Learner, Know Thyself: Face to Face, Online, or Both?

One thing the zillions of pilots attending AirVenture 2009 have in common is the need to grasp a great deal of disparate information, and then maintain that information for on-going testing. They are similar in this way to doctors, lawyers, and others who either have to prove their proficiency on some schedule, or whose knowledge base changes such that they must have on-going education. Personal computers and the Internet have changed the options for professional and most other learning. We can now often choose between face-to-face instructor-led, online, dvd-based, or a blend for our learning. When we have the luxury of making the choice ourselves, what's the best choice to make?


The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi is to have said "Know Thyself" in response to the question "What is best for man?" I have said something similar, though not in Greek, in terms of self-selecting formal (e.g., a formal class) versus informal learning (e.g., searching the internet) based on your level of competency (low competency: pick formal, high competency: informal). 

How do you use knowledge of your own learning style and context to effectively pick the best way to learn? For example, how do choose between face-to-face, online, dvd-based, or some combination for ground school?

Today I talked to representatives from two of the top pilot training materials providers: Gleim & King. Both companies provide the full range of topics and formats. I'll focus on Gleim as I had the greatest chance to chat at their booth. I asked Katie (Thanks, Katie) what the issues were in making the choice between an instructor-led face-to-face (my local flight school uses Gleim books) and the home-study options. She asked many good questions, including:

  • Do I have the ability to make a weekly course? In my case, not really: 10 Wed nights, I'd miss some for work.
  • Do I mind asking questions in front of others in the class? No, I probably ask too many for the instructor's comfort, though.
  • Would I be paying by the hour? No, so the overall cost of the course is not a determinant in my case.
  • Do I need a schedule to keep me going? Probably not, I'm pretty disciplined about some things -- and many of the home-study programs track you and will make contact if you seem to be slipping.

These points focus on schedule and discipline. She also covered topics that I'll call "learning style." Do you learn best when you read things over at your own pace? Do you learn best when you print things out to go back to? All the pilot education programs have options for computer-based instruction that includes videos, testing, and review. Here's where it is helpful to know your learning style.

Learning style speaks to how people take in and process information 

However, the learning style you are most comfortable with may not be the style where you will learn the most (pdf). Moallem provides an approach to evaluating learning style:

  • What type of information is best perceived? Concrete, practical, oriented toward facts and procedures; or conceptual, innovative, oriented toward theories and meanings?
  • What modality is most effective? Visual representations of presented material—pictures, diagrams, flow charts; or written and spoken explanations?
  • What organization of information is preferred? Presentations that proceed from the specific to the general; or presentations that go from the general to the specific?
  • How is information best processed? Learning by trying things out, working with others; or learning by thinking things through, working alone?
  • How does understanding generally progress? Linear, orderly, learning in small incremental steps; or holistic, system thinking, learning in large leaps?

Courses, instructors, and individual decisions about how to study can all be tailored to the above. I expect people reading this blog have enough educational experiences to draw upon to make judgments about the forms where they have been most successful.

Using these questions I can see that a self-study approach is likely to serve me best, especially when combined with my scheduling problems. I know myself enough to focus on the frameworks, visual presentation, and general to specific - this is possible in either instructor-led or self-study. Self-study, however, wins out in my case for learning by thinking things through, making mistakes on my own and in developing a holistic, systematic understanding of the material (rather than a more linear approach).

This last is hard in setting where a class agenda must be followed for a group of people. Generalizing back to more common settings: when organizational learning experts make decisions about how to provide training for the whole organization, they are doing it from the perspective of what is going to be best on-average. It is rare that they can focus on an individual's particular needs. That said, as individuals within organizations, we have the ability and responsibility to find the best way to maintain our own knowledge.

Many organizations do provide options in the forms of education they make available. We are all learning all the time, even if we don't have to prove it to maintain our professional standing or licensure. Given available options, we are all becoming learning system designers (just as we are all becoming systems designers of our work settings in other ways).  At the same time, knowledge is becoming more of a currency. Use your knowledge of your schedule, your learning style, and your own discipline to stock your account.