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The End of Classroom Training?

by Rowena Crosbie, President, Tero International

Do you miss your school days? For most of us, the answer remains the same year after year, "I miss the people."

A favorite teacher. A trusted friend. An inspiring coach. The odd kid on the school playground. A first crush. As we grow and mature, even for those individuals we don't remember fondly, we do reflect and contemplate the impact they had on us.

Relationships matter. Whether at school, home, or work, it is the quality of our relationships that shapes our lives - for better or for worse.

Relationships are also a practical matter in learning. People are social creatures. Beyond the acquisition of new skills and knowledge, at its best, the learning process involves a relationship and a social experience.

The trend toward removing human interactions from the learning process in favor of technological interactions - all in pursuit of expediency and cost-savings, started more than a decade ago as the internet became more widely available and its information capabilities increased.

Along with it came the predictions that classroom learning was a thing of the past. Gone forevermore - the equivalent of a horse drawn carriage on an interstate highway.

Alas, classroom learning is not gone. In fact, according to the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), it is increasing in both use and efficacy in recent years. In contrast, after several years of consistent growth, learning through technology-based methods is on the decline. The instructor-led classroom has rebounded and accounts for nearly 2/3 of learning hours in business. While some find this reversal puzzling given the advances in technology-based learning in recent years, there is compelling biological evidence that explains the trend.

The Role of Relationships in Learning

The transfer of facts to learner is important. But, as it turns out, it is less important for learning than we might like to think. Facts might be what we know - emotions determine why we are interested enough to know it and act on it.

According to neuroscientists, "Emotions are a critical source of information for learning." Why? Because emotions help direct our learning to that which is most important to us. Our brain actively ignores information (yes, even factual information!) that it doesn't perceive as relevant or meaningful. Moreover, emotions give us a more activated and stimulated brain, which helps us recall things better. Plus, emotional information receives preferential processing in the brain.

Simply put; emotions have a HUGE role in learning. Without addressing them, the process of learning will not be as successful as it otherwise could be.

How are emotions engaged in the learning process? Relationships! Whether the relationship is student to teacher, peer to peer, participant to facilitator or employee to manager, the human element is as important in learning as is the transfer of hard facts. It is not likely to be replaced anytime soon by an e-learning environment where learners are required to learn in isolation, void of human contact.

The Efficacy of eLearning

Isn't there research that shows technology-based learning matches that of instructor-led classrooms? Studies claiming that e-learning delivers the same or better results to the classroom learning experience are most commonly based on research conducted in university settings where the face-to-face learning alternative is an auditorium packed with hundreds of students who are listening to a lecture delivered by a professor who is frequently lacking in facilitation skills.

The only message that matters is the message received. The fact that the professor may possess unmatched technical expertise is often lost upon the students who hear only a drone - similar to the sounds that adults make in the Charlie Brown cartoon shows.

When the comparison is this face-to-face learning environment, it is not a surprise that e-learning would deliver similar results - arguably reading a text book would also deliver comparable results.

Additionally, it is clear that many students fail to complete the on-line courses they begin. It is only the pursuit of certification, designation or degree that keeps many sticking with it rather than the pure interest in learning.

Claims that e-learning involves a relationship by providing the learner with electronic access to a teacher is an equally poor substitute for a real relationship.

When e-learning is compared with instructor-led training that is highly interactive, taps kinesthetic learning, builds a relationship between instructor and learner, provides small leader to learner ratio, leverages accelerated learning strategies and brain-based learning techniques, technology-based learning pales.

The Role of eLearning

Does this mean that technology-based learning doesn't have a role to play in education? On-line learning offers many advantages. It provides learners with access to information at their fingertips, at distant locations and at all hours of the day and night. After an initial capital investment, it is often cost-effective.

When used alone (as has been attempted in many corporations and schools) it fails to leverage one of the most important elements of learning: relationships. When used in concert with an instructor-led complement, it can contribute to even greater results.


If you find yourself being vilified as out-of-touch and outdated - not hip to the changing times - when you express skepticism about proposals that shift K-12 education or corporate learning to a technology-based only format, you can find solace in the knowledge that there is biological evidence in support of your position. Removing the relationship and related emotions from the experience of learning is detrimental to the process.

Not only is technology-based learning, as a sole method, a poor one, it may contribute to the increasing feelings of isolation humans report experiencing. At a time when people boast extensive social networks of friends and frequent connectivity (Facebook, LinkedIn) it is ironic that people, at the same time, report feeling more isolated and disconnected than at any time in the past.

No matter what you possess in life, whether great intelligence, wealth, social status, a powerful job, etc., you will never be truly successful unless you can get along with others, even when it is difficult to do so. While the acquisition of knowledge can be acquired in a variety of ways, including through technology, the skills to get along with others do not happen conveniently on-line and in isolation - they require relationships.

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