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What Are the Real Costs of Classroom Learning?

Bob Little 

February 9, 2018

Love or hate them, off-site, classroom learning and training courses have been the staple diet of teachers and trainers for as long as we care to remember.

However, critics say that such courses can have many drawbacks. These include:

  • Each course only progresses at the rate of the slowest learner.
  • Not all course content is new – or relevant – to every learner.
  • Course content is rarely applied in a work context.
  • Learning is only available when it’s offered, not when learners want or need it.
  • These events are more about the trainer’s performance than the learners’ learning.
  • Being away from their jobs – and incurring travel and subsistence costs in the process – means that course delegates’ productivity and profitability plummets.

Still the Norm

This last point – the issue of costs – has helped to promote the use of e-learning, but face-to-face, off-the-job L&D activities are still the norm in business and education.

Paolo Castiglione of the Corporate Learning Alliance, writing in HR magazine, commented, “E-learning components in education haven’t completely supplanted traditional learning – and there’s no reason to think it should happen soon.”

The Towards Maturity 2017/18 Learning Benchmark Report – which surveyed over 700 L&D leaders in 53 countries – supports Castiglione’s view. The report states that, even now, only 22 percent of corporate training budgets are spent on technology, and only 32 percent of formal learning is supported by technology.

Despite immense support for L&D’s status quo, Tim Drewitt, former product innovator at Kallidus, observes, “The world of learning has changed. L&D professionals must make it easy for learners to find and quickly consume the content that enables them to do their job well.

“Time is of the essence in today’s high-pressure, ‘no downtime’ working environments. Many traditional approaches immediately fail due to how time-poor they are.”

Time and Other Costs of Classroom Learning

So, what are the real costs of taking time away from the job to attend a classroom-based learning event?

You need to include:

  • Direct, indirect and overhead costs: such as room hire, travel, accommodation, and food and drink for trainers and delegates.
  • Staff costs: each learner’s salary (pro rata).
  • Trainer costs: each trainer’s salary (pro rata).
  • Equipment: chairs, tables, flipcharts, projectors, and so on.
  • Consumables: including pens, markers, folders, paper, and handouts.
  • Administration: the time you spend generating and distributing pre-course material, and then collating records, probably via a Learning Management System (LMS).
  • Insurance: accident and travel insurance, public liability insurance, and so on.
  • Replacing the learners while they’re away from work: you may need to pay their colleagues overtime to cover that work, or hire temporary workers to do the job, for example.
  • Opportunity costs: of the work that is not done – or orders that may be lost – while learners are on the course.
  • Extra costs: such as the costs involved in post-program reports, and assessments required for compliance or regulatory purposes.

All of these costs add up, in both time and money.  This can make calculating the return on investment of an L&D event both highly complex and, ultimately, subjective.

Learning in Your Own Time

A costing exercise like this also highlights the advantages of just-in-time, performance support learning over traditional face-to-face L&D activities.

Just-in-time learning happens informally, rather than in a classroom, and is often accessed online. It can be self-directed, or topics can be suggested from curated learning materials.

Supporters of self-directed learning say that it fosters creativity and innovation, and that it can boost worker engagement, increase teamwork, and improve staff retention.

This cost-effective way of ensuring continual development makes it easy to learn on the job, at the learner’s preferred time and pace. What’s more, learning at the point of need means that the learning is more likely to be applied, because it will often be used straight away.

The Benefits of Self-Directed Learning

Positive results from self-directed learning include:

  • Convenient scheduling. Cognitive flexibility theory claims that adults learn more effectively when they analyze and internalize knowledge on their own by switching between viewpoints, referring to case studies, and looking up other resources online. Self-directed learning offers learners the flexibility to do this whenever, and however, is best for them.
  • Greater synchronicity with Learning Styles. Self-directed learning caters to learners who don’t want to be “spoon-fed.”
  • Increased relevance to learners’ needs. Learning happens at the learners’ own pace, prompted by their specific requirements.
  • More up-to-date knowledge. When learners are motivated to learn, and have the tools and resources available to them, they can stay up-to-date with the latest information.
  • Improved learning of specialized skills. Choosing how to learn is motivating, empowering, and far more flexible than waiting for a scheduled course to become available.
  • Better subject mastery. When learners learn in a way that suits them, they may learn faster and in greater depth.

Balancing Your Options

Richard Lowe, Director of Training and Digital Learning Solutions at Hewlett Rand, believes that “L&D professionals should consider the many L&D interventions now available to meet strategic and operational L&D objectives.

“If these relate to knowledge transfer, e-learning can work well.

“E-learning can also help if they’re skills-based interventions – although it’s difficult to evidence on-the-job transference without a strong evaluation methodology. Organization-wide change and transformation programs should also be considered.

“Where L&D activities address leadership and cultural change, consider using blended learning with face-to-face interventions, since peer-to-peer relationships help to shift old to new paradigms.

“Of course, L&D isn’t always the answer,” Lowe adds. “Other solutions can address performance issues – as outlined in the work of Robert Mager and Peter Pipe. These solutions include introducing job aids and guides, improving processes, or clarifying expectations.”

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