Live Virtual vs. In-Person Executive Education for Health Care: Matching the Format to Program Goals

HR leaders must think carefully about which model may best serve the overarching programming goal.

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As in-person learning returns, learning and development professionals must decide whether to continue with synchronous online programs or resume in-person programs. The considerations below can inform this important decision.

Which is best? Live virtual vs. in-person executive education for health care? Each approach has clear pros and cons—and participants are split on their preferences. HR leaders should not only consider the plusses and minuses but also think carefully about which model may best serve the overarching goal of the programming.

We spoke with David Roberts, MD, dean for external education at Harvard Medical School (HMS),  who identified some key questions HR leaders should consider when making the decision: “Are you trying to build community? Are you trying to solve a really hard problem? Are you trying to get people to bond? Are you trying to inform people about something? Are you envisioning unique experiences that can only happen in one format or the other?”

Three benefits of in-person programming

1. Participants have the opportunity to network and socialize freely outside of sessions.

An in-person seminar usually starts with meandering to seats and chatting with neighbors, an organic and low-stakes social opportunity that is hard to replicate in a virtual classroom. As Dr. Roberts puts it, humans are social animals, and the in-person networking side of corporate learning allows people to connect on a more personal level than is easily achieved in a virtual environment.

“The human interaction side of it is just different on Zoom,” says Dr. Roberts. “You get deeper and further connections in person.”

2. Learners get a change of environment, allowing them to be away from their home or office distractions and in a new space designed specifically for learning.

Context and environment are important for learning — both where leaders are (in a classroom) and where learners are not. There is a benefit to getting out of the usual routine, especially in the wake of the pandemic, during which many people worked from home. Learners may welcome the opportunity to see friends and colleagues. Some learning experiences simply can’t be replicated in a virtual learning environment.

“There’s an aura of being amongst the marble,” says Dr. Roberts, referring to the inspiring feeling of being on the HMS campus. “That makes you think in a different way.”

3. The togetherness creates a ripe environment for brainstorming and ideating that isn’t easy to replicate virtually.

Coming up with solutions to complex problems may benefit from the energy of in-person interactions — including the spontaneous side conversations you just can’t get in break-out rooms. There are more fluid interactions when people can pick up on visual conversational cues in person.  

“In-person learning allows for the serendipity of meeting people and the spontaneous conversations that generate ideas,” says Dr. Roberts.

Three advantages of live virtual learning

1. Online learning can be more convenient for everyone, including participants, course leaders, and organizers.

The convenience of live virtual learning can’t be overstated. Dr. Roberts’ wife has taken the same continuing medical education course three times over the last 12 years. Still, this past year, she took it from the comfort of home with her favorite mug of coffee in hand – not to mention that she didn’t have to pay for travel, food, and other expenses incurred with in-person programs — and she found it just as useful.

There are wins for businesses, too. Live virtual programming incurs fewer costs, requires less time off, and may be easier to schedule since classes may be offered synchronously and asynchronously.

“It goes beyond the practical of, ‘I don’t have to travel,’” says Dr. Roberts. “I also don’t have the added expenses of taking a trip, and if I’m a company, it’s super efficient.”

2. The virtual learning experience can be uniquely engaging.

Virtual executive education allows for a more accessible experience. Learners can customize the experience according to their preferences, whether putting on headphones, turning up the volume, or adding captions. Virtual programs can also allow for different visual effects, multimedia integration, and engaging material.

“There’s a reason my children are glued to the screen, right?” says Dr. Roberts. “Virtual programming can be visually stimulating.”

3. The online environment doesn’t face the same logistical challenges as in-person executive education programs, expanding the educational possibilities.

With a virtual course, distance isn’t a limiting factor (and with asynchronous programs, neither are time zones). Dr. Roberts remembers inviting an out-of-state speaker who couldn’t fly in to give a lecture. With online programming, that individual can call in to deliver a live webinar — an addition to the lineup that has been a win-win-win for the course leaders, learners, and faculty speaker.

“You can do things you couldn’t do before,” says Dr. Roberts. “We can bring in perspectives that we couldn’t with in-person programming. We can have people overcome time and distance logistics that couldn’t happen before.”

Choosing the right method for your team

Dr. Roberts emphasizes that there is no one-size-fits-all. The “right” delivery method depends on the desired outcome of the program, and choosing carefully means the experience will be a win-win for both the employer and the employee.

HMS Corporate Learning offers in-person and online programming to help health care teams develop new perspectives to help them reach their goals. The programs leverage faculty expertise throughout HMS and the entire Harvard University community. To learn about the HMS Corporate Learning custom programs, read about the approach orhear from clients.