(this article first appeared in the Spring 2016 Edition of Training Industry Quarterly)
Classroom education emerged in a world of information paucity. A minority of people could read. Knowledge was held by the few and education was deeply entwined in the oral tradition. Many of the early education models in the West were driven by religious texts that were read aloud. Memorization was a critical skill. Rote learning was the way to get ahead. The classroom was a critical tool.
However, each one of these attributes has been turned on its head over the past 150 years.
We now live in a world of information abundance. The vast majority of people can read. Knowledge is openly and freely available and education is a complex process of reading, listening, finding, sense-making, sharing and doing. Education is now driven by government policy and the needs of employers. Memorization is only required for critical, conceptual elements of our work as multi-channel access via the Internet and to networks of experts means that ‘find’ is often now a more critical skill than ‘know’.
Yet much of today’s education and training in the world of work remains fixed to an era long gone. Classroom learning, by definition, is separate from the point-of-use of learned knowledge and skills. We know that the closer learning is to the point of need, the more effective and impactful it is likely to be.
Peter Senge, author of the Fifth Discipline and creator of the notion of the learning organization, explained the situation thus:
‘A simple question to ask is, “How has the world of a child changed in the last 150 years” And the answer is, “It’s hard to imagine any way in which it hasn’t changed” and yet if you look at school today versus 100 years ago, they are more similar than dissimilar.’
Exactly the same could be said of adult training and development as of child education. We may have added some technology, better lighting, and more comfortable chairs, but our organizations’ classrooms and approaches today are little changed either.
Is the Classroom Still Relevant?
There is no doubt that sometimes learning together with others in the same room is the best option.
There is probably no better way to help people who are new to a role or to an organization to quickly build understanding of organizational culture and practices, what’s expected of them, and how they’re going to be measured than by getting them together in a room to do so. Good face-to-face onboarding programs that focus on rapidly building conceptual understanding (rather than developing knowledge of detailed tasks) will continue to be an important use of classroom learning until technology delivers much better virtual reality environments than are currently available.
Classrooms (or ‘rooms’ at least) also remain relevant for learning through group discussion and group problem solving when people are co-located or in close reach with each other. The flipped classroom is a good example of this, where people come together to collaborate and share, and where knowledge building had been transferred to better channels of delivery.
Apart from the two examples above, it is hard to find a situation where classroom learning offers an advantage over learning in the workplace, via technology, or over the water-cooler.
Technology offers huge opportunities for social learning, peer feedback, and access to information at the point of need. In our world of information abundance, Google is the largest educational provider on the planet. Google needs no classrooms.
The New Classroom?
Mobile apps are increasingly being built and deployed by organizations to support workers. One large Australian bank already provides its people with a full HR suite of apps for their mobile phones. Others provide rapid access to performance support.
It’s not difficult to see the large-scale development of learning and performance tools and services via apps. That future world is not far off. Within the next few years mobile apps or their successors will be the prime way L&D will support learning and capability building.
The app will then become the new classroom.