The benefits of a (REAL) classroom

One of the delegates on a recent SQL course made this comment on her course evaluation form:

Having tried numerous online courses, this is the first time I understood SQL and was able to write queries. 😊 Thank you”

This is not the first time this year we’ve had a comment along these lines. The past few years have seen an increase in the use of online learning. Some of our clients have no budget for classroom-based training. Instead they have bought packages from organisations like Udemy, and their employees have only e-learning as an option.

E-learning is not new

A speaker at an e-learning conference I attended recently, commented that the term “e-learning” was coined in 1999. That may be true. Only the name is new, however — the concept has been around for a long time.

We used to call this computer-based training, or CBT. I developed an intranet-based training system using XML and JavaScript in 1998. (Yes, I’m getting old.) Apparently the first CBT system, known as PLATO, was introduced in 1960.

The difference today is simply that people have easier access to better technology, and faster Internet access.

Why you(r manager) want(s) e-learning

We’ve all heard about the many advantages of e-learning, such as:

  • You can learn anywhere, so you don’t have to travel.
  • You can learn at your own pace.
  • You can (sometimes) choose what content to include or exclude.
  • It’s (usually) cheaper. This is often the most important reason companies choose e-learning.

No-one disputes these advantages.

But let’s be realistic. Training is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. E-learning is a superb choice for some subjects. And e-learning is inherently inadequate for other subjects. What worries me is if companies don’t acknowledge the disadvantages, or when e-learning doesn’t work.

Why you want classroom training

#1. Dedicated time for learning

We all love the idea of learning at our own pace. Unfortunately, self-paced learning often translates into no learning. Why?

  • The onus is on you to make time to learn. So learning is often pushed to the bottom of the to-do list, especially when it must compete with “real” work and pressing deadlines.
  • It’s easy to disengage. I have watched staff at a large company mechanically clicking through online course screens, while they focussed their attention on something completely different. (Usually their cell phones.)

Classroom-based training, on the other hand, requires an unequivocal commitment of time.

Learners in a classroom can disengage as well. We had somebody on course last week who kept falling asleep. Perhaps he worked or played hard the night before, or has a young child, or was just tired. But regardless of the reason, it didn’t persist. Why? Because both the trainer and his colleagues kept re-engaging him.

#2. Guided flexibility

At a recent e-learning conference, the new buzzword was “prescriptive learning”. This refers to individualized learning, or aligning the content with the student. But let’s examine this concept more closely.

  • Every e-learning module has fixed content. It also has a prescribed path through which the student proceeds from one topic to another. There may be some options to allow a student to skip a section, or to move around. But it is not possible to adapt the content on the fly to match requirements.
  • Where it is possible to selectively choose material, who should make that choice? I suspect many school children would choose not to learn Maths, but that doesn’t make it a good choice. If you don’t know what you don’t know, how can you know what you need to know?

Live training, by comparison, is fluid.

At Incus Data we often adapt the course contents to match the delegates. We may speed up or slow down the course. We may leave out some topics, or add extra material. And we might insist on covering a topic, because we know from experience how important it is. This means that, in a classroom, we truly can adapt the training to match the real needs of the students.

#3. Interaction with the trainer

In limited cases, e-learning allows for some interaction, using webinars and video chats. This is generally at the expense of schedule flexibility — I know that every webinar I’ve attended seems to start at 8pm at night! In most cases, however, e-learning provides very little useful contact with the trainer.

I believe the greatest benefit of classroom-based training is the ability to interact with a great trainer. (I’m not talking about university classes with 50 or 100 students here. I’m talking about small, personal classes of fewer than 20 people.) A skilled, knowledgeable trainer will explain a concept in different ways until it makes sense to you.

Do you remember what a difference the right teacher made at school? Perhaps you have children yourself, and you have discovered again the importance of the teacher. This doesn’t change as we get older.

Never under-estimate the importance of the trainer to your learning experience.

And, as an aside, skilled trainers are at their very best in a live environment. They thrive when they can be challenged by interested students. So this interaction results in a better training experience for everyone.

I read a wonderful description of this recently on the Activia Training site:

“However, real learning – game changing learning – comes about through live connection with a more experienced practitioner.”

#4. Interaction with other students

We understand that some students find e-learning emotionally more comfortable. It avoids any fear about failure, or about how your skills compare to others. Classroom-based training can be challenging in this regard.

But exposure to other people, and to different ways of thinking, is essential for personal growth. I’ve had a number of interactions recently that have underlined this. One was a discussion on the role of, and attitude towards, maths. Another was an uncomfortable challenge to my approach to document design. And yet another was an entertaining alternative perspective on recruitment.

Have you ever felt energised or motivated or thoughtful after a discussion with someone? Talking to other programmers can, quite literally, change the way you think.

I know that not every group of students will generate this spark. But brain-storming sessions and team-building sessions don’t consist of one person only. When you bring together a team of people to be trained, you create the potential for something more than just learning.

What do you think?

From all the research I’ve read, it is clear that there is no single answer to the e-learning versus classroom training debate. As I wrote earlier, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that is always the best. The subject matter is a critical factor. And constraints, like time and money, also play a role.

After years in the training industry, I believe that higher cognitive skills, like programming, are best taught in a real classroom. But I’ve also encouraged people — especially novices — to work through available e-learning material before attending one of our courses. Why? In our experience, the student with some background in the subject gains the most value from a course.

I am curious about the current trend in corporate training. Have all the factors been considered? Has the decision been driven primarily by cost? Has there been a careful analysis of when to use e-learning and when to invest in classroom training? And given the critical role of experienced programmers, have you actually asked what they want?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *