Everyone was moved. Yet nobody spoke and no one moved. The longest five minutes passed before one by one, and then group by group, tentative eye contact was refreshed as we crept from the cinema blinking. What we had experienced had affected and touched us individually. The impact deepened with the unfolding realization that it had touched others, touched us all. A good book can have this kind of impact too. Your pace slackens as you reluctantly approach its few remaining paragraphs; you notice yourself loitering a little, ready to receive a double blow. The first comes from the simple act of finishing a book that has lived for a while inside you, as you have lived in it. The second, a softer blow is the disturbance that comes with how it has made you feel and think in a way you may not have felt or thought for a while. You hear yourself say with Kate Croy, in the closing moments of The Wings of the Dove, “we shall never be again as we were”.
Yet we do move on, and surprisingly quickly. The impressions we regarded as indelible and transformative fade, and then evaporate. Other memories are more enduring, however, taking longer to perish. Some years ago I had occasion with others to visit a mass memorial grave. Doing nothing, saying nothing, we stood stunned for a while, just breathing, taking things in. The memory of that event remains vivid. I suspect it is imperishable in a way it could never be if I had just read about it or viewed it on a screen –any screen of any size. Perhaps in part because I was physically present, understanding something of its significance in a visceral unmediated way, it still sits cauterized in my memory. It goes where I go, it won’t go till I do.
Most of us are happy to concede that at some point in our earlier lives a teacher has had a pivotally positive influence on us, making us feel different about ourselves or about the world. Teachers such as these may not be rare exactly but the special ones remain in great demand and are spread far too thinly. Their qualities and sensibilities are also coveted in the world of training. In their absence, we rely on the power of content, delivered through the often-outsourced medium of technology-enabled programmes in the new learning environments – or talent management platforms if you prefer. We endeavour to make up for the absence of any real presence by trying to replicate and simulate the qualities and dispositions we value most in a good teacher or trainer. It is futile and far too late to bemoan the momentum of this phenomenon and the accompanying decline in face-to-face encounters. With digitization and it’s not so distant cousin monetization, there is a growing appetite for even small to medium sized companies to tap into the sophisticated learning and development delivery systems previously the preserve of larger institutions and corporate behemoths. The best of these programmes, though not cheap in themselves, will, as a consequence of economy of scale make face-to-face learning seem expensive. This is not the entire story, perhaps not even the most significant part of it.
You will not be surprised to learn that those with most to gain strategically and financially from the proliferation of elearning initiatives will be its loudest advocates, it’s most extravagant valorizers and the most anxious to smother and smooth over your lingering doubts. Their task will be made easier by the advocacy of powerful voices from academia, business schools and multidisciplinary professional service groups such as Deloitte. However, there are dissenting voices too -coming straight from the heart of this nexus. Recent articles in the Harvard Business Review, from MIT and some lively reaction to a McKinsey Report while not being antagonistic, do draw our urgent attention to some of the most obvious problems associated with the demise in face-to-face encounters as well as to structural limitations and pitfalls of these new modes of learning in a digital age.
The most pertinent challenges in respect of trying to replicate face-to-face coaching and teaching are in relation to the human and to its dynamic contours. It would not be credible to argue against the proposition that every day an enormous and growing number of courses are successfully delivered across a wide spectrum of technical and academic subjects. The growing sophistication of courses and utilization of game technologies in the hands of skilled instructional designers who are ever responsive to the requirements of their savvy clients is destined to grow exponentially as they interface backward and forwards, horizontally and vertically with the seamless corporate silos of big data.
Some courses will be less critical than others will be. Compliance requirements, for instance, will often enough be considered discharged as soon as the on-line course material has been accessed and satisfactorily completed. The box ticked. In many instances, the pragmatic approach of the course designer will be mirrored by that of the respondent. He will recognise that though the ostensible and primary aim of the course is to become sufficiently immersed in the material so as to be adequately familiar with the rationale underpinning the content as well as with the content itself, when in fact, the respondent’s primary (more Darwinian than cynical) goal is to complete the assignment while he tries to anticipate during his approach to the material which elements are most likely to arise as salient questions in the quiz that follows. This is not to say that learning has not occurred or that objectives have not been met. It has and they have but not optimally and probably not nearly in as deeply embedded a manner as the course specification would have you believe.
Practical issues will arise too with regard to the spatial and temporal aspects of learning. The prospect of completing mandatory learning from the home environment can be a daunting one for many. The clutter free setting of a sanitized workspace where the course was conceived and prepared, rarely match a home-office environment riddled by distractions and often encumbered by less than stable internet connectivity. In these circumstances, the focus of the respondent on the task before him or her may be hindered by domestic impediments as well as underlying factors such as any capacity for procrastination, self-deception, cheating, anxiety and even zoning out entirely. The frame-of-mind commensurate with the necessity to arrive at work, office-ready, knowing that a time, a location, a device and often some technical assistance as well as last minute coaching or encouragement is available is more conducive to better outcomes than the scenario depicted above.
All of the above reservations as we have already hinted are overshadowed by the recognition that a respondent does not cease to be human and most essentially a social being when he arrives at work or sits down in a real or in a virtual classroom. The face-to-face encounter of the everyday kind as well as the more discrete engagement we experience during a training session retains all of the potential for deeper engagement and a more qualitatively enriching immersion than all other modes. Nothing that psychologists, neuroscientists and phenomenologists have to tell us supports a reductive view of humanity or justifies an instrumental approach towards work and learning. Critically in face-to-face scenarios the immediate and experiential nature of the event lends itself to exploit inherently dynamic features such as the interaction and instantaneous feedback not only between tutor and learner but the learner also benefits from interaction between tutor and other students as well as his own reaction to other students and exploitable opportunities to construct peer comparisons if so desired. It is also the case that the necessity for the learner to respond in this virtuous and recursive loop means that the very act of formulating and articulating his own response and incorporating in it some anticipation of a response to his own utterance constitutes a valuable part of the experience. This dynamic even a dialogical model of intersubjectivity is itself an exemplar of mankind at his most deeply human; as communicator as learner and even as hermeneut. Added to that, of course, the immediacy and the sense of agency enjoyed by the learner is enhanced by the arena afforded in face-to-face interactions to discover cues and to transmit clues carried in gestures, eye-contact and other elements of body language. Sometimes to laugh too, make others laugh and to enjoy with others the learning experience. Tutors can detect uncertainties, which may otherwise take longer to be uncovered and can convey encouragement, instil confidence, monitor for vulnerabilities or welfare issues and from time to time motivate even inspire the learner.
It goes without saying that promoters of digital learning are getting ever closer through simulations and virtual technologies, through the finessed interrogation of algorithms towards the goal of delivering holistic packages that integrate your Briggs Myers with your captured behaviourals, your KRI deliverables, and your projected elearning outcomes as they endeavour to close that gap further with much-vaunted advances in artificial intelligence. If the time ever comes that this gap is close to being shut, when outcomes are enthralled to process, at the point that artificial intelligence and algorithms gaze longingly into each other’s eyes the need for elearning will have been superseded by more powerful but much simpler induction and existentially restricted orientation packages. But maybe we may have got a little ahead of ourselves, got carried away, taken a wrong turn somewhere and stumbled blinking back into the cinema again. This time, the film we are watching is Bladerunner.