When Face-to-face Learning Died

In May of 2009, the US Department of Education published a study focused on online learning vs. face-to-face instruction. It was an analysis of more than one thousand studies of online learning, done between 1994 and 2008. The result: 51 instances where the researchers could directly compare online and face-to-face learning and their effectiveness.

Online Instruction Quote

Students from online learning classes performed better. This stands the traditional education system in the US on its head. Seven years later, the Department of Education’s conclusion seems to affect corporate training far more than K-12 education, even though large segments of each were included in the study.

Training in the business world was an early and fast adopter of online training. Largely this was driven by the lower cost of online learning as companies no longer had to fly trainers all over the country to train groups. Since then, their adoption has grown exponentially each year.

The interesting thing to consider is the date of the study: 2008. Since then, there have been significant advances in the understanding of eLearning creation, as well as neurobiology (how the brain learns). These should swing the results even further in the direction of online learning.

BUT. Most people that reference this study seem to stop there. It’s the next finding that really grabbed my attention: “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.” This is called blended learning, and the study found it to be the most effective of the three methods.

I like Wikipedia’s definition: “Blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through delivery of content and instruction via digital and online media with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace.”

Blended learning is a highly effective way to ensure when learners show up for face-to-face training that they have a common and equal knowledge base, and thus can improve their knowledge together. It’s also an excellent way to do follow up training after a face-to-face event and reinforce key concepts. Blending face-to-face and online methods taps into multiple learning styles, which is far more effective than teaching in a single style.

Next time you plan a face-to-face training event, stop and consider if it would be more effective in a blended or online format. Can you add pre- or post-training online to prep the learners or reinforce training? Or do you move it entirely online to save cost, provide learners with a flexible schedule, and track the training through a learning management system? There are great reasons to choose any of the three methods, just be sure why you are choosing the method you do.


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