Online is not always best

Glastonbury - you have toRolf Harris is an extraordinary entertainer, but as anyone who was at Glastonbury yesterday will no doubt say, “you had to be there” to truly understand how this 80-year-old wowed the crowds last night. Even though you could have seen him on TV, caught up with his “Two Little Boys” online or followed his performance on Twitter, there would have been nothing quite like “being there”. Indeed, in years to come, the teenagers who were singing “there’s only one Rolf Harris” last night will be saying “we were there when Rolf rocked”. In psychological terms it will be an “autobiographical memory“.

For all its wonder and significance, the Internet cannot replace a live event – even if it thinks it can. After all, there are webinars, teleconferences and a host of replacements and alternatives for live experiences, yet they all lack something. They miss the physicality of the shared experience, for a start. True, you can set up a webinar and share your knowledge with many more people than might be possible compared with the “old fashioned” technology of being in the same room as them. But when you are in the same physical space as a group of people there appears to be some shared thinking going on which does not happen online.

New research on online education suggests that shared online experiences are not all they are cracked up to be. A study of e-learning from the National Bureau of Economic Research has revealed that some people need that shared physical experience in order to learn. In spite of all the advantages of the technology, some students it seems, simply cannot learn like that – they need to be in the same space as others. Educationalists are being warned that the cost savings and the other benefits of online learning are often not outweighed by people being together in the same physical space.

Business are often keen to exploit the cost-reducing capabilities of online replacements for real world activities. They help boost profits and also provide a greater “reach” for a company. But often this is at the expense of true connection with your audience. This new study should be a warning shot – sometimes online engagement is inferior to real world shared experiences. We should not always rush to the Internet, when being in the same room as other people – however awkward and costly that might be – could well be better.

After all, how many people will say in years to come “I was online when that webinar rocked”? It’s not quite the same as “being there” is it? Ask anyone who was at Glastonbury last night.

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