Skip to content

Why Face-to-Face still matters

Why face-to-face still matters: – this post makes the same erroneous assumption about learning that most classroom instructors make: that we can’t duplicate the richness of physical spaces online. And I disagree. 100%. Learning online is a different type of interaction, and as such, it can be challenging to compare with F2F. I’m teaching a class now with learners from six different locations (including a group in the studio/classroom). Even if I subscribe to the metrics detailed in this article, (i.e. online learning is not as rich as F2F) many remote learners would not have the opportunity to learn the material without the medium – ie. they would have to travel, take time off of work. Some is better than none.
Online learning has many different dimensions that are generally untapped – design, content, socialization, etc. To say one medium is better than another is to ignore the unique affordances of each.
Most of our learners have developed skills in the classroom space – they know how to act and function. Online, we are still building skills and habits – though looking at the success of instant messaging and social network sites, it appears that younger learners have made significant strides in skill building. Without spending an insane amount of time qualifying online and F2F, I think it’s almost impossible to value one above the other. Each for the task at hand.


  1. todd wrote:

    I think you’re being careless with language here–the post you reference doesn’t mention distance learning, it’s about *communication*. The author is not contending that dl can’t be as effective as f2f–you’re putting words in her mouth!

    Wednesday, April 19, 2006 at 9:30 am | Permalink
  2. George Siemens wrote:

    Hi Todd – you’re right, I’m a bit careless with words – in my mind I moved to application of the concepts expressed by the author. However, I believe that learning is in itself a communication process. How is f2f learning any different from f2f business meetings? Or online learning from an online business meeting? It’s the affordance of the medium for dialogue (that wouldn’t exist at times if we couldn’t meet online). My criticism stands primarily on that premise.

    Wednesday, April 19, 2006 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  3. Cleve wrote:

    Love your blog – I’m a devoted reader.

    And I agree that “each is for the task at hand”, and that F2F and online are hard to compare (in the sense that a screwdriver and a hammer are hard to compare – sorta).

    That said, I’m bewildered that you reject F2F as richer – of course it’s richer. Maybe what’s ambiguous is what is meant by “richer” – I believe that Kathy Sierra is referring to research that measures “richness” in “bits” of information an observer receives. The number of bits of information a teacher receives (facial expressions, tone of voice, (especially) body language, group mood, etc) is much, much greater F2F. Of course an automaton teacher won’t pick that stuff up, so they might as well be on skype (or podcasting!), but an engaged teacher is far better able to make that emotional connection F2F, given a reasonable class size.

    Everything else being equal, we can teach better with F2F. Of course, nothing is ever equal, and online rocks for a variety of reasons and circumstances, some of which you point out. Yes it’s tough to value one over the other – both have strengths and weaknesses. But it’s undeniable that, for the quality “interactive richness”, F2F wins. And we need to recognize these strengths and weakness accurately so that we can effectively select the right tool for the occasion. Not accepting that F2F is richer is like rejecting the point that “hammers drive nails better than screwdrivers” because they are different and that each is for the task at hand.

    IMO :)

    Wednesday, April 19, 2006 at 5:55 pm | Permalink
  4. Jim wrote:

    George, I agree with Cleve. I teach a “communications” class at university that deals with intrapersonal and interpersonal issues; I support elearning, too. If you’ve ever had a “significant other” you’ve experienced the richness of F2F – if one hasn’t had a successful relationship, therein lies the inability to separate flesh and blood from the techie shadow of it. the virtual landscape will never be real life, except to those who are deluded enough believe it is (try wiping the hard drive and shutting off the power: what happened to virtual reality? It doesn’t exist beyond the screen.). elearning – the transfer of knowledge from one to another using technology – is different from human communication and interaction (duh). The tech part may be effective for some things: ‘just in time’ OJT, for example (on the computer in the workspace); but if the learner is remote and can’t raise her hand to ask a clarifying question and see the exasperation (or joy) on the face of the coach over her shoulder, she’s likely to cut off her hand. A major, international service corporation found from a recent company-wide employee feedback poll that nearly 2/3 of them felt “disconnected” and like they “didn’t belong”. These employees tend to operate individually at client sites and maintain contact with various offices/HQ via electronic means. The greatest number of recommendations for improvement indicated the need to increase F2F opportunities for interaction, NOT via video/net conference, etc., but real, shake hands and smell the sweat/perfume “connection” of collegues. Ever think about why the “MY SPACE” phenominum is so popular? Everyone on there is trying to “connect” with others: they post pictures of themselves and their friends; they use the tech available becuz they can’t (safely) meet in real life. BTW: “affordance” is uncommunicative, very ‘consultant-speak’. You should really think about using everyday language vs. gobbledygook. If I were looking in your eyes when you spoke “affordance” you could easily see how disgusted I would be with that warping of words. Otherwise, keep up the great work on elearning, just don’t forget the humans who are recipients of your efforts, and the fact that sometimes we really need to physically be with another person just because we are social animals.

    Sunday, April 23, 2006 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  5. Kathy Sierra wrote:

    Hey George — you made some great points (as did Cleve, Jim, and Todd) here, and I was definitely over-generalizing in my post. But I do think about online learning a *lot* ; it’s my next project.

    I think we all agree that *some* key things are missing if you aren’t in a f2f learning environment (and aren’t in a high-res video conference) but clearly we’re finding more and newer ways to compensate (through technology choices, new learning approaches more suited to online learning, etc.)
    I believe it’s true that online learning is not as rich for human communication (teacher to learner, learner to learner) and social interaction, but in many cases those extra bits aren’t *needed* for what we’re trying to deliver. (All bets are off if we’re trying to deliver learning specifically related to human communication or interaction, but I’m mainly concerned with teaching technical topics.)
    And I definitely agree with you that online learning has unique affordances. Besides scalability/availability, a few of my favorites are that it lets people work at their own pace, can be much more personally adaptable (custom-tailored in realtime), allows people to ask things or slow down without worrying about appearing stupid, allows for more exploration and experimenting/risk-taking, etc., but these are all *potential* benefits, and not necessarily a given for much of the online learning that’s out there (as I know you know).

    The first thing I ask people who are developing online learning is, “How does the learner/user get to ‘look confused’?”, since that’s the one thing a decent teacher can spot and adjust for that a computer (assuming this isn’t video conferencing) usually cannot. But if the system allows for some kind of virtual hand-raising and virtual confused-look, then a significant chunk of the advantage of f2f over elearning becomes less important.

    I also completely agree that our younger learners are becoming increasingly better equipped to learn this way.

    Thanks for bringing this up; I continue to learn a lot from your blog. ; )

    Monday, April 24, 2006 at 7:22 pm | Permalink