Is this the end of classroom training?

I was asked this question by a participant in an LPI Open Clinic session last week. (It’s a great format if anyone is thinking of hosting or participating: a themed session, open questions with one host and one lead speaker and a very lively and open chat room). 

So, to the question: Is this the end of classroom training? I don’t know. Of course I don’t. Nobody knows yet (beware of those who claim they do). I doubt it is entirely the end though. The design and creation of classroom events is such a powerful impulse in L&D, it will take longer than this to subside. More importantly perhaps, classroom events are popular. In general, people like going to them (efficacy aside) and L&D functions really like putting them on (efficacy aside). They will be rare in the future, though. Safety and economics demand that they be much fewer and further between now and will need a stronger evidence base for selection as part of a future design, or they should.

From the conversation during the drop in session, it feels like the industry is suffering a crisis of identity. If not a classroom trainer/leader/facilitator, then what am I? What is it that I make and do now and how will people know I have made and done it? If ‘helping people learn’ remains the answer and ‘teaching’ is removed from the equation, do the variables still add up?

In my experience, the L&D world has always struggled with a view of digital tools as substitutes for the classroom. That teaching-in-the-room-impulse has a tendency to create a false view that anything that is not a classroom still has to fulfill the role and experience of being in one. When classrooms were open, this was a misconception of the value of digital. Now that they are closed, that misconception remains. Digital services should not be designed and created to fill the classroom gap but to create value in a different way. Being in any room with other people is a sorely missed experience in our socially constrained times and we are realising how effective digital experiences can and can’t be in replacing that. 

During the drop-in conversation, I suggested that the question is the wrong one to ask. A more valuable line of enquiry might be reframing and recreating the relationships we have with our audiences. This framing brings in the opportunities that digital has always afforded but not as substitutes of face-to-face but as having their own intrinsic merits. The relationship is no longer classroom centred or event first but relies on other points of contact and routes for communication. Crucially, the relationship can take place in many ways, at many times and with more people. Coaching and guidance are central but not only revealed as facilitation of an event.

A new digital learning service (not a department or function but a genuine service) can be liberated from projects and programmes and the fleeting relationship of the classroom, to encompass an enduring and responsive relationship over time. This requires us to get much better at gathering and responding to signals of needs and progress through a range of channels and tools for feedback and communication. 

Being able to read the room and design the experience on the fly is the great and unscalable benefit of the classroom. Developing asynchronous relationships over time via a range of digital tools is a different and valuable response to it’s loss. Over time (vaccines permitting) the classroom will become one of those feedback and communication channels – one of many. Arguably, we might find ourselves liberated from the singular constraints of the classroom experience. An organisation that sees the variety of touch points as ways of getting to know people, not just processing them, will start to gather a powerful body of evidence about those people, how they are getting on and what they need.  

With a proper focus on digital behaviour analysis and data, a far richer picture of an individual can be painted. This will take us beyond the boundaries of learning systems and require us to treat learning evidence as one part of the people puzzle. This is a genuinely difficult challenge. It will take time and effort. The foundations of offering a learning service beyond the transactions of bookings, attendance and completion are built here though. We need to use these data sources to get to know individuals and respond to them as they change. If we are to continue to look to the marketing world for guidance, this is where we should look: individual relationships at scale.

The risk is that the profession becomes the black cab driver of the learning world, fretting about amateurish Uber drivers who have not had to ‘do the Knowledge’. Meanwhile, consumer behaviour has moved on, embraced ride sharing and other problems need to be solved in other ways.


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