With all the technological alternatives to traditional classroom training, one wonders whether the classroom has any future in modern learning and development strategy. Some have called for the end of classroom training. “Blow up the classrooms,” they say. I am not one of them.

Sure, eLearning, virtual learning, social learning, and other technological approaches dominate much of what we do—and talk about—these days, leaving classroom learningand instructorsfighting for air. And who can blame them? Classroom instruction is often boring and frightfully expensive. So why don’t we just dump it?

Here’s why. There’s nothing quite like a great teacher, or learning with a group of people with similar interests and needs. But to find the right place for the classroom in the overall learning mix, where learners thrive and executives see value, classroom learning must change.

New approaches

We can’t continue to do what eLearning and other technologies do much more efficiently. Instead, classroom learning must leverage what it does best and chart a new course (pun intended). Here are eight ideas about what the classroom can become, just by thinking about it a little differently:

  1. A laboratory. The classroom can be a place of experimentation and discovery; a place where new approaches are pursued, where failure is a risk-free growth opportunity, and where reflection about what just happened is eye-opening. Here, techniques like immersion and simulation work well.
  2. A think tank. Bringing people together to solve a problem or develop a new vision can not only be an intense learning experience, but solutions that arise from this approach can also provide value to the organization beyond the learning that takes place. Brainstorming, troubleshooting, and a singular focus on a specific problem are examples of instructional techniques that can be effective.
  3. A town center. While social media holds great promise for collaboration across distance, there is something to be said for using a classroom as a place for people to bypass distance and work across the table, in the same room. A face-to-face event builds a bond that sometimes cannot be achieved over a computer screen. And the networking that comes out of this time together can build relationships that benefit the learners long after the session is over. Live polling, small group discussions, shared decision-making, and even some fun activities all work to build consensus, or chart a future direction.
  4. A project HQ. You can effectively manage major projects online, but sometimes, getting the team together helps communication, builds a sense of shared purpose, and gives all members a better look along with the skills of the team. Kickoff, milestone, and after-action meetings are very helpful here.
  5. A big event. Sometimes, the classroom can be a place where something special happens, perhaps only once, that cannot be truly replicated online. Meeting with a big customer, a selected vendor, a renowned expert, or the organization’s most senior leaders often calls for getting everyone together to share the unique experience. The excitement of the big event can be carried forward to other learning activities. Don’t forget to record it for sharing and future reference.
  6. A welcome wagon. For new hires, the first few weeks and months are critical. And while lots of people say that technology can bring orientation to people separated by time and distance, it may miss one of the most critical onboarding success factors: a sense of belonging and an initial positive exposure to the organization’s culture. Here’s where that much-maligned word “teambuilding” comes into play.
  7. A game room. Using games and simulations in a classroom setting can bring a sense of shared realism in a risk-free environment. This is especially true if person-to-person interactions are vital to the experience. There’s a host of gaming and simulation tools available, but sometimes a low-tech approach can be equally worthwhile if care is put into the design.
  8. An “un-classroom” classroom. And who says the “classroom” experience must be in an actual classroom? Bringing people together where they workon a factory or sales floor, or in a call or data center, for examplecan help learners immediately relate the instructional activity to the actual work they do. Demonstrations and practicewith feedbackin the real world can work wonders.

What does all this mean?

I’m not talking about small exercises or role-plays inserted between lectures and PowerPoint decks. I’m taking about making these approaches the dominant instructional strategy. This means that, in creating such courses, your needs assessment, instructional design methodology, media, and evaluation choices will likely change, sometimes significantly.

It also means that the role of the instructor must evolve as well. While retaining their subject matter expertise, they’ll do far less presenting and far more facilitating, observing, coaching, and evaluating. If instructors can’t get over not being the smartest person in the room, if they can’t sit in the back and let the learners do their thing, they might not make it in this new world.

Finally, it means that although the classroom experience is not as technology-centric as eLearning might be, the role of technology in this new learning process is still very important. Rather than asking how technology might eliminate the classroom, you might ask how it would enhance it. Here are five initial ideas to get you thinking:

  1. Use eLearning, including microlearning, as a prerequisite to the classroom experience. Give learners a baseline understanding of the underlying content before they embark on their classroom experience.
  2. Build and maintain knowledge repositories of relevant content selected by SMEs, or created by the learners themselves, and make this repository available to everyone in the organization.
  3. Use social media to build communities of learners, before they come to class, that become communities of practice when they go back into the field. The social aspect of the classroom experience will give learners the common bond they need to continue learning, with and through each other, back on the job. Don’t let it fade away.
  4. Use video to capture the best work of the class, in formal presentations or simply by recording the work that transpired in the course, and make your video repository available to all.
  5. Use after-action reviews, embedded in blogs and other tools, that provide a record of what happened in the classroom. These resources can prove invaluable as you seek to improve the classroom experience, not to mention giving future learners the benefit of those that came before them.

The classroom is a precious resourcedon’t blow it

Classroom learning is pricey, in terms of development and delivery, but more so in terms of the time it takes learners away from their productive jobs. So, think very carefully before you ask them to spend time in class (and for their bosses to let them), and have the organization pay for it.

It makes little sense to duplicate content in both eLearning and the classroom. So beyond just looking at individual classes, when you think at a curricular level and you’re looking at all your courses in a certain domain, determine when the classroom experience makes sense and, above all, how classroom learning and technology-based learning can complement each other.

Last month, I asked if instructional design is thriving or dying. The same can be asked about classroom learning. For it to thrive, it must evolve. We will all be worse off if it doesn’t.