Online vs. Face to Face

One of the reasons I don’t blog as much as I would like to is that I often don’t know where to start. Then when I do – I don’t know where to stop. For someone who used to write abstracts for a living I am surprisingly bad at concise.

Last night is a case in point – I started writing this blog, prompted by my first face to face course in two years, and four (MS Word) pages later realised i’d got lost in a ramble. Truth be told I was actually writing three, maybe four, blog posts. One on comparing online training with face to face, one reflecting on the lessons of the pandemic, or remembering the positives, one on the My Whole Self campaign, and something there on how aspects of myself, relating to autism, gender, sexuality, fatness, had been handled badly in the workplace and led unnecessarily to worsening mental health.

I doubt I will complete all four posts unless I suddenly develop an enduring focus that confounds all precedents. But lets try for one.

As mentioned – last week I did my first face to face course in two whole years. More really – for a full course. I did a small one in Feb 2020, but the last one with a full room of delegates was Hull, December 2019 in really awful circumstances.

Two years ago came the pandemic, and lockdown. Obviously we all had different experiences depending on the work we do, where we live etc. But for me – common to many, it meant cancellation of all my work, uncertainty, and staying home. There were lots of online meetings and drop ins and so on for people like me who were cast adrift, anxious about what would come next. Surprisingly for me, I stayed pretty calm. For someone who has a history of severe anxiety and especially health anxiety – I am quite good in a crisis. Perhaps because it is good to know where your enemy is. Seeing as I am usually inventing something to be anxious about – if I actually know quite clearly what is threatening me, I seem to be able to take it in my stride. I didn’t know what would happen. I did know that my reserves were very low, having had a terrible year the year before. But I also knew that I was happy to be able to stay home and be more sure of my health and not bringing something home to my husband. I put my faith in the universe that we’d cope with whatever was to come.

And in a few months time MHFA England came to the rescue with a new online course that I could upskill in and opportunities to deliver online. Later, other online courses followed, and more opportunities. So life found a new rhythm. I took my place in my spare room / office / craft space, in front of a camera, and learnt how to deliver training online.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

I was nervous at first. The unknown is always unnerving. I had to get to know the different platforms we were using, figure out the technology. Luckily I am pretty competent in that department, a quick study as they say – and also have the enormous advantage of being ok with imperfection. I recognise sometimes when things are out of my hands and am happy to make do.

The online version of Mental Health First Aid is different from the face to face, in that it requires delegates to complete independent learning prior to each live session. In the Face to Face, you turn up, you sit there and hopefully listen and participate for two days, you go away. Again, hopefully afterwards you pick up your manual and read it now and again, you look at the resources on the website. but maybe you don’t. The online requires you to read sections, to watch videos, to answer questions and reflect on your learning. You have to do this in order to get signed off at the end of the course. I’ve come to realise that how much people engage with this, in the right order – can vary depending on how far apart the live sessions are, how good the messaging is, and how busy / the kind of work the people are doing. It works best when people take the time in advance of each session, a few days before so they can let me know if there are any problems or questions – and then in the session we build on that work. They are more likely to have thoughts or questions to ask, to fuel discussion.

Some say they find online learners to be less engaged. I don’t agree. However having gone back to face to face I think I recognise what people mean. People are more spontaneous in person. People speak up, interject, talk amongst themselves. The weird thing about online training is how quiet it can be. How orderly. If everyone is on mute – If they are talking to others in the background, we don’t hear it. Break out rooms happen out of earshot. People raise their hand to speak, or even bringing themselves off mute takes a little time and you see it happening so make a space. If you ask the right questions, if you invite people to speak, or contribute, they do. If they want to. But they also have other options too – that aren’t available in face to face training. If you are a quiet, thoughtful type – an introvert, or socially anxious, less confident – you might find it hard to speak up in front of colleagues. Whereas in online training, you can answer questions in the chat – even privately to the trainer. I also think it’s easier to contribute verbally when you are safe in your own space, rather than sitting next to and opposite people around a conference table.

I think some people will always prefer face to face. If you are an extravert, confident, chatty. If you never worry about what others think. If you just prefer to keep work and home separate, or if home is not so great a space for you, or you have no privacy. If you aren’t used to computers, don’t work with them – have to be on site, it may not be an option.

There are definitely pros and cons to both, for both learners and trainers. The learning outcomes should be the same, but which you will get the most out of will depend on your personality and preparedness to do the work. I do my best to give you the best experience I can, and make a safe space for people to share and contribute as much as they want to. If you are wanting to arrange a course for your organisation, various factors will come into play in deciding which you prefer.

“The course was really interesting and Sarah was an excellent trainer, obviously very experienced in this field and easy to listen to and approachable. A good split of theory, case studies and activities.”

Delegate, Face to Face course

Scheduling – is it easier for you to free people up for two days together, one day a week, or a few hours a time for four sessions, which can be spread over any period between two days to four weeks. (Albeit you will need to give people time for independent learning too – you might decide this should be homework).

Travel and accommodation costs. – Are you bringing people together from multiple sites across the country – while this can be a great networking opportunity, it can also be pretty costly in expenses. Having people attend from their own office or the comfort of their own homes is a lot cheaper. This also goes for my fees – if i’m training outside of my “home zone” – I will need to charge for train/taxi/bus fares, accommodation and expenses. If I’m delivering in my spare room – not so much!

Equipment / Space – do you have a suitable training environment, a large room with tables that can be arranged suitably, audio visual equipment, flip charts or white boards, coffee / tea / water facilities. Even though covid restrictions have been stepped down, it is still preferable to have a large space so we can have breakout groups, and good ventilation. Do you have up to date computers/laptops with video cameras, microphones, headsets so people can take part individually. It can be possible to manage with a few people in a room together but it is not ideal, and loses some of the functions of the online platforms. Or do people generally have their own laptops they can use at home? Can people have privacy to engage in sensitive conversations without being overheard by colleagues?

As for me – at the moment I still prefer online. It is easier to find work-life balance, involves less travel and time away from home. And I have come to be confident in it. I feel less vulnerable, behind my screen, than I do standing in front of a room of people.

I thought this would be a really long 2 days but I found they flew by. Sarah the instructor had so much useful information to talk us through. Although I never love the group breakout activities actually they were fine as they were only 10 mins long and they broke things up. I think it really worked to have a 2 hour break between sessions. I also got more out of this course personally than I expected to which is great.

Delegate, Online Course

Nine years into training – I still feel sick before I do a face to face course. I’m fine once I get going but it is very draining. It’s also physically demanding. Some of that is to do with my own fitness and health issues – I’m not used to standing most of the day any more, and my health issues mean this can be painful so I have to manage myself carefully – ditto when dragging cases heavy with materials and equipment around.
But I do enjoy some aspects of the face to face. Seeing different places, both towns and work environments. Meeting people, conversations held in breaks, over lunch or at the end of the day. Some of the activities we do in session are great fun. And I have to give honourable mention to some of the great lunches I have had provided over the years! The North East is so hospitable. Evenings on my own in hotels give me headspace away from the demands of home too.

Online training gives greater flexibility – and my favourite courses are those that stretch over a month. People have the time to do the work properly, to think, digest. And also a relationship builds between delegates. Sometimes bonds form in a two day course, where people share their personal experiences – but there is more space for it to mature over a longer time period.

We will see how things progress, if things continue to “return to normal” – in any case there will be change to come later in the year as a new version of the course is rolled out – I wait with baited breath as to what that will entail. Regardless, I am sure that both face to face and online training are here to stay, each bringing its own merits – suiting different people better. Variety allows us to reach more people, and has contributed to MHFA England reaching 1 in 50 people in England with Mental Health training. I’m proud to have been a part of that.

If you’d like to talk about what would be most suitable for your organisation, and get an idea about costs – drop me an email at

Alternatively book your place on an open course – Upcoming Dates

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