Face-to-face learning: Old hat or the future?

Julian Roche adds to the face-to-face training debate.

If asked, trainers and HR departments will readily concede that if the objective is to convey information and develop skills, and ensure the objectives of the course have been met then if possible, face-to-face is the preferred delivery method.

This applies just as much in soft skills areas such as developing the ability to deliver presentations or sell as it does in hard skill areas such as financial modelling or compliance, and even, ironically, when many of the skills being taught will actually find their way frequently into online applications such as marketing webinars or downloadable documents and spreadsheets.

Trainers will also patiently explain that this is not a pedagogical issue, they are, many of them, at the forefront of developing elearning materials and are well-versed in the intricacies of Learning Management Systems.

They will cite the ease of interaction with delegates and of creating groups – provided the learning space is appropriate – the ability to respond to specific questions immediately, and to work through problems and issues with exercises so that delegates finish the course with mutually agreed competencies.

At least, this is face-to-face learning working at its best. As with elearning, things can go wrong, ranging from travel disruptions to language problems and beyond. 

But there is little doubt that the method of intense direct instruction, with exercises, case studies and presentations, still works well for audiences of graduate level and above, albeit that questions have been asked about its durability as millennials get not just to attend, but to hold the purse-strings.

As with elearning, things can go wrong, ranging from travel disruptions to language problems and beyond. 

The constraints on face-to-face learning are, however, quite daunting – some increasingly so.

First, the financial arrangements must work for all parties involved. By comparison to downloading a book or an e-course, face-to-face training from a professional expert is bound to be more expensive. All three parties – the training company, the trainer, and the delegate – must be satisfied that the financial arrangements work for them.

The evidence is that the conditions continue to be met, and there is every expectation by training companies that it will continue to be. There do remain, however, a much larger number of potential learners disenfranchised by the process, which elearning can catch.

Second, the geography must work. Here, major capital cities such as London and New York score highly, for two reasons.

First, for the most part the trainers are based relatively close, and so do not to have to fly to the training location, with all the attendant costs that have to be passed on to the delegate. Second, there is a significant pool of potential delegates already in the capital, with others able to access the training location within a few hours, often flying the evening before or even travelling on the morning of the course.

The critical mass of delegates required for interactivity is therefore relatively more likely to occur than anywhere more remote. Face-to-face learning is therefore more likely to prosper in affluent, urban centres, whilst elearning and other alternatives such as webinars will benefit more significantly those outside them. Live webinars, in fact, can even come close to face-to-face learning.

Third, timings have to be satisfactory. Face-to-face learning shares with live webinars, but not with elearning generally, including podcasts, downloadable case studies and interactive exercises and gamification, a critical dependence on mutually satisfactory timings for trainer and trained alike.

The usual practice in Europe, the Middle East and Asia-Pac is for open courses to be advertised up to a year in advance, giving delegates the opportunity to bid for, book and plan their attendance in a timeframe well ahead of the usual business cycle of two to three months.

Companies likewise accept the need for their employees to take time away from the office or construction site to attend skills-enhancing short courses. With two runs of a course in a year, typically, if the date of the next one does not suit, the one after that will.

This whole set-up is backed up with the capacity of training companies to deliver in-house courses to individual clients, again at mutually convenient times. The process works well, generally, and there are few cases where delegates cannot get the training they need in an acceptable timeframe.

The conclusion? A largely two-speed training world, where those fortunate enough to attend can still benefit enormously from the kind of face-to-face learning that can hone presentation skills, teach technical subjects and provide focused, immediate responses to practical questions.

Other learners must survive on what they can find online. 


About the author

Julian Roche is course director at Redcliffe Training 


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