CMP Series

How Online Learning Is Changing the Face of Face-to-Face

Online learning or face-to-face? Increasingly, the answer is ‘both.’ Here's how new technologies and mindsets are changing the face of education.

Online learning isn’t new. In 1960, when a single computer could still fill up a whole room, the University of Illinois launched PLATO — Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations — a computer system that offered 20 lessons at a time.

What is new is that the technology that makes online learning both dramatically more efficient and less expensive — not to mention more mobile — has reached a tipping point, according to Jeff Cobb, a consultant and author who has worked in e-learning for two decades. Technological advances like cloud-based computing, expanded Internet access, the proliferation of mobile devices, new open-source platforms, and social-networking tools are all converging to create a revolution in electronically delivered education.

Evidence of online learning’s accelerating influence is everywhere. The nonprofit Khan Academy, created in 2008 after financial analyst Salman Khan began posting YouTube videos to help tutor his extended family, offers nearly 5,000 free instructional videos for learners at all levels, and has 8 million global users each month. Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun launched Udacity, an online platform that offers free classes on a massive scale, in 2013, after he and another professor opened their Stanford course on artificial intelligence to whoever wanted to participate virtually and drew 160,000 enrollees from 180 countries. And Coursera, another startup that offers free online classes on a global scale (known as MOOCs — massive open online courses), has more than 100 partners, including the U.S. State Department and China, and has enrolled more than 5 million students over the last two years.

The revolution isn’t limited to institutions and well-funded startups. EdX, a nonprofit online education network founded by Harvard University and MIT, and Google have announced that next year they will jointly launch a global open-source platform that will be available to individuals, businesses, and organizations. “We are at the point at which nearly anyone with a decent computer, a high-speed Internet connection, and expertise or access to expertise in a topic or skill can reach a global audience in very sophisticated ways,” Cobb writes in his 2013 book, Leading the Learning Revolution: The Expert’s Guide to Capitalizing on the Exploding Lifelong Education Market. Organizations that dismiss online learning as inferior “do so at their own peril,” Cobb notes. “The caliber and range of the content available is truly astounding.”

‘Sustaining and Raising Value’

How scared should meeting professionals be? It depends on how focused they are on delivering value, Cobb said in an interview. “People tend to go to conferences for education.” Although there are other factors like networking that have intrinsic value, “still, you pay a lot of money and spend quite a bit of time to go to your average conference,” Cobb said. “And I know with my own experience with conferences, a lot of times you just do not walk away feeling like the educational impact was necessarily all that solid.”

And as the quality of free and low-cost online education has grown, the balance is shifting. “If there is a question in somebody’s mind about whether the value is really there,” Cobb said, “I think [potential attendees] increasingly are going to look at online options…. I think if conference providers aren’t really focused on sustaining and raising value, they’ll be hit.”

I think if conference providers aren’t really focused on sustaining and raising value, they’ll be hit.

Many organizers have recognized the need to adapt to the changed environment, he said. “They really are focusing on the question of, how do we make the level of learning that occurs in our conferences higher than it has been in the past?” But associations and other organizations that produce meetings can be “terrible” at conveying the value of the learning and education that they’re going to provide. “They will send out email promotions,” Cobb said, but not messages that clearly articulate the conference learning experience.

Emotion also can shift the balance back to the personal. “Human nature isn’t suddenly going to change,” Cobb said. “There are certain people I want to see that make it worth it for me to get on the plane and go to the conference. And I will get some great education while I’m there, I’ll network. That will continue to happen, because people like to do that.”

The Overlap

One of the paradoxes of online communication is that it tends to emphasize the value of face-to-face interaction. As social-media tools have expanded our personal and professional networks, they’ve led to new ways for people to collaborate and associate with one another — including in person, Clay Shirky, a professor in the interactive communications and journalism program at New York University, said in a talk he delivered at the CEIR Predict conference in New York City in September.

A prime example of this happened during Thrun’s original artificial-intelligence class, which made no provisions for online students to interact with one another. “Students knew that this was a completely terrible model,” Shirky said, “because learning artificial intelligence is hard, and the way that people learn is in conversation, not just by absorbing information.” So students turned to an online tool, Meetup, to form their own in-person study groups. One such gathering in New York City drew 168 people, which was more than the number of students enrolled in any artificial-intelligence class on any college campus at that time, Shirky said. “This is what it means to care about face-to-face.”

Both the online and physical world were needed for success. While the students wouldn’t have gotten together without the online class, they also wouldn’t have performed as well in the class if all they’d done were meet online. “The core problem,” Shirky said, “is to figure out how face-to-face overlaps with information delivery.”

For example, the social-networking tools that have increased the ability for people to add their own opinions and content to online forums have also created new expectations for interaction — not just in the digital space, but in physical environments. Carol McGury, senior vice president of event and education services at SmithBucklin, has been in the industry for 25 years. “I remember being part of significant 6,000- to 7,000-person events, and the common format was, you go into the classroom, you sit down, one or two people talk, and you leave an hour later,” she said. “That has all changed in terms of how we produce events, mainly because adult learners have changed, and [also because of the] advent of the Millennials coming in and being part of the community.”

There also is more pressure on speakers to engage audiences, “to do some things in the context of presenting that help people to focus in on particular issues and questions,” Cobb said. “Even during a keynote, now you might see some group activities going on. With a tool like Poll Everywhere, anybody who has a cellphone can contribute to a quick poll and get some feedback in real time. Or have somebody who is in charge of facilitating the Twitter hashtag for the conference, highlighting good resources and connecting people around productive discussions.”

Meet M-Learning

Mobile technology also has made online learning more accessible. Back in the day — even just a year or two ago — a mobile app was a tool that helped attendees find other attendees, and “maybe an exhibit booth on the floor,” McGury said. “But let’s fast-forward to today and beyond. The mobile app is now a learning device.”

M-learning — m is for mobile — is the next hot topic, and has enormous potential for the meetings industry, predicts Chris Ballman, who joined SmithBucklin this summer as director of education and learning services. An educational technology expert, Ballman previously worked at Colorado Technical University, where he developed e-learning courses. M-learning is being driven by the ubiquity of smartphones, Ballman said, which, unlike other modes of online education, can be carried around in a pocket. “For the on-demand learner, they are excellent,” Ballman said. “You can be sitting on the bus and do a little m-learning module.”

The differences between m-learning and e-learning are in scale and timing. “When you think about e-learning, you have your computer at your desk, or have your laptop,” Ballman said. “You can usually set aside about a half-hour. M-learning is a little different,… because you may have a shorter amount of time, but you also have a smaller platform — your phone’s computer screens are a lot smaller. [Educators] need to chunk the information down and put it into bite-sized pieces, maybe three to five minutes. And you focus, really laser-focus on certain topics.”

When the concept of m-learning is incorporated into mobile apps, it can allow meeting organizers to digitally augment and enhance learning in the meeting environment. “Let’s say you’re at a conference, and maybe right before the conference you can read a little three-minute [article] or watch a four-minute video about the topic and then go in there and discuss it,” Ballman said. “You can actually prepare right there, five minutes beforehand.” And presenters with late-breaking information, he said, can send it out to attendees via the app.

The Integration Imperative

The key to successfully integrating online and in-person learning is to create a strategy that uses the right tools for your audience before, during, and after an event, Ballman said. You might start with an e-learning module delivered before the conference, making it as interactive as you want. “There are a lot of ways to do that,” he added. With some advance preparation, attendees can discuss the content on site on a different level. “It’s not just a traditional ‘Here is the instructor, on high, telling you what you need to know,’” Ballman said. Attendees are primed to interact — to “come into the [meeting room] and talk a little bit about it. Then you can follow up with a webinar.”

E-learning could help address one of the biggest problems at conferences, Cobb said, and something that doesn’t get talked about very often: the fact that many audiences have different levels of knowledge. “One of the biggest factors in how well somebody is going to learn new content in any given educational experience is, what prior knowledge are they actually bringing to the learning experience?” he said. “Your average 25-year-old is going to be bringing very different prior knowledge than your average 50-year-old, and your average executive director is going to be bringing very different knowledge than your average marketing assistant. 
But all of those people might be sitting in the same conference session.”

To be successful, meeting organizers need to really understand what will and won’t work with their audiences, based on testing, research, and dialogue, including focus groups, McGury said. There are some demographics that maybe open to interactive presentations, for example, but who would balk at a design that blends digital and in-person content, because those attendees wouldn’t do “homework” in advance. (See “Flipping the Classroom,” p. 65.) But there are other groups “that, if [advance preparation] is presented and packaged the right way, it’s not hard to do,” McGury said. “They’ll deliver on it.”

To be successful, meeting organizers need to really understand what will and won’t work with their audiences, based on testing, research, and dialogue, including focus groups.

Knowing your audience is also an advantage when it comes to navigating a learning environment that is flooded with content, Cobb said. “More and more, what the people that come to meetings will want to know is, how relevant and focused is the content?” he said. “I think you’re also going to see growth in these focused institutes and pre-conferences and specialized tracks in the context of a larger event.”

Big conferences with multiple tracks and hundreds of hours of educational content aren’t going to go away, Cobb said, but the measure of a good program no longer will be: “Can you create 15 tracks with tons and tons of content?” “You have to filter it,” he said. “Really give attendees the value and the focus they need, where people can say, ‘I just need to know about this, and need to connect with other people who know about this — the experts and my peers.’ If you do that, in a lot of cases you’re going to be able to charge a premium for that type of experience.”

The Entrepreneurial Learner

And, of course, it’s not just conferences that are being asked to change. “In order to succeed, and to strive to be excellent in the world that we’re living in right now, everyone has to be essentially an entrepreneurial learner,” Cobb said. “You have to figure out how to kind of take control of your learning and create value out of it. And you have to do that again and again throughout your life.”

Organizations that serve members and attendees should start thinking about them as entrepreneurial learners — “as people who really are potentially hungry for creating value for themselves,” Cobb said. He added: “On the one hand, that’ s challenging, but on the other hand, it is incredibly exciting. I think we’ve reached the point in the last year or two where it’s just thrilling to wake up in the morning. Think about what’ s possible out there now — what you can do yourself as a learner, and what you might be able to help organizations do.” 

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Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.