The disaster could have been avoided. The night before the space shuttle Challenger launch, Thiokol engineers expressed their concern about the O-rings’ failure in cold temperatures and recommended postponing the launch. The delay was opposed, and the Challenger took off, on its way to disaster.

The Challenger shuttle crew of seven astronauts included Sharon Christa McAuliffe, an American teacher who became an astronaut after being selected from more than 11,000 applicants to participate in the NASA Teacher in Space Project. McAuliffe earned her bachelor’s degree in education and history from Framingham State College in 1970 and her master’s degree in education, supervision and administration from Bowie State University in 1978. Terrence McGuire, NASA’s consulting psychiatrist, told the Los Angeles Times that “she was the most broad-based, best-balanced person of the 10” finalists.

The astronauts lived together in space training for one year. McAuliffe was a member of the STS-51-L crew. She conducted experiments with them, and they mentored her.

Why was this ordinary history teacher chosen the first teacher in space? Because the Challenger crew — Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik — used technology with instructor-led training (ILT). Blended learning became their norm rather than relying on technology alone.

In a recent article, Justin Brusino, director of content at the Association for Talent Development (ATD), wrote that “the element that ties all the technology together is people.” Unfortunately, over the past 10 years, there has been a surge to overuse digital learning tools, like e-learning, and replace ILT, leaving companies without improved performance on the job.

McAuliffe probably (according to this article on astronaut training) had to learn how to sleep through several sunrises every night, see flashing lights with her eyes closed and “dodge sweat balls.” During training, she likely had to walk under water for an entire day at a time and swim laps in her flight suit. She could not have learned those skills online or without human connection. In the face of such challenging exercises, she would likely have felt isolated or even lost her motivation for going to space.

Instead, she was mentored by her co-astronauts. They lived together. They shared stories, making their training relatable to their ultimate mission. They participated in simulated space activities. In person — together — they were able to track each other’s progress for feedback and evaluation. They engaged in discussions while brainstorming potential problems and solutions. They did not talk with artificial intelligence; they had a forum of real people. They accidently touched each other’s arms, made eye contact and smiled.

One of the biggest advantages of ILT is that learners can interact and ask questions face to face, and instructors can adapt their lesson plans on the spot to fit the needs and personalities of their students. McAuliffe was likely highly engaged with her instructors, because they likely gave her more attention than a computer could give her. Becoming an astronaut is a complex skill, and ILT and peer learning was the best approach to McAuliffe’s success.

No doubt, in 2020, we will continue to use virtual reality simulations, interactive videos, mobile learning, gamification and other technology. But consider these benefits and decide whether face-to-face, instructor-led training is the right fit for your learners:

  • The classroom has fewer distractions than a learner’s office.
  • ILT is about personal interaction.
  • In my experience, ILT improves retention of knowledge and skills, providing an immediate return on investment.
  • ILT enables learners to practice new skills immediately, with an instructor available for troubleshooting,
  • ILT is adaptable to all skill levels.
  • ILT provides the opportunity for follow-up questions with more dialogue.
  • ILT builds closer relationships within an organization.
  • ILT enables participants to learn from each other, not just the instructor.