Workshops versus online learning

Colleen Trolove | May 8, 2019

I’m a trainer at Write. I’ve been running workshops for years. I like workshops: I’m a people person. But lately I’ve been taking a lot of online courses, and I’ve helped make some as well. Even though I see myself as ‘not the computer type’, I’m surprised to find that online learning has helped me. A lot.

So I’ve decided to take a step back and look at both types of learning.

First of all, a few definitions

Workshop learning is time in a room with a group of learners and a trainer. It’s very interactive: you do activities to help you learn. You learn from the other learners as well as from the trainer. Often, workshops are for a group of colleagues, with the goal of getting everyone to the same level of understanding and skill on a topic.

Image, Group of people at a workshop, with whiteboard and sticky notes.

Workshop: time with a group of learners. Image by You X Ventures / Unsplash license

Online learning means courses that you access through the internet. They can be like a webinar, where everyone logs in at the same time (synchronous) or the type where you can log in whenever you like (asynchronous). For some asynchronous courses, you can interact with the other learners and the trainer in a discussion forum.

When I talk about online learning from here on, I’m talking about the asynchronous type.

Image, Hands on a laptop computer.

Online learning: courses you access through the internet. Image by John Schnobrich / Unsplash license

Let’s get the cons out of the way…

What’s not so good about workshop learning?

You have to go at the group’s pace. People with a lot of knowledge can feel frustrated in a less advanced group, and those who don’t know much can be overwhelmed when everyone else knows a lot more than them. Overall, the workshop covers the main points, but not necessarily to the degree that everyone needs for optimal learning.

‘If we all do the same workshop, we’ll all be on the same page’ isn’t necessarily true. Participants can latch on to ideas that weren’t intended to be key points. We remember starts and ends best. We forget middles. We remember anecdotes and stories, but not lists of facts.

We remember very little for the hour or two after lunch, no matter how much we want to! People can come out of workshops with similar general ideas of the day, but very different thoughts on what they plan to implement.

Time is not only dedicated to learning: we take time for social niceties and forming a group identity. Groups can develop their own dynamic, with some people taking a lot more time to talk than is strictly useful. Those patches of ‘lost’ time can feel annoying.

I giggle internally when I see people texting or checking emails under the table: yes, I can see you! And don’t worry; I understand that group dynamics can be hard to commit to for a whole day.

What’s not so good about online learning?

You need extreme personal motivation to make the most of online learning. And while this can be a good thing, it’s very, very easy to see online learning as a hoop someone else has decided you must jump through. It’s easy to disengage.

My cousin once said ‘The goal of online learning is to get to the end. Next next next!’ He described himself as bashing away at the quiz that ended each page. If he got answers wrong, he clicked on the other options until he was allowed through to the next screen.

He never read any of the text or watched the videos, as he believed the content was irrelevant to his job.

Quizzes are a common way to test learning in online courses. As a trainer, I know they’re helpful to show the learner the main points they were supposed to take away from the lesson. But I also know that’s about the extent of their use. They won’t embed the knowledge in my long-term memory or help me transfer the knowledge into my everyday work. The really useful exercises (the assignments and worksheets) are entirely up to me.

I find that online learning can be frustrating when the technology isn’t easy to use, boring when the content hasn’t been adapted well for the online medium, and intimidating when I’m expected to contribute to online forums but don’t have much to say.

I’ve had so many poor experiences of online learning that I ‘judge and discard’ very quickly. If you haven’t impressed me with the first lesson, I’m out.

From a team perspective, the moment of ‘what are we going to do differently?’ is less likely to occur when everyone finishes a course at different times. Team members can’t see each other doing the course and may not interact with each other while on it, so the sense of group commitment to change isn’t as common with online learning.

And now the pros…

What’s good about workshop learning?

The whirlwind experience of the group environment, an expert trainer, and carefully crafted activities can make for a profoundly mindset-changing experience. Some of our participants describe themselves as being ‘converted’ to the idea of plain language during our workshops.

A well-run workshop can help workplaces achieve massive degrees of change very quickly.

Workshops enthuse participants about a topic. As participants, we know we’re in a room for a limited time with a person who really knows their stuff. The group environment motivates us to do the activities, learn all we can, and ask the hard questions while we have a chance.

‘What are we going to do differently?’ can happen at the end of a workshop. You’re likely to find it easy to get a commitment to make process improvements as a team.

Image, Neon 'Workshop' sign.

A good workshop can make the lights come on. Image by kalhh / Pixabay license

What’s good about online learning?

You can clearly see the structure of an online course. You can see the main things you need to focus on just by looking at the names of the lessons. We’re much less at the whim of our memory, our fatigue levels, and our trainer’s skill when working out what’s important to retain from an online course.

You can focus your learning on the areas of most interest. You can go deeper into areas you feel are relevant for you and skim over areas that are less relevant. You can go over material several times to help it stick. You can’t do these things in a workshop unless you’re willing to seriously annoy the other participants!

You can digest key points in manageable, memorable chunks. And you can do it when it suits you, without having to make time for social niceties. You don’t have to block out a whole day for learning, like you have to when attending a workshop.

When your brain gets tired, you can stop, and start again later when you’re fresh.

You can get access to excellent courses and trainers: where you live is no obstacle. Few people would cross the world for a workshop, but we undertake an online course from anywhere that has an internet connection.

Image, Man in restaurant with laptop.

Learning online means you can take part wherever and whenever you like. Image by Bruce Mars / Pexels license

How can online learning and workshops support each other?

Workshops and online learning can work well as a pair. I would suggest doing a workshop first and having an online course as follow-up.

Workshops are best first because a workshop will help you clarify why the topic’s important in the wider context of your life, and then in the more specific context of your industry, your organisation, and your role.

A workshop gives you a clear sense of why you should care about the topic.

And that ‘why’ creates motivation: the necessary ingredient for successful online learning (exactly what my cousin was lacking).

Workshops also give you a sense of the major themes you can investigate: they whet your appetite. For example, after my workshops on business writing, people have a sense they need to concentrate on structure, language, and layout to create reader-friendly documents. An online follow-up allows them to delve into those areas in more detail.

People also come away from a workshop with a few core skills they can immediately start using.

And then the rubber hits the road. Real life intervenes. ‘How do I take time to make an amazing document plan when I only have an hour to get the document out the door?’ ‘How do I get a peer review when no one’s free at the time I need them?’ ‘I thought I was being friendly, but someone took offence at my email.’

People now have specific questions they’re seeking answers to. Drumroll please: online learning has the answers.

If you had to choose between workshop and online?

If the budget doesn’t stretch to both, here’s some advice on how to choose from Learning Systems Manager, Clinton Cardozo. He suggests focusing on immediacy and how complicated the skill is.

‘Choose a workshop if the skill needs to be deployed immediately. Workshops are best for hands-on stuff, where the instructor can answer questions, where you have clear outcomes and deliverables. Online is good for capability building — for soft or hard skills that aren’t immediately required. Anything without complicated ambiguity, it’s best to do online.’

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