Some reflections on hybrid learning approaches as L&D teams start rushing back towards face-to-face offline learning delivery

The Joys of Travel

I did a rare in-person day of executive education this week, after 2 years of exclusively online teaching. It required three flights and about 3 hours in taxis, plus all of the usual airport and flight delay joys. But it was great to have a real dialogue with people in the same room (and it was a really smart cohort from an exciting high-growth firm). OTOH, the AV tech was poor and I missed the online exercises, simulations and Mural canvases that let people get into deeper collaboration than just talking around a flip chart. Pros and cons, eh.

From talking to the programme management team, it seems many Learning & Development ‘buyers’ are now keen to make everything face-to-face, on-site and real-time after an enforced period of online-only modes. And yet, as Harvard Business Review recently suggested, the evidence that in-person works best is not compelling:

There is something sneaky about this [myth]. If they were being honest, most people who repeat this myth don’t care all that much about learning effectiveness — they just want to bring people physically together, and “learning” seems like a solid justification. However, the idea that learning is more effective in person is demonstrably false. In fact, because it rarely affords opportunities for meaningful practice and feedback, in-person learning often is less impactful than well-designed virtual live learning and eLearning.

Learning in the flow of work

In the past two years, I have helped design, run or teach on programmes in South Africa, Germany, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, India, Singapore, and Japan, among others. Some of these were short interventions, but several involved 16-32 hours of teaching. Pre-pandemic, these would typically have involved 2-4 back-to-back full days plus travel, but instead they were divided up into a series of regular 3-4 hour sessions across several weeks.

We have talked about continuous learning at work for many years, but the default approach has generally been to take people out of their work context, put them in a hotel ballroom or similar, and subject them to full days of teaching, before sending them back to work. But with online teaching, we typically schedule a few hours at the start of one day in the week to inject a shot of information, inspiration and interaction around a learning topic, and then the rest of the week allows time to reflect, digest, and read further, before following up and starting the next topic. Getting a window into peoples’ real world mornings has been a genuine pleasure. Lots of chatter, greetings, and coffee, before we dive into a topic and some online collaboration exercises for a decent amount of time; and then people get on with their working day. Sure, for me this often meant 5am starts depending on the time zone, but then I don’t need to spend the rest of the day worsening my carbon footprint and eating bad food. We were also able to develop pretty good relationships and mutual understanding over the course of several sessions, and this provided more opportunity to refine and improve the learning content between times; interestingly, we also had more one-to-ones to address specific challenges or areas of practice. For the ‘teaching’ part of learning, and also for reinforcement exercises, group work and collaboration, this way of working is quite clearly superior in almost all respects to day-long face-to-face sessions. And a lot of my teaching is geared towards giving leaders the confidence and motivation to engage constructively with online collaboration, so this mode of teaching is also about imparting practical online skills that they can take into their work. You can’t do that with flip charts and post-it notes. But what of hoooman interaaaction I hear you cry?! Much as I enjoy studying hotel breakfast buffet behaviours – a fascinating insight into the behavioural economics of ‘free’ resources (I only take espresso, but I have a daughter who is God-tier in buffet optimisation strategies) – the majority of face time in these situations is not massively interactive. There are some great reasons for a learning cohort to meet up. Walking and talking, building relationships, workshops and other discursive exercises, for example; but also just socialising, dinner conversations and having fun. However, trying to cram the learning, interaction and reflection into the same face-to-face event can sometimes fall short on all fronts. It is also exhausting and expensive, and hard to scale rapidly. For younger people and emerging leaders, learning and development is becoming a key factor in deciding where to invest their career time and effort, so the learning experience is an important retention factor, but also the speed and availability of learning opportunities.

EdTech, Hybrid & Personal Learning

So what is the optimum combination of self-directed online learning, live group-based online learning, face-to-face events, personal reading, tests and other elements?
I think it depends on the need, cohort type/size and geographical distribution, among other factors. Some of my colleagues have designed a brilliant global programme for emerging leaders in an international tech firm that has bursts of online live events with a regional get-together in the middle, but where the locus is still online and collaborative, using canvases and tools that have retained value for the learner beyond the programme. But YMMV, and there will be other combinations that work for different needs and budgets. There was a huge boom in EdTech during the pandemic, with Europe, India and Asia seeing rapid growth. The market is inevitably softening slightly, and there will be a shake-out as not all venture-funded startups will achieve traction. But at a minimum, this area offers a lot of new options for L&D teams in terms of the self-directed portion, and in some cases platforms for live learning as well. I hope the next phase will involve much closer integration and alignment with core work platforms so that individuals and teams can plot the capabilities they need, and then access their preferred combination of learning modes and content – within the flow and context of their work – to develop them. As with hybrid working more broadly, we should not be using new technology platforms to recreate a digital simulacrum of old ways of working or learning, which is where the whole VR/Metaverse trend is stuck today, but thinking from first principles about how to accelerate learning and digital capability development that meets the pressing needs of companies trying to transform, and new emerging leaders trying to get to grips with that challenge.

Photo by Heather Ford on Unsplash