The Holy Grail? How to Make Online Learning as Effective as Face-To-Face Training
How do you learn? By theorising or doing? Seeing or listening? Alone, or in a group? Kinaesthetically? Intrapersonally? The complex web of human learning styles is seemingly endless. So, if we all learn in a different way, we should all undertake to better ourselves independently, in an environment tailored to our personal needs. Right?
In fact, evidence points in the opposite direction. When it comes to learning, variety is key; appealing to different cognitive processes and senses encourages links to be made and memories to be cemented, where they otherwise may not be. And one of the best ways to expand your ways of thinking and learning, and to maximise your capacity to learn, is to do so in a group.
Why Do People Dislike Group Learning?
Group learning is not the most popular learning method by any means. This is especially the case with online or Computer Supported Learning, where, until now, technology has limited the extent to which students can easily collaborate and hold discussions.
Other arguments against group learning are more general. But in fact, these arguments couldn’t make the case in favour of group learning any stronger – and here’s why:
Issue #1: Some people feel they work best alone, or at least feel more comfortable when they are not dependent on other for learning.
If you usually work alone, the variety you gain from a group setting becomes even more valuable. Exposing yourself to different styles of learning can make you more receptive to new skills in the long run. Your brain is like a muscle; it’s important to exercise its different functions to keep it working at maximum capacity. This means working on development using range of media and environments – including small group learning and online learning.
Moreover, widening your awareness of other people’s approaches and perspectives is an essential part of training. Learning from and through peers, rather than from a single source like a textbook or instructor, not only widens the breadth of content but varies the way that learning is presented. Combining learning with interaction and the creation of relationships creates a more stimulating, dynamic and ultimately effective learning experience. There’s no avoiding it; sometimes, other people really will do you good.
Issue #2: Sometimes, people lack essential group-work skills, or slip into ‘free-riding’ off other people’s efforts.
Granted, non-team-players can feel like a frustration when you are trying to accomplish something co-operatively. But this is exactly why group learning is so important: how else do you expect to develop these team-working skills? In the 21st Century workplace, collaboration and communication are more important than ever. Combine this fact with the argument that skills are best consolidated when learners are able to practice and consolidate them through training, as it becomes clear that part of this training must involve group work.
Issue #3: We can’t be expected to all benefit from group learning, because we are all at different ability levels to begin with.
This is one of the greatest myths of all: the idea that, if you’re stuck in a training room with people who know less than you do, you’re not going to benefit at all. But where personal behaviours are concerned, there aren’t many people who would claim to have all the answers – and the best way to learn about different ways of behaving through peers, rather than teachers. Professor Eric Mazur, pioneer of so-called Peer Learning in North American Universities, explains why fellow students can be more effective teachers than the expert: ‘You’re a student and you’ve only recently learned this, so you still know where you got hung up, because it’s not that long ago that you were hung up on that very same thing.’
Learning in groups of mixed ability proved useful for the more able students as well. Mazur found that peer-instructed students, who had been forced to explain and defend their methods of thinking, retained their new knowledge for longer. When learning is truly collaborative, based on discovery and enabling rather than instructing, it doesn’t matter where you or the rest of your group start from; you’ll get out of it what you put in.
‘Finding an online learning experience that replicates the face-to-face interaction you get when you can bounce ideas off others would be the holy grail’ – Richard Holliday, First TransPennine Express
So where does Online learning come into it?
Given the compelling arguments in favour of learning as a small group, it seems that any effort to support learning and development should include group work. Online Collaborative Learning is no exception. Whether the venue is a brick and mortar training room or a webcam-assisted virtual one, the benefits of group learning remain the same.
Until recently, online collaborative learning – often damaged by its association with e-learning -- has not been able to offer the same benefits as group learning in person. We’ve surveyed Learning Development Managers about this – and they told us that ‘finding an online learning experience that replicates the face-to-face interaction you get when you can bounce ideas off others would be the holy grail’.
But the digital revolution that has made collaboration so fundamental to the workplace shouldn’t also be the reason why learning cannot be shared. In fact, when you combine video-conferencing with a range of other digital media, including ongoing forums, you can promote ongoing peer support and sustained collaborative development in a way that the traditional training room can’t match.
We’re living in a social media age, where information is more accessible, and our lives are shared more widely, than ever before. Learning, and in particular online learning, needs to catch up with these trends. We can do this through group learning online.
What are your experiences of group learning and online learning?
5th Wall Online is an interactive group learning tool that for the digital age. Click here to find out more, and follow @Wall5th for latest updates.
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