LETS Blog Post

The Learning Advantage:  In Person vs Virtual

The Learning Advantage: In Person vs Virtual

March 8, 2023

There has been a lot of research about virtual event participation, networking, and new technologies but very little about the level of learning and retention achieved by conference participants. After all, science and healthcare conferences are all about new research and information, sharing insights, sparking excitement about the new applications of a discovery, and trying to impact as many people as possible. The big question is: what is the impact of virtual events on learning?

In January, the Journal of European CME published a research paper, “Effective Learning in Virtual Conferences: The Application of Five Principles of Learning.” In it, the authors examined the adaptation of learning among scientists and healthcare professionals in conferences and symposia from face-to-face to fully virtual meetings in the last three years. They applied five fundamental principles of learning to measure learning levels at these events, namely:

  • Prior Knowledge – linking new information to what we already know.
  • Context-Dependent Memory – Providing context enables the learner to better understand the new information and context makes it more likely to be retrieved from memory as it was learned.
  • Meaning – Constructing their own meaning by making sense of every piece of information and linking it to what they know improves memory. This includes what one knows and does not know about the topic (a powerful motivator).  
  • Knowledge Organization – Knowledge is organized in semantic networks as linked concepts. Memory retrieval is activation of a concept and activating linked concepts in that network. Over time concepts are repeatedly activated creating knowledge consolidation.
  • Situational Interest – Arousing a learner’s interest in the moment (situation) by providing a learning stimulus. Situational interest is activated by learners realizing that they have a knowledge gap regarding the stimulus presented. It has proven to be a powerful mechanism that leads to information-seeking behavior.

For learning to be successful in the virtual context, learners still need to be provided with a context to activate their prior knowledge, be situationally interested, and engaged in active construction of meaning.  All five principles of learning can be applied to both a face-to-face event and a virtual event.

The researchers compared the quantitative feedback obtained at the end of an annual health science event. The first was an in-person only event in 2019 and the same event two years later in 2021 was completely virtual. The evaluation consisted of five items:

  • Learning objectives met
  • Impact on practice
  • Educational quality of symposium compared to other educational interventions
  • Impact on practice
  • Educational quality of symposium compared to other educational interventions
  • Content relevance
  • Scientific objectivity

The Data

The items were scored as percentages, comparing program evaluation scores between the 2019 face-to-face event and the 2021 virtual event. Each of the five criteria showed a similar pattern.

Overall, the findings suggest that the virtual conference was perceived as significantly more effective than the face-to-face conference. The data also suggest that the five evidence-based learning principles discussed above apply both to face-to-face learning events and to digital learning.  Learning in a virtual event is a valid alternative to face-to-face when comparing similar events run in 2019 and 2021. The authors concluded that learning in the virtual environment can be powerful and will continue to be part of health and science learning in the future.

Putting Principles Into Practice

We have reached a stage where the technical literacy of virtual events has increased significantly, especially with the help of experienced producers. They can design and manage health science conferences, enabling speakers to be prepared to present in front of a camera and provide ideas and the ability to better engage their audience. Producers can choreograph and manage live hybrid or virtual events, including pre-planned presentations, so that the overall learning experience is clear and impactful. They also know how to run a near glitch-free conference that can eliminate distraction and interruptions.

Designing the virtual experience to facilitate learning requires a broad understanding of the latest technologies and software in order to create a great event. Once that is taken care of, those sponsoring and planning such events can focus on the learning literacy and messaging aspects of their events.

Lee Deaner is President of Leading Edge Training Solutions, a leading producer of hybrid and virtual events, informational meetings, and training programs since 2009. He is also the co-author of The Virtual Events Playbook, available on Amazon and directly from Amplify Publishing.