May 13, 2021

Virtual learning doesn’t measure up to the in-person experience

By Brienne Musselman

“I have set it to ‘mute everyone’ upon entering the call, and no video. If you see an option to share your video or unmute yourself, please don’t.” – Me, in an email to friends and family, June 9, 2020.

I sent this strangest of emails last year. Accompanying the instructions above were, well, more instructions followed by a Zoom link—a meeting invitation to watch our wedding. The wedding that was supposed to be 180 people together able to connect— hug, laugh, dance, reminisce—was now just our masked parents and a few names on a small screen. A year ago, nearly to the day that I’m finishing this article, we made the call to cancel our big celebration.

Since then, my hopeful husband and I have diligently checked for clues that might help us decide when to still have an in-person reception in 2021. The decision to hold out hope for a gathering has conjured up…let’s say “mixed reviews” from those closest to us and has left me with a nagging, recurring question: What’s the point of getting together?

The wedding isn’t the only reason this question seems to be…what I’m hoping is not… permanently inscribed in my brain. The culture has shifted around the way we engage with information—the gathering of it, the sharing of it—as it’s now all packaged virtually. I’ll blame the convenience of Google and asynchronous learning opportunities, but I have heard some version of, “If I can learn anytime and anywhere, what is the point of in-person education?” enough times that it’s starting to get to me—even when we tout the advantages of our eLearning platform with phrases like “anytime, anywhere” and “on demand.” Ask, and ye shall receive.

WHEN A QUESTION LIKE THIS nags at me, I need to investigate it. Generally, this means purchasing a book (or 10). I picked up Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, which states, “Even outside of work, you are proposing to consume people’s most precious resource: time. Making the effort to consider how you want your guests, and yourself, to be altered by the experience is what you owe people as a good steward of that resource.” I advocated in my last article to consider the importance of learning objectives as a guide for both the presenter and the audience. Education takes time. Yours, mine, ours.

So how do we want to spend that time engaging in education? Is one form really better than others?

It’s not uncommon to hear that our non-verbal cues convey anywhere from 60-90% of the information received by someone else. Our body movement, posture, gestures, eye contact and facial expressions relay information about our mood, confidence and ability to empathize with other individuals in a room. These cues affect how we learn and, lately, have been replaced by new cues and reduced to our face and torso on a screen.

WHEN WE ATTEND A TALK, there are all sorts of unwritten rules we abide by. We assume the individual up front is the speaker; we file into our seats and we wait. We physically ready ourselves for the act of learning. We judge a speaker’s confidence by their stance or cadence, we look around for cues about how the information is being absorbed (or not) by fellow audience members, and we are engaged in an unspoken contract between learner-educator and learner-fellow learner.

Lately, we find ourselves as more passive audience members. Pixel-for-pixel equal with others. We are spectators more than audience members to be engaged with. Our responsibility changes. So does the presenter’s. We assume they’re able to mute or unmute themselves at the correct times and that they’re able to keep their children or pets gracefully off screen. Us? We’re in the comfort of our own homes and the presenter now gets to compete with other browser tabs and a cat on the keyboard for our attention.

The norms that keep us captive during in-person learning opportunities no longer dictate our behavior. If you have been watching children learn virtually for the last year, you know it’s true of them too. I would, and I’m sure will again, argue that our retention has changed along with those behaviors because of the energy we put in and expect back. Parker writes about our appreciation of the ingredient of “uniqueness” captured by the Japanese phrase ichi-go ichi-e (one time, one meeting)–the moment is unrepeatable. Reminds me of times I’ve seen standing-room-only and thought, “Aren’t I lucky to be here?”

The choice to give up the resource of time in community with others helps us be accountable for the choice to be educated by another person. A person who is also giving up their most precious resource to explain something they already know. In return, we offer them the non-verbal cues that are generous and reassuring—nods, smiles, knowing glances, notes on pages. As I’m describing it, you no doubt are imagining yourself in a room (even those with terrible lighting) during a talk or class. You remember the feeling. Is it the same at your computer?

Online learning has its place. Sometimes, it’s the best option to be more global—for example, asynchronous education being beneficial to individuals of various time zones. It’s also good for those who find themselves limited in the ability to carve out time to learn, or money to travel to learn. It is also good for repetition. If education competes with enough things for your attention, sometimes repetition is the only way to retain it.

In the future I may offer a counter to “What’s the point?” with “What’s the best way?” I will advocate that if you give up your most precious resource for education, that energy, empathy, shared inspiration, communal expectations, demonstration, accountability and ichi-go ichi-e are all reasons to be in person. I can’t wait to get back to that opportunity. The last year has reminded me that with change comes accountability and whether it’s getting married or learning something new, it is much sweeter in the presence of others.


Brienne Musselman

Brienne Musselman

Brienne Musselman joined the IES staff in 2019, and is now the IES Director of Education and Standards. With the help of important advisors in the IES membership and a dedicated staff, she leads the strategy for content development in technical standards and in education. Her... More info »