The Classroom versus the Computer: Or, Can You Learn Communication Skills behind a Screen?

Over the holidays, a friend sent me one of the saddest news articles I’ve read in quite a long time.

Writing for The New York Times, physician Dhruv Khullar opened How Social Isolation is Killing Us with the story of a patient who was actively dying—he would be gone within 24 hours—and had nobody in his life to notify. No friends, no family, no neighbors. The article goes on to list staggering facts and figures about the impact of loneliness and social isolation on both individual and societal health. The story haunted me for days.

In Abraham Maslow’s iconic Hierarchy of Needs, social needs—shorthanded as Love and Belonging—are situated squarely in the middle of the pyramid, just above basic Basic Physiological Needs like food and water, and Safety and Security needs, such as housing, warmth, and freedom from violence and other threats. Human connection, Maslow is showing us with this placement, is not optional—it’s integral to both psychological and physiological health. Without strong relationships Khullar notes, everything starts to fall apart: sleep patterns falter, the immune system changes, stress hormone production increases, systemic inflammation rises, and the risk of heart attack and stroke surge by up to a third.

Bottom line: Strong human relationships aren’t optional. They’re necessary, and the need for them occupies a spot just above eating, breathing, staying warm and dry and out of war zones.

The article made me grateful, once again, to have the skills I learned in L.E.T. in my back pocket, because they’re useful in every relationship—not just professional ones.

So, what can an article about loneliness tell us about the process of learning?

Matching Learning Needs and Social Needs in Virtual and Real-World Classrooms

The most important word in training, like glue, is “sticky.” After everything is said (or seen) and done, after all the lessons are delivered (in whatever form), after all the pedagogical exercises have been exercised, after all the assessments have been completed, what sticks with learners? Do people who have gone through training actually retain the contentonline leadership training

In 2011, a five-year study that reported community college students are more likely to drop out of online courses (and those who remain are less likely to earn a passing grade than their counterparts in  traditional classrooms). In its introduction, the study specifically called out isolation as one cause: “Students in online courses often complain of technical difficulties, a sense of isolation, a relative lack of structure, and a general lack of support, all of which may contribute to low completion rates.”

Spurred by this study, Training magazine interviewed corporate training experts about the implications for corporate training. As experts weighed in, an overall picture became clearer and clearer. Online training has its place; if you need to train thousands of new employees to clock in and out on a new timekeeping system, nothing beats it.

But when it comes to teaching “soft skills,” there’s nothing less appropriate than an online course.

  • Subject Matter Matters. Objective topics and compliance issues like mandatory occupational safety, sexual harassment, organizational policies, software skills, etc. are appropriate for online delivery because they do not require interpersonal interactions and they offer learners the opportunity to self-pace. But every expert agreed that higher-level skills involving interpersonal were best delivered in classrooms, led by an instructor. Jiffy Lube’s Manager of Learning & Development, Ken Barber, said the company’s “Leadership Training certification, which is taught in an I(nstructor) L(ed)…class….benefit(s) from the interaction within a classroom where students can discuss, collaborate, solve problems, and role-play.”
  • Learning Objectives Drive Delivery. Randhir Vieira, Vice President of Product and Marketing, Mindflash, quoted in the same article, pulled no punches: “Classroom trainings are most ideal for small groups and especially in cases when interaction, team bonding, and/or nonverbal communications are vital to achieving learning objectives. Role-play and simulations, often used in sales and management trainings, are perfect activities for live classroom trainings.” 

In Leader Effectiveness Training, communication skills are both the subject matter and the primary learning objectives, and under these circumstances, any delivery method other than intensive classroom-based instruction would be professional malpractice.

Without face-to-face interaction, feedback, reinforcement, collaboration, real-life scenarios, real-time Q&A drawn from real workplaces, and experiential learning, ROI would be significantly diminished, and the ability to carry learning back to the job—“stickiness”—would suffer.

All investments in training are not created equal. I went through L.E.T. nearly fifteen years ago, and that weeklong classroom experience (plus the monthly email reminders via “Graduate Connection”) has stuck with me so long, I still use its principles and precepts in my relationships on a near-weekly basis. I like to think that when I remember to use the skills I learned there, they also help to reduce my risk of social isolation and loneliness and frightening list of health risks from the New York Times—stress hormones, systemic inflammation, the whole kit and caboodle. Because when we are improving our relationships with other people, we are also, by definition, meeting our own needs.

We are social creatures. We need each other. And we need the skills to get along and solve our problems, respectfully and constructively.


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