The #1 Challenge: Clinging to the walls of the classroom


For as many decades as companies have invested in training, that training has primarily been delivered in the physical classroom.  This requires recipients to put aside their usual work activities for a few days and make the trek to sit in such a classroom with a group of peers for a day or two to receive their training.

Technology has massively and unprecedentedly changed the world in which we now live, work, and play.  Encyclopedia Britannica, which was the primary source of knowledge for many since the late 18th century, ceased publication in 2010.  People now instantly network, chat and collaborate with others around the world using handheld devices.  Individuals can learn, using those same handheld devices, about almost anything through YouTube and user forums across the internet, regardless of time and place. So, why do so many people still think of the physical classroom as the way in which to deliver training, or at the very least the benchmark to which other modalities should aspire?

Let’s examine the efficacy of the classroom.  The traditional classroom forces us to batch up the training into a linear stream of information that will be passed onto recipients all at the same time, at the same rate, over a few consecutive days.  During this time, trainees don’t have the chance to reflect on new ideas or to try new approaches.  We know that most of the trainees won’t have the chance to apply anything more than a small percentage of the content within a matter of a week or two, and we also know that if they don’t, then the chance of doing so at a later date are equally small.  As well, many of the trainees, if asked at lunch on the first day of training, how the course is going, will answer that “it’s a bit slow, they have learned nothing new, and are hoping that the pace will pick up”.

The ROI from the majority of traditional classroom training is surely extremely low when we look at the total cost and time versus the actual impact on performance.  Yet, many cling to the walls of the classroom refusing to believe that technology enabled training alternatives will be effective.  When you consider this in the face of how people are living and learning in today’s technology enabled world, it seems nothing short of ludicrous.

So much can be gained by understanding the three primary reasons for this reluctance to change and by overcoming them.  These reasons are:

1. Resistance to Change

People are always resistant to change.  The FAX machine was patented before the telephone but it still took decades for faxes to replace Telex’s.  As another example, not every organization will accept signatures electronically and still insist on a FAX. We have to treat the transition out of the classroom as a significant exercise in change management.

2. Re-architecting Training

Training courses that have been designed for the classroom are exactly that.  They are optimized, and indeed compromised, for classroom delivery.  They tend to be continuous and linear streams of information delivered within the confines of time and place.  This is not the starting point for technology-enabled training. If all we do is take a program designed for the physical classroom, and try to deliver it through a technology based medium, we are almost bound to fail.  Training must be rethought, re-architected and redesigned for technology-based delivery.  It can, and indeed must, be delivered in short learning experiences; it should be integrated with application; it should enable collaboration and discussion; and it should deliver the training when and where it is required.

3. Quality of Content

The final reason we cling to the walls of the physical classroom is simply because it keeps our trainees captive.  To put it bluntly, the training is either so poor or the trainees motivation towards the training so weak, that we have to hold them captive to administer it.  Of course you may have the physical body captive but there is no guarantee that the mind is there.

We must fully embrace new technology enabled training opportunities.  As L&D professionals we are not leading the way, we are playing catch up to where the world already is.  But, we must take on responsibility for the change management, for re-architecting our learning programs, and for ensuring the relevance and quality of the training to the learner.


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  1. #1 by Craig MacMullen on April 3, 2014 - 1:07 pm

    Great discussion starter because I think this article is right on but needs a bit of evolution or enhancement – neither of which is the correct word – because real live interaction between people through expression, silence, discussion, body movement often sends signals of misunderstanding, enlightenment, sudden awareness that doesn’t show through electronics and these human conditions often lead to an unexpected leap in understanding and experience. So the electronic environment only enhances opportunities and removes others – that is forced environments like classrooms and demand timeframes for learning ‘can and do’ cause personal discoveries beyond that moment that often aren’t realized by the recipient at the time. As I sit and silently listen to another student struggle with an issue I thought I understood, I learn. It is more difficult to introduce that advantage to online learning but not impossible.

    • #2 by Barron on April 3, 2014 - 11:15 pm

      I agree! Nothing is impossible but as you say moving away from the physical classroom presents both new opportunities and challenges. However, from our perspective, technology allows us the opportunity to dramatically improve the overall learning experience which far outweighs the challenges. In the example challenge you give, facilitators in the live virtual classroom cannot underestimate the need for new skills and tools to be successful at delivering training virtually. They must also learn to reach through the bandwidth (as we like to refer to it) and truly relate to and engage the remote learner. This is one of the reasons why not all F2F facilitators make the successful transition to the virtual classroom. The skills and tools that made them great facilitators in the classroom don’t work the same way in the virtual classroom. Of course delivery is only one aspect of how to overcome this challenge. Rethinking the design of the learning assets themselves and how they support the learning journey is also a critical element.

  2. #3 by Martyn Lewis on April 4, 2014 - 4:55 am

    The aspects of the physical world, and communicating in it, that Craig points out must be considered and accommodated when we move to the virtual world. It is indeed true that we can’t “see” the body language, and therefore we can’t rely on that technique to deliver a great learning experience. It is one of our golden rules that we can’t simply move content and style from the traditional world and deliver it over the web.

    At the start of our own journey to the virtual world we thought it impossible to engage a remote learner – but then we noticed that, right under our noses, the broadcast media has been delivering highly immersive, even addictive, information to remote individuals for years. It was that “brilliant flash of the obvious” that started us down our path. As Barron suggests, it takes totally rethinking how we deliver the learning experiences to adjust to these new delivery modalities. We can’t read the body language, and we aren’t physically there, but that hasn’t stopped Facebook from becoming a new communication, collaboration, and sharing location, or YouTube from training hundreds of thousands of people each day on an incredible variety of topics. And when all is said and done lets look at blended learning for what it is – let’s design how we deliver the right training at the right time to the right people, at the right location in the most effective manner. And this should include the opportunity for people to meet physically, but when they are together, for goodness sake don’t sit them down and subject them to hours of PowerPoint. When we are together, as Craig highlights, lets enable them to work with each other, and to collaborate in real time and work in the ways that we can’t easily emulate in the virtual world. The in the virtual world, let’s make sure that we adopt different communication techniques that allow for collaboration, that enable learning from each other, and that, as Barron states, allow us to take advantage of the tremendous benefits associated with technology-enabled training and overcome or mitigate the disadvantages.

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