in Zoom before this all started. The COVID-19 isolation has turned our world upside down, and the education and training sectors have been forced to adapt faster than most. And adapt they have, using any number of conferencing apps to ensure the wheels of learning keep turning.

Conferencing has worked for the most part; kids are adapting to school online and corporate training schedules have been reworked for web-based capacity. The biggest question however remains: Are online learners missing out on much?

Yes, they are. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to take anything away from the success of the virtual education world we’ve been flung into. It’s kept the wheels turning and, if anything, has shone a light on the work teachers and trainers do. We know that remote work and learning is here to stay at some level and for some it’s hugely successful. But it’s not the total or only answer and, from a corporate perspective, won’t ever be the only answer. Because the most effective solution is still staring us in the face. Face-to-face, to be precise.

After 30 years in the training profession there is one thing I know for sure: just as the teacher in the class room has a profound impact on students, so too does the trainer or facilitator in a training room in the corporate setting, not just to help participants absorb content in the classroom, but retain and recall the information well into the future.

You only have to take a quick scan of the news to see the regular and extensive debate about getting kids back into schools and universities. Even those parents fearing for the health of their kids know that ultimately the best learning is done in the classroom and the same goes for workplace training.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt has acknowledged there may be a shift towards permanent online education but he predicts a full-scale revolution is unlikely because students “were missing the value add of hands-on education”. His University of Sydney counterpart Michael Spence agreed remote learning could never adequately replace face-to-face interactions.

"The campus experience along with group tutorials, practical workshops, placements and other real-world learning opportunities help provide a broad and engaging education – and a real sense of being part of a community," Dr Spence said.

We know people learn better in a specialised setting, with other learners and a facilitator whose key focus is on communication, collaboration and, most importantly, building trust. This is particularly vital for those quieter participants who often appear less engaged. 

With this trust built face-to-face, in the room, comes the ability to ask questions freely, make comments and connect with other learners. Interaction with others in the room can have a profound and lasting impact on learning.  Although not impossible, it is much harder to replicate this with a screen in front of you. Learning really can be a community experience.

Sure, some training is tailor-made to work online. Compliance is a great example of an area suited to virtual training. But when it comes to programs around deeper thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence, like communication or leadership development, face-to-face is the most effective form of delivery, no doubt. Communication itself is a vital teaching tool and comes in so many forms, including non-verbal and written nuances that are harder to read and interpret in the online world. 

The diluted dynamic of the remote learning environment results in reduced trust in the “room” and not until we return to the classrooms and training rooms will we see a revival in the freedom to make off-the-cuff comments, ask questions and be honest with feedback. It’s far easier to maintain a strong focus on a single topic, particularly if the trainer knows everyone is engaged, rather than distracted by the inevitable emails, phone messages and demands of the family, such as a dog demanding to be walked! 

We cannot ignore the impact of putting thousands of days of corporate training on hold and possibly replaced with less effective options. There is likely to be a view from some that because there has been some success in the virtual world we now move more corporate training out of the training room. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Video based learning will never be a like for like replacement to the face-to-face experience and its impact, accountability and long-term behavioural change. These unusual times have served as great reminder that learning becomes a true gift when it’s delivered in real time, face-to-face with true passion.

Christopher Whitnall is the founder and managing director of the Talkforce Group (which includes talkforce and Training & Coaching Solutions) and has more than 30 years’ experience in training, learning & development and coaching.

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