Is face-to-face training redundant?

Online training has exploded in the last two years. Demand for online learning rose by as much as 400% in 2020 and as many as 90% of corporate businesses now use e-learning to train their employees. In the world of product training, most in-person training events—from calendar-defining tech events like MWC (Mobile World Congress) to smaller, instructor-led workshops—are now at least hybrid, with options to attend “face-to-face or screen-to-screen“.

The shift online is not without benefits, for learners and organizations alike. Learners have more control over where and when they learn—they don’t need to travel to a venue and can take a course at their own pace, and, for organizations, measuring the success of your learning program is far easier—you can gather data to see what works, what doesn’t, and adjust your training accordingly. It’s also associated with higher retention and completion rates, increased accessibility, and cost savings of as much as 50%.

As a training agency, the opportunity to reimagine in-person training for our clients has been a welcome opportunity to flex our creative muscles in the search of online solutions that rival (and sometimes exceed) in-person sessions. From interactive video to virtual game shows, there’s much more to online learning than e-modules and webinars.

But where does this leave in-person training? Is it redundant in the digital age? Or are there benefits that online training just doesn’t provide? As we reflect on our own journey over the last two years, we’re reconsidering the place of face-to-face learning.


The science of face-to-face interaction

When it comes to the science of how we learn, face-to-face learning might just have the edge. Research shows that humans are hardwired to respond to faces. Specialized neural circuits in an area of the brain called the Fusiform Face Area (FFA) light up when we see a face, and push our attention towards it. Faces capture our attention far more effectively than other objects, which makes instructor-led, face-to-face training an incredibly effective teaching method.

Even with advancements in video conferencing, it is still difficult to read faces online, requiring sustained and intense attention to words instead. Video conferencing has a draining effect — aptly termed zoom fatigue — due to the fact that the visual cues and body language we normally use to process information are harder to discern.

In-person learning creates connections

Another reason that in-person training is so effective is that participants and instructors are able to interact with each other. Instructors can respond to questions in real-time and personalize their delivery style to suit the needs of their audience. It also makes facilitating discussion and collaboration easy, leading to an enriching learning experience for participants.

Learning is also about creating connections, and research suggests that physical spaces are the most effective for this. Classrooms and lecture halls produce a sense of belonging, no matter the style or quality of teaching. Buildings have been designed for hundreds of years as co-presence machines, and the ambient presence of people around you as you learn is valuable. When community is integrated with learning it can even help motivate and engage learners more.

Another benefit to in-person learning is the environment. We all deal with distractions when working online or from home, so focused learning environments like classrooms, that are equipped with all the tools and space learners need to dedicate themselves to the lesson, give learners the best chance.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both online and in-person training. So where does this leave us? Well, the answer is relatively straightforward: blended learning.


Blending in-person and online learning approaches 

Blended learning is an approach that mixes online educational materials and chances for online interaction with conventional place-based classroom methods. Simply put, blended learning uses online platforms to give employees more control over their learning path. In this way, you can work out which elements of training would work best in a classroom, or whether the flexibility of online learning would be more appropriate. According to the 2016 Brandon Hall Group Learning Strategy Study, 61% of organizations said blended learning is important or critical to their business and that they were effective at improving individual performance.

It’s important to note that we don’t all learn in the same way. Most people are visual learners, some enjoy taking detailed notes, and some learn best through hands-on experience. One of the benefits of blended learning is that it caters to our different learning styles, so the training remains relevant and impactful for everyone involved.

Here are some factors to help you decide whether online or in-person training is right for your organization:

  • Location: are your participants spread out across the country or even the globe? In-person training becomes pretty costly when you need to fly everyone to the same place. So if you’re scattered around, online training is probably the best option.
  • Context: is the training time-specific, related to a product launch, or part of a larger conference? These factors might mean that in-person training is best.
  • How much training needs to take place? Your training might be a one-off or part of a longer series of sessions or curriculum. Given this, a mix of in-person and online could work. If the subject matter is more complex, it’s helpful to have a trainer in a room to answer questions and delve into more detail.
  • Do you have an office? It’s an obvious question, but it might be simpler to host learning events at your company’s base rather than online. Keep the hub alive!

Whatever training medium you choose, incorporating soft skills like communication and teamwork with interactivity—whether through group chats in an online course or chatting and swapping stories in a classroom—is integral to its success. Remember that distractions exist in every learning environment, and the quality of the training, including frequent interactivity and knowledge checks, takes precedence over the training location.


Ready to change the way you train for the better? Our expert consultants are on hand to help you begin your journey.

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