Monday, February 12, 2018

Let's talk digital and face to face

Rachel Burnham writes: Every now and then I come across an article, in my experience from someone involved in face to face learning programmes, who seems to feel the need to make the case for the value of face to face learning opportunities, and who seems to think that ‘people’ (I am not sure who – it never seems to be that clear), are arguing that face to face learning opportunities are out of date and should be replaced by digital solutions.  There always seem to be a number of these articles in the wake of events, such as last week’s Learning Technologies Conference and Exhibition – or perhaps it is just that I notice them more after this immersion in the world of digital?

And from time to time, I read or hear from an L&D professional, who says ‘But learners prefer face to face’ again as though, the argument is simply face to face or digital – ‘one or the other’ and that someone is threatening that face to face delivery mode and is threatening classroom training.

Different tools for different jobs

My background originally was also in face to face delivery – I imagine that that is true for a great many of us in L&D, particularly of a certain age.   I own that I enjoy working with a group of people face to face and I think it can have huge value. But I also now make use of digital technologies to support learning – both for myself and the people I work with – whether through webinars, Virtual Learning Environments, Twitter Chats, curation of digital resources, on online forums and VR.

I personally prefer not to use the language of ‘classroom’ or ‘teaching’ – too many people have had bad experiences of school and formal education and in any case we, in L&D, are not in the business of education, but as I have argued on many other occasions ‘learning and performance’.

I think that this is an un-needed defence of face to face.  I am not sure that a strong case is being made anywhere that face to face learning opportunities aren’t needed at all or have no place in learning for the future, though we need to reduce the over-reliance on this – all the evidence is that face to face modes of delivery are very much in use in organisations and will continue to have a place in the future – but organisations, if they aren’t already doing so, need to be making much more effective use of digital technologies, combined with and as alternatives to face to face learning opportunities.   This has been the evidence from repeated Towards Maturity benchmarking surveys. 

Face to face learning opportunities and digital learning opportunities are not in opposition – are not either or.

Now the form of the face to face learning opportunities may well need to change.   Content dumping, 'talk from the front' dominated approaches to delivery are not effective – there are years of research into cognitive psychology – spaced & retrieval practice for example, years of experience of practitioners using interactive methods and new emphasis on social learning from peers and impactful experiences that all point to very different approaches to learning that do work and lead to application in the workplace.  The extent to which these face to face learning opportunities need to be ‘organised’ by L&D is in debate and up for discussion.  

And much digital learning needs to change as well.  Traditional approaches to e-learning are being challenged too and there are great examples of much more effective use of digital technologies to enable learning and support performance.

So, please let’s stop talking as though it is one or the other.   We need to move on from this.  

I think it is all about using the right approach in the right situation.  One of my favourite points from this year’s Learning Technologies, was hearing John Fecci, from VR Learning Studio, talking about the value of VR in learning and making the point that it is right in some situations and not in others.  He used a very effective analogy and compared VR to using a microwave in cooking – great for many things but ‘you wouldn’t use it to make toast or do a roast’.   

I think this is a super analogy, with wider application across the choices we need to make about modes of delivery in L&D.      For example, I love cooking on an open-fire – it’s a real experience – I have such strong memories as a child of making fires to cook over, on holiday outside the cottage we rented in Torridon, on the west coast of Scotland.  It was a whole day experience – in the morning, we children were sent out to scour the countryside and foreshore for firewood.   We made soup in a cauldron – always known as ‘witches-brew’ and cooked pancakes/scones on a griddle – we called them ‘crannogs’.  I can see the view of the loch now, the mountains opposite shrouded in mist, smell the woodsmoke and taste the slightly burnt, slight undercooked ‘crannogs’ with butter and raspberry jam – I have a distinct sense of sticky fingers.   It had a huge impact on me.  It was deeply memorable.   I can still cook ‘crannogs’ should they be needed (perhaps something for a future #LnDCoWork Manchester or maybe not?!).  But I don’t want to cook over an open fire, every time I need to satisfy my hunger at lunchtime!

This afternoon, I have an afternoon of gardening planned with a friend.  We will use the right tool for the right job – I have no intention of cutting a lawn with a pair of scissors.  Scissors are great tools, but they aren’t really scalable for a large lawn!   Nor are they great for cutting back ivy up a wall or a climber smothering a pergola.  

Face to face and digital are not in opposition.   Just different tools for different tasks – often best used in combination.  So, let’s celebrate what face to face has to offer and explore the full potential of digital.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I do this through: writing & design commissions; facilitating learning to update knowhow, 1:1 and bespoke ‘train the trainer’ programmes; and the use of Sketchnoting to facilitate learning.


  1. Totally agree that F2F and online (in all it's forms) are just 'channels' for facilitating learning. I really like the microwave v open fire analogy but I use an analogy from marketing. If a marketeer came to you and suggested TV advertising as the only solution to market your new product you'd be very wary. Most marketeers would explore your needs and suggest a mix of different channels to meet your objectives and budget. Learning interventions are no different.

  2. Thank you for this, John. That is a very helpful analogy - thank you for sharing.