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Long Live Instructor-Led Learning

By Saul Carliner / March 2009

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In March 2009 the monthly question on ASTD's Learning Circuits blog wonders what training will look like in 2019. Nearly all of the contributors predicted the death of the classroom.

Before you buy it, perhaps I can interest you in some mortgage-backed securities? Consider the case for the death of the classroom to be about as strong as those securities.

For starters, if the best predictor of future performance is past performance, the numbers don't suggest a death anytime soon—unless some jarring event warrants it. Past performance suggests no change in the level of instructor-led training, at least, according to the most recent ASTD State of the Industry Report [1]. Despite a steady climb in the availability of e-learning, the overall percentage of instructor-led training is nearly unchanged: 71.97 percent in 2003 and 70.58 percent in 2008 (the most recent year for which statistics are available). What has changed, though not as significantly as one might expect, is the percentage of instructor-led training offered online, rising from 2.92 percent of all training in 2003 to 6.39 percent in 2008.

For those of you thinking the current recession is the jarring event that will result in a revolution in learning; think again. Although a speaker at Online Educa in Berlin this past December predicted that entire training departments will be obliterated in the recession, that's only likely to happen if the rest of the organizations these departments serve are obliterated. Otherwise, what we have learned from previous recessions is that training receives—on average—equal treatment. That is, if the overall staff of an organization is cut 10 percent, then the training staff is cut 10 percent, as Training magazine reported in 1993 when it analyzed spending on training during the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, and in 2002, when ASTD analyzed spending during that recent recession.

And even if companies cut training, many of the economic stimulus packages being passed by federal governments around the world include large infusions of cash for classroom-based job retraining programs, including those of Canada ($CDN 1.8 billion), China, and the U.S. ($4.6 billion).

So, rather than the death of the traditional classroom, current trends suggest that we will merely see an acceleration of the transfer from the face-to-face to the live virtual classroom as organizations seek to further reduce classroom-related travel expenses, and shorten time out of the office (the live virtual classroom—Webcasting—facilitates both).

More flawed than the analysis of the numbers is the proposition that formal classroom learning will be replaced by informal learning, which will primarily occur online through blogs and social computing tools. Although it sounds exciting at first, and certainly appeals to the emotions, several practical issues—all of which are ignored by the contributors to the ASTD 2019 discussion—limit the likelihood that organizations would primarily rely on informal learning.

I should be clear; I don't have anything against informal learning. The primary claim that informal learning can lead to powerful insights and learning experiences is one that I share. Informal learning was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. But through my research, I also learned that, despite its power, informal learning is flawed, just like its classroom sibling.

One of those flaws is that informal learning is sporadic and, when job-related, often focused on a particular task at hand, rather than the larger context in which that task occurs. As a result, someone might have learned an entire body of knowledge, but has no idea what it is or how the different pieces in that body of knowledge relate to one another and can only leverage that knowledge in a limited way.

Another flaw is that informal learning can be inaccurate. In some cases, it's the learner's fault. Research on reading suggests that people tend to read inaccurately, especially online. So someone might interpret a point incorrectly, or mistakenly remember a fact. (As a result of this lack of credibility, people like President Obama don't rely on blogs [2]).

But sometimes the errors in content result from the publication of erroneous content or opinion that is not properly labeled. The potential for those is high in blogs, which many people cite as an excellent learning resource.

In her qualitative study of people who keep blogs on training and development topics, Kristina Schneider found that few of the bloggers differentiated between fact and opinion; nor did they verify the information they published; nor did the bloggers provide disclaimers about the nature of the content they published [3]. As a result, readers might believe the content they're reading is true when, in fact, there's also a chance that it's not.

Another flaw with informal learning is that people only learn it when they find it or stumble onto it, which might not occur when people actually need the material. In the case of getting to content when they need it, one of the problems with material on the Web is that people do not find it when they need it, or they find material that seems to be appropriate, even when it is not. They might not have assistance in verifying the selection or they might not seek it because they might not appreciate the need.

Similarly, informal learners might need the information, but can only learn when their time permits. Too often, however, the time set aside for learning is interrupted by something more immediate. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why the completion rates for tutorial-style e-learning are often disappointing.

The contributors to the discussion also suggest that social networking tools (also known as Web 2.0) will play an important role in training. But that, too, might be an overstatement.

On one hand, these tools are becoming increasingly pervasive (indeed, the percentage of people with accounts on social networking sites exceeds the number of people with email accounts).

On the other hand, even the experts admit that the numbers merely indicate the quantity of people who have access to these tools; the numbers do not indicate the quality of participation. For learning purposes, it's the latter that matters.

Certainly the quality of use will improve in time, but not if our simplistic understanding of the tools persist. For example, consider the belief that usage of social computing tools varies by age. More specifically, people believe that millennials are more comfortable using social computing differently than baby boomers.

But that might result from the fact that tools like Facebook and MySpace were originally marketed to millennials and did not start marketing to boomers until more recently. (In fact, both of those mega-popular sites kind of kept older people out of them for a while.) The biggest growth in users of these sites is among older folks, so the age differential is not likely to persist.

Indeed, even among millennials, use of computing varies widely. Bennett, Maton, and Kervin [4] reported last summer in the British Journal of Educational Technology that:

. . . researchers found, however, that only a minority of the students (around 21%) were engaged in creating their own content and multimedia for the Web, and that a significant proportion of students had lower level skills than might be expected.

Research suggests that gender might play a more significant role than age in the use of online media. The same article reported that games are more popular among males than females [4], and a 2008 Pew Internet and American Life Survey found that teenaged girls were far more likely to blog than boys [5]. (For what it's worth, a 2006 study found that males and females were about equally likely to download porn on the job (but that's another issue altogether [6]).

In other words, not only does social computing take a variety of forms, but different people respond differently to each of them. In practical terms, that means that no single social computing tool is likely to meet every organization's learning needs. And those of us who want to promote the adoption of e-learning should recognize this fact and use it to advise our clients.

Furthermore, although social networking is available online, perceptions suggest that the social networking available in face-to-face contexts like the classroom is still considered superior. For example, experts on business networking sites like LinkedIn advise people to schedule in-person meetings [7].

If instructor-led learning is not going away, what is the fate for informal learning and e-learning? Perhaps the model might come from a training program that a colleague told me about during a recent lunch. His organization—a public foundation that is the primary source of funding for more than 300 nonprofits in the metropolitan area in which he lives—offers year-long training on program evaluation to its constituent agencies, so that they can demonstrate what impact the funded programs are having in ways that will be meaningful.

The program consists of instructor-led learning to introduce the principles of evaluation and guidance in writing an evaluation plan, followed by individual assignments in which participants develop their own evaluation plans. Mentors review the plans before they're implemented, and the cohort of classmates provides guidance to one another during the rest of the year, when participants implement their revised evaluation plans and prepare reports. This support can be provided online.

Occasional instructor-led sessions prepare learners for milestone events, like writing reports. Additional support can be provided between sessions online.

But one question still nags; if the evidence suggests that instructor-led instruction still has a long, healthy life (whether in the classroom or online), why do bloggers continue to insist that its death is imminent?

The Schneider study mentioned earlier offers some clues. Of the five bloggers she studied in depth, none had attended a day of training in the past year. Most went to conferences but when doing so, most reported that they didn't attend sessions; they merely networked [3]. Perhaps they feel that, if informal learning through blogging works for them, it works for everyone.

The evidence, however, suggests otherwise.

[1] Paradise, A. ASTD State of the Industry Report. ASTD Press, Alexandria, VA.
[2] Cooper, H. and Stolberg, S. G. Obama ponders outreach to elements of Taliban. New York Times (Mar. 8, 2009);
[3] Schneider, K. A Qualitative Study of Five Authors of Five Blogs on Training and Development. Master's thesis. Concordia University. Montreal, QC, 2008.
[4] Bennett, S. Maton, K, and Kervin, L. The 'digital natives' debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology 39, 5 (2008), 775-786.
[5] Montgomery, S. Girl bloggers rise in numbers, could help narrow tech gender divide. The Canadian Press. (Mar. 19, 2008).
[6] Armstrong, M. Porn on the job: Report on the inappropriate use of information technology in the workplace. Global National (broadcast Saturday, May 27, 2006).
[7] Kent, C. How and why to grow your LinkedIn network. The Ragan Report (2008);

About the Author
Saul Carliner is an associate professor with the graduate program in educational technology at Concordia University in Montreal. He has published several books on e-learning, including The E-Learning Handbook (with Patti Shank) and Advanced Web-Based Training (with Margaret Driscoll). He is a certified training and development professional, serves on the Board of the Canadian Society for Training and Development, is a past research fellow of the American Society for Training and Development, and is a fellow and past international president of the Society for Technical Communication. He can be reached at [email protected].

©2009 ACM

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2009 ACM, Inc.


  • Wed, 29 Apr 2009
    Post by Saul Carliner

    Janet, Thanks for your comments. You did not need to disclose your participation in the Schneider study, but I appreciate that you did. As far as labeling the nature of the content in a blog goes: You commented "Of course at this point I''m all like, WTF? Erroneous? Opinion? It''s a blog! It''s where I learn. Gosh, I''m not an investigative journalist." On the one hand, it''s great that you share what you learn with others. The big issue is, it''s also important to label it as readers often don''t distinguish one type of content from another. It''s typical in more traditional situations. Certainly the image of the newspaper columnists comes to mind. In the North American journalistic tradition, opinion is reserved for the opinion pages and for columnists. They''re still held to the same standards of accuracy, but are allowed to add their opinion to the content. Similarly, in traditional situations, we often indicate when people are learning. For example, when someone is a student teacher, everyone knows it. (They usually introduce the person as "The student teacher.") Most concientious retailers indicate that a worker is in training with an "I''m in Training" button or something similar. So let''s label the content for what it is. Why is this important? It''s certainly not that one source is perfect and the other is crap. Admittedly, the traditional media wants to jump all over inaccuracies in the new media. Canada''s CTV network is reporting "Swine flu allows Twitter to show its power to mislead" today. The truth be told, traditional media make their share of mistakes, too. Earlier this week, the New York Times this week reported how an investigative journalist at ABC didn''t dig far enough on sources for a 2007 story on torture. What''s different are the expectations. A moderately savvy information consumer would, at the least, have realized that the Twitter information is opinion and, as a result, tak different types of standards.

  • Wed, 29 Apr 2009
    Post by Janet Clarey

    Argh. Once again the comment publishes without the original punctuation making me look less than credible. You guys need a comment-friendly platform. Although it''s friendly to others so may it''s just me...

  • Wed, 29 Apr 2009
    Post by Janet Clarey

    Dr. Sarliner Thanks for the additional information. My initial reaction (regrettably) was a rant and I agree that the salad analogy was comical. My apologies. Perhaps I can explain a bit more about my reaction if you're up for reading any more from me. I started reading your article and right away see a statement that nearly all ASTD Learning Circuits blog contributors predicted the death of the classroom by 2019. That immediately makes me think, reallyý OK, whatever, I didn't analyze them and I brace for a criticism of bloggers. You made your case against the 'death' predictions based on (1) ASTDs State of the Industry Report, and (2) past performance indicators. You predicted an acceleration of the transfer from the face-to-face classroom to the live virtual classroom. I agree. You then went on to make your case against the assertion that formal classroom learning will be replaced by informal learning (you named blogs and social computing tools as the media) based on several informal learning flaws the Learning Circuit blog contributors missed. The first flaw you mentioned was that informal learning is sporadic (leaving people to leverage knowledge in a limited way). The second flaw is that informal learning can be inaccurate (sometimes because people read inaccurately online or because the information lacks credibility (and you specifically point to blogs). At this point I?m getting a little defensive and agree with those flaws. So now the criticism of blogs starts ? erroneous content, opinion not labeled as opinion, not verifying information, lack of disclaimers, getting the right information at the right time, etc. and some of it is based on Kristina Schneider's Master's Thesis. Big disclosure here: I?m one of the five subjects she studied. Of course at this point I'm all like, WTFý Erroneousý Opinioný It?s a blog! It's where I learn. Gosh, I?m not an investigative journalist. I?m totally with you on generational stuff. And, the idea that social media is overstated may be true. I also agree that social media is not for everyone and there?s no one tool to meet every need (good heavens!). I can?t think of anyone that takes that position. The classroom is better for some things. It?s never going away IMHO. Your example from the public foundation was a wonderful example of how to use the best of f2f and the best of online learning. I guess the kicker and trigger for my rant was the last bit: why do bloggers continue to insist that its death is imminentý Of the five bloggers (Schneider) studied in depth, none had attended a day of training in the past year. Perhaps they feel that, if informal learning through blogging works for them, it works for everyone. Perhaps the training question was just poorly written. I'm a PhD student at Syracuse University certainly the 10-15 hours I spending researching and studying gives me a pass on "training." On a final note, nothing has contributed to my professional growth more than blogging. I?ve learned so much, benefited from the wisdom of others, laughed, made friends, and experienced the benefits of deep reflection. I've done that by putting my ideas and opinions "out there." I would be surprised if you didn?t find erroneous information and opinion. I don't think you can understand the power of blogging as a learning tool for some people without understanding that it?s often a platform for publishing ideas and opinions. If I wanted to publish peer reviewed content, I?d do that in a journal. I hope that further explains my position. you have a blogý

  • Sun, 12 Apr 2009
    Post by Clark Quinn

    While others have pointed out that the purported call for the death of formal doesn''t really exist, I wish to raise a different point. There clearly is a role for formal, as well as a role for informal and performance support as well. What I think this post misses, however, is an acknowledgment that most formal training is severely broken: knowledge, not skill focused; unengaging; and massed instead of distributed - in short, not very effective. Classroom instruction isn''t a particular good model of formal learning to tout! Let''s improve formal and acknowledge that we also need to incorporate informal and more. BTW, I blog *and* I have a PhD :).

  • Sun, 29 Mar 2009
    Post by Harold Jarche

    "Nearly all of the contributors predicted the death of the classroom." They did? Which ones? I''m still sifting through the +30 responses to find just one person who said that. As they say on Wikipedia, "Citation needed".

  • Sun, 29 Mar 2009
    Post by Janet Clarey

    My opinion is that your evidence is weak. Although you''ve used citations, I will assume this article is opinion since it''s an article in a non peer-reviewed online publication that accepts comments (sounds like a blog to me). I''ve done something similar in the past. I''d have to ditto the sample size issue mentioned by Mark Oehlert in response to the referenced Master thesis. It seems irresponsible to rely on such a small sample size to the extent you have. I sat on a bloggers panel with Ms. Schneider in 2008 and had the pleasure of reading her Master''s thesis (from Concordia University where you were her thesis advisor). I''ve gone on to have numerous conversations with her. But five people among tens of thousands? It made me think of the five people in my house tonight. Four of them wanted cheeseburgers and only one wanted a salad. So long live the cheeseburger. That salad thing is certainly a fad. I don''t see where you''ve mentioned blended learning - supplementing ILT with informal learning. I think there''s another layer to the story behind the ASTD numbers as it relates to ILT and informal learning support by social learning technology. One can rarely separate formal and informal channels of delivery in the current environment. It also seems to me that you''re meshing research, mass media reporting, studies of student learning, teenager''s use of social media for personal use, and adult learning. Your entire argument grows from Learning Circuits blog "Workplace Learning in 10 Years" big question of the month. I wonder where your detailed analysis of that is. It would be nice to see a detailed analysis of those working in adult corporate education along with the ASTD State of the Industry report. Lastly, I have to wonder how this article impacts your 2009 predictions published in this same magazine just two months ago. Seems you''re calling for an increase in e-learning, especially experimentation with creative approaches. As organizations try to stretch their learning budgets in hard times, e-learning will become an attractive option. For some organizations, a basic transfer of content from classroom to online will suffice. For others who are concerned that students are actually learning, experimentation with creative approaches to e-learning might occur. In addition, organizations will use the bad economy to assess the costs and benefits of their enterprise technology - and might make changes if they feel costs exceed benefits. —Saul Carliner, Graduate Program in Educational Technology, Concordia University, Canada

  • Sun, 29 Mar 2009
    Post by mark oehlert I am very much still working thru all this including Tony Karrer''s reply but I had an initial question re the number of blogs/bloggers sampled in the thesis cited. Having written a Master''s thesis myself - granted in history and not in ed tech - I would think that 5 would not be a sufficient sample size from which we could extrapolate truly accurate or relative results for a community (edubloggers)that numbers in the hundreds if not thousands.

  • Fri, 27 Mar 2009
    Post by Jenny Mason

    A very interesting article. Can we have more of the same please?

  • Wed, 27 Sep 2006
    Post by Helene Schulz

    I am doing a research paper on podcasting. It is very interesting.

  • Sun, 06 Aug 2006
    Post by Felix Ram

    This would have to be one of the best ideas I have heard in a very long while - I will certainly try it out. Thank you

  • Thu, 03 Aug 2006
    Post by Heidi Sorrell

    Excellent info, I will check this out.

  • Fri, 14 Jul 2006
    Post by Martijn de Graaf

    I''m now doing research at some company and I commute for 4 hours everyday. I listen to podcasts and they are just not at my level. Not precise enough for my field. But I need to read alot while commuting but that isnt possible so this could be a good idea... ill try it! Thanks

  • Fri, 07 Jul 2006
    Post by Gill Fenton

    Are you serious? It is one thing listenting to the Da Vinci codes while turning the M1 to grey dust in your Jag - Attempting to study (I do an 80m round journeydaily) will, I believe, ensure you arrive at work tired and stressed.

  • Wed, 28 Jun 2006
    Post by Harriett Fredson-Cole

    Definately worth the effort. I have a 90 minute round trip commute daily!!!