One of my university lecturers used to say, “Always define what you mean before you start to discuss something, or else you will find yourself potentially arguing at cross-purposes with someone using a different definition.” In this case, there are multiple working definitions we need.

What Is Face-to-Face and Distance Learning?

Face-to-face lectures can be defined narrowly, as the physical, rather than online, presence of both the lecturer and the student(s); more broadly, in the sense that live Skype and Facetime sessions are both face-to-face; or very broadly, as a recorded lecturer is still face-to-face in a distant sense. Distance learning is defined here as all remote learning methods – from searching the internet to learning from Excel or slides, sometimes accompanied by voiceover.

The distinction is not entirely watertight – on which side of the divide should we put live lectures delivered by podcast, for example? – but it is a valuable one, not least because training companies and universities are now lining up on each, but rarely both, sides of this digital divide. On the one hand are those who have put considerable effort into designing, marketing and delivering distance learning courses that have worldwide appeal, usually through learning management systems. Training companies and universities frequently work together to present these courses, which can range from simple games to large amounts of content split into modules and delivered over many weeks.

What Is “A Thing of the Past”?

Is face-to-face training a thing of the past? If by “a thing of the past,” we mean, “It used to happen, but it does not any longer,” then clearly, the answer is no. Face-to-face learning still forms the overwhelming majority of lectures worldwide. The percentage is skewed by schools and colleges, where they remain the almost exclusive method of education. But even for corporate finance training, for example, both graduate training and specialist training companies deliver the vast majority of their courses the way they always have: face-to-face, with the trainer and the learners in the same room.

All the frequently-cited advantages of real-time learning apply: the ability of the learners to ask questions and receive answers on the spot; the benefits of interaction with not only the trainer but with each other in real time; the ability of a skillful trainer to divert down alleyways and byways at the behest of the learners without losing the main plot; and even the ambience of the course itself, as learning works best, everyone agrees, when it is enjoyable and memorable. Distance learning has made limited inroads into conventional kind of face-to-face training, but for the time being, the balance between the two seems to have stabilized.

Given the same or very similar course outlines, employees with immediate training needs, whether they’re locally based or have the ability to take a few days away from the office, will normally opt for face-to-face training. Those without those advantages, or, more rarely, those who actually prefer to learn at a distance, will opt for distance learning. Some data-heavy topics, too, such as regulation, are more amenable to distance learning than others, especially when it comes the acquisition of techniques such as financial modeling.

A Wider View

Open up the definition of “face-to-face” to include live and recorded webinars, and it is even more evident that face-to-face training is not dead. Quite the contrary, the webinar has the potential to incorporate the advantages of both physical and online training. Where bandwidth permits, learners can interact as freely as they can when assembled together, while geographical boundaries and all the associated problems of travel are dismissed with the flick of a switch. Millennials accustomed to face-to-face life online find webinars intuitively logical. Moreover, technology enables live webinars to be recorded, preserving the experience for future use. Distance learning, by comparison, can feel old-fashioned and stolid and has a place only when large quantities of information must be transmitted to the learner, and live reading is a slow, inefficient and expensive method of transmitting knowledge.

The conclusion seems clear: Face-to-face learning is here to stay, but its definition should be wide, not narrow.

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