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Back to Class

 -  12/19/11

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According to the hype, technology has overtaken more traditional learning delivery methods. Social media, apps, virtual classrooms and telepresence are replacing classroom learning or at least relegating it to specific and rare programs. But don’t believe the hype.

According to new data from the Human Capital Media Advisory Group, the research arm of Chief Learning Officer magazine, classroom instruction is still going strong. In fact, many companies are using new technology to give their classroom learning activities a shot in the arm by enhancing the learner’s experience, promoting engagement and collaboration and preparing leaders for the modern business environment.

Instead of replacing the classroom, technology is most often used to enhance the benefits found in a live learning environment. In the past simulations — a great way to give learners an opportunity to practice new skills and safely fail while learning to apply them correctly — were dominated by computer-based applications. They too have evolved their own face-to-face components. With gaming at their heart, today’s learning simulations emphasize not only knowledge gathering, but comprehension, application, analysis, discovery and growth, and much of it happens in the classroom.

The Digital Divide
In a 1995 Harvard Business Review article, Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen introduced the idea of sustaining vs. disruptive technologies. Sustaining technologies, Christensen said, were innovations that gave customers a product “more or better” than what they were already using.

Disruptive technologies, on the other hand, introduced product attributes different from the ones customers historically valued, Christensen said. Improving undervalued dimensions creates new markets and displaces older technologies.

Corporate learning in 2011 is a combination of sustaining and disruptive technologies. While classroom-based, instructor-led training (ILT) remains the leading method of learning delivery, emergent technologies — such as self-paced e-learning and informal learning through social media, blogs, wikis and discussion groups — offer cost and time savings. But these methods often lack the personal, human element many companies value.

Forty-one percent of respondents to a 2011 survey by the Human Capital Media Advisory Group, the research arm of Chief Learning Officer magazine, selected classroom-based ILT as their organization’s leading learning delivery method. This was followed by self-paced e-learning at 17 percent — driven by factors such as convenience (24 percent) and cost (17 percent) — and formal on-the-job training (OJT) at 14 percent — with effectiveness (17 percent) being cited as a key reason for its increased use.

Since 2009, an average of 43 percent of respondents said classroom-based ILT has been the primary method of learning for their companies. After modest gains from 2009 to 2010, e-learning and formal OJT saw numbers dip even as other learning delivery methods inched upwards: coaching/mentoring at 9 percent, virtual classrooms at 7 percent and informal online learning at 5 percent.

While nearly half of the survey respondents chose classroom-based ILT as their company’s primary learning delivery method from 2009 to 2010, the overall trend has been downward. Respondents cited increased expenses and a drop in effectiveness as the reason for the decline.

Asynchronous learning — self-paced e-learning including mobile learning — continues to trend upward because of associated cost savings and convenience. In fact, 4 percent of respondents expect some or substantial increase within the next 12-18 months (Figure 3). Further, coaching/mentoring — considered to be an ideal method for teaching diversity and skills — also is expected to rise, with 51 percent of respondents stating they expect to see some or substantial increase within that same time period. Fifty-five percent of respondents also expect an increase in informal learning usage, which includes social media, blogs, wikis and discussion groups.

Classroom-based ILT is used for nearly every organizational training need, with 65 percent of respondents using this vehicle for business skills training; 63 percent for leadership development; 54 percent for on-boarding/new-hire training; 39 percent for core competencies; and 33 percent to teach technical skills. In 2011, compliance training was the only category where survey respondents didn’t cite classroom-based ILT as their preferred method, with 60 percent opting for self-paced e-learning.

As potentially disruptive technologies, self-paced e-learning and informal online learning may represent cost savings and convenience, but they do not meet all needs. For the majority of employee training at all skill and leadership levels, classroom-based ILT, formal OTJ training and coaching/mentoring are still preferred due to the interactions available between instructors and students.

The continued interest in traditional learning delivery methods is evidence that technology falls short when it comes to human interaction. Emerging technologies have the potential to provide new value and maybe even replace traditional methods, but replacing the personal touch is one revolution that may still be years in the making.