Is face-to-face learning dead?

Virtual learning

The coronavirus crisis is forcing all of us to embrace change. This can be uncomfortable, but it also provides an opportunity to question the way we do things. If we want our organisations to bounce forwards from this crisis, our people will need to adopt new skills, new behaviours and new ways of working. And if our people are to successfully navigate new ways of operating, they will need development.

However, new research from LEO Learning shows that L&D professionals expect much less learning to take place in a “classroom or face-to-face workshop”. What does L&D look like in a socially distanced world?

The point of this blog is not to say what your people need to learn, because that will be different for every organisation, even every team. This blog explores how your people can learn going forwards.


If our people are to successfully navigate new ways of operating, they will need development.


Face-to-face learning does what it says on the tin: this is learning that takes place in the company of others. It can include coaching, action learning groups, workshops, conferences and experiential activities.

Virtual learning happens live and with other participants, even if that is just one other person (such as a coach). However, it takes place via video conferencing or other virtual medium. This topic will be addressed in a future blog but you can learn more in our Finastra case study.

Digital learning is on-demand and learner-led, meaning that no other person needs to be involved. This might include tutorial videos, simulations, online modules and diagnostics.

Is face-to-face learning dead?

The pandemic has challenged the L&D orthodoxy that face-to-face (F2F) is crucial to changing behaviours. Throughout the lockdown, we as humans have proved much more capable of performing virtually than was previously imagined. This is to be celebrated and should certainly give HR professionals pause for thought.

However, F2F development has a long and proven history of achieving meaningful change; clearly, it should not be written off entirely. In my opinion, F2F is still going to play a substantial and important part in any development programme, especially in the field of team development. When I am facilitating a team, often the goal is to build trust, and this starts with really getting to know and appreciate each other better. Sometimes this simply means spending more time together, which could be done virtually, but sometimes I just think: this team needs to climb a mountain together!

F2F definitely has a value, even today. Humans are social creatures, and we are also sadly predisposed to “othering” people with whom we aren’t close. Spending time with a group, or, even better, facing adversity together, still plays a key role in psychological bonding.


What are the benefits of digital learning?

There are two things that underpin our success at learning something: motivation and practice. Fortunately, digital and virtual learning can support both of these.

In preparation for a F2F development session, a digital toolkit of articles, videos, podcasts, etc can stimulate thinking, reduce uncertainty and energise the learner. This preparation could be done F2F but digital is cheaper and less time-intensive while still providing a stimulus to create curiosity and boost motivation.

In addition, bitesize learning allows users to engage in sustained practice that embeds the learning. If a learner is set short tasks or provided with educational materials over a long period they are much more likely to embrace a change or perfect a skill.

I like to draw on my experience working with elite sports performers and use the example of a top athlete: they don’t get where they are after one afternoon of intense training, they hone their skills over weeks and months with regular practice and incremental progress.

Today, we are used to instantaneous access to information, and it is crucial that the L&D industry keeps up with that expectation. Digital can help with the provision of resources to support on-demand learning in a way that even the most attentive coach couldn’t (unless they were available 24/7). If I have a problem, I want to be able to fix it straight away, not wait three weeks for my next session with a coach. But for your people to get the most out of these digital resources, you need to make sure that they understand how to get the most out of their digital learning tools.


What are the disadvantages of digital learning?

Digital learning is not risk-free, especially when used without any other form of learning alongside it.

If you overdo digital learning, people can find it demotivating or fiddly. Even more problematic is engagement: if one of your learners becomes disengaged (or was never engaged to start with) it can be a real challenge to get them back on board without any F2F or virtual learning.

It is also harder to make digital learning specific to the needs of individual learners. We’re all familiar with the frustration of call centres that try to solve our problems with automated responses when we just need to speak to someone for two minutes. This is because the responsiveness of a human is unmatchable.

In order to get the right response from a digital learning tool, you have to ask the question correctly. AI is making exciting leaps in this area, but it’s still not there yet. A skilled facilitator in the room (or on a virtual learning session), however, can ask for further information, use their intuition and guide you to the right answer.

Digital will, without a doubt, continue to grow to be an even bigger part of L&D going forwards, but there is a risk that we overuse digital, automated, learner-led development and try to achieve too much with it.


top tips for HR professionals

Advice to HR professionals in today’s climate

As I said before, now is not the time to take your foot off the L&D pedal. Even with budgetary constraints, it is clear that people will need development if they are going to thrive in the new working environment.

The key, therefore, is getting that development right, and there are three top tips that I would give today:


1. The purpose is always the foundation of any learning and development programme

Before you even think about the whether your L&D should be F2F, virtual or digital, you need to decide the purpose of the programme. If you want to raise awareness of something, that’s going to need a very different approach to instigating behavioural change or technical upskilling.

For example, let’s say you want to improve the personal resilience of your people. Lane4 could run an inspirational, two-hour session that excites your people and starts them asking questions of themselves. But that alone is not going to change long-term behaviours, that takes time and, most often, a solution with a blend of F2F and digitally-enabled learner-led resources.

If you don’t remain laser-focussed on the outcome you want, it’s easy to get wooed by the tech. This is an extremely exciting time in L&D technology and the pandemic has created lots of opportunities for innovations, but that doesn’t mean that switching to the latest e-learning platform alone will help you create the shift in behaviours and performance that you need to see!


2. Consider how comfortable your target population is with different delivery methods

Even if you understand a technology, your learners might not. It’s important not to get too carried away with what’s possible and remember what your people will actually be able to use.

Since we’ve all become so used to Zoom and other software during this lockdown, now may be a great time to start running virtual workshops, but are they ready for VR training? If not, you risk spending a lot of money just to make your colleagues feel queasy.

3. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

If you bet everything on one delivery method, be it a digital learning library or a F2F conference, you risk not achieving the results you expect.

Lane4 sees learning as a journey; it’s not going to be one thing that achieves the desired change, but the accumulation of different experiences and resources. In the past, all of those experiences might have been F2F but today they don’t have to be.

Blended learning is about using each delivery method in the right way. Nothing beats F2F for getting people excited and engaged, but it is digital learning that keeps people coming back to really embed those new skills and behaviours. That’s why I don’t see this pandemic as the end of F2F learning, only a new stage where it works in harmony with newer forms of learning.






Working from home well