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Apr 25, 2019 Dr. Rebecca Sutherns

Beyond Or and Both/And in Learning Design

When online learning and engagement tools first appeared on the scene, people were talking about whether to use them. The conversation in learning design was about face-to-face OR digital.

Digital OR In-Person Learning


In practice, however, these two modalities still stay rather separate, running on parallel tracks.

Digital AND In-Person Learning 


I am increasingly exploring the practical ways in which in-person and online engagement can be mutually reinforcing. Under what conditions can each strengthen the other, leading to a process that optimizes the strengths of each and produces results that are greater than the sum of the parts?


Combining Digital and In-Person Learning 

I do stakeholder engagement, strategy development and training. My expertise is in facilitation, and I admittedly have a bias for in-person experiences. Online tools are getting better, but remote engagement still feels like a consolation prize or “necessary evil” to me – one that I have to choose when in-person is unavailable or unaffordable. The idea that digital and in-person might both be used, simultaneously in one project, feels almost luxurious to me. Could this offer the best of both worlds? So why not make sure they support each other rather than existing in parallel universes? 

I have recently experienced four examples of online and in-person learning leveraging each other in my practice, with varying degrees of intentionality and success. Two were in municipal policy making contexts, one in a post-secondary course for senior leaders in the not-for-profit sector, and the final is my own ongoing involvement as a distance student in a business development program. 

I am still mining these cases for the nuggets of insight they contain, but my experience is confirming that learning is a social activity that happens in the context of relationship. Connection, rapport and trust matter. They affect the learning process. And they are necessary whether that learning happens in a space that is corporal or digital. Building relationships needs to happen regardless of the modality. 

But doing so is not enough to ensure that the in-person and digital experiences reinforce each other. That requires design that intentionally creates points of intersection between the two. 

I will be exploring practical ways to make that happen in a complimentary Virtually There session called Effectively Combining Virtual and In-Person Learning, scheduled for 2 p.m. EDT on May 7th. I hope you can join us.

In the meantime, you may be interested in the following resources. One is an extensive inventory of materials on digital community engagement courtesy of Bang the Table, the second is my new book on nimble facilitation and the third is an excellent resource by Amy Edmondson on creating psychological safety in teams.


Published by Dr. Rebecca Sutherns April 25, 2019