Online training vs face-to-face – and the winner is…

Online training has come a long way since its early days, when the presentation of training materials was shifted online in its entirety – with little thought paid to accommodating the differences presented by digital media. While this early approach resulted in poor learning outcomes and even poorer acceptance of learning materials by participants, that was a long time ago. Thankfully, times have changed.

Online training has now come of age. With thoughtfully designed course structures that cater to people’s diverse learning styles, the best online courses today present rich, immersive and effective learning experiences. The high quality of online learning products now available, combined with their other advantages – such as a lower cost and higher flexibility for students – has led to a sharp rise in online’s popularity. But, is a fully-online learning paradigm ideal?

Face-to-face (ie. traditional) lessons do retain certain advantages. Not all students thrive under the learning conditions of the online environment, and some subject areas aren’t all that amenable to a fully self-directed learning style.

What are these differences and how do you go about choosing the right style of learning for your employees?

Advantages of online learning

Cost

Online courses tend to be markedly cheaper than face-to-face. Usually, once the material is bought, it can be used again and again – without the need to pay for a trainer. This also relieves the administrative burden of organising classes and the lost productivity that results from employees being forced to attend classes at inopportune times. Fully automated, self-directed learning platforms can reduce the time spent administrating learning activities to nearly zero.

Flexibility

Online training’s greatest benefits occur in the realm of flexibility: it allows learners to choose when and where they undertake the lessons, and different learning styles can be accommodated by employing a variety of teaching methods – including audio, visual or text-based explanations and examples – for the same module.

However, the most relevant flexibility advantage of online learning is that it allows students to freely review the learning materials whenever and however many times they want – an impossibility in a face-to-face class.

Effectiveness at scale

Larger companies have the opportunity to benefit from online training’s easy scalability to a large employee base across multiple locations. Particularly useful for compliance training, it reduces the time taken to identify and address skills gaps as they are detected. Modular courses allow employees to quickly access the training material required to upskill in a particular area, increasing agility and thereby the organisation’s capacity to capitalise on new business opportunities as they arise.

Consistency

Online learning has the advantage of ensuring consistently high-quality instruction across an organisation, which is especially important in the area of compliance. A well-structured course ensures all materials and topics are properly covered by every student, which doesn’t always occur with traditional methods. Different trainers have different competencies and teaching styles, which can lead to inconsistent learning outcomes.

Analytics and assessment

Online exercises and assessments allow the easy collection of additional data on student learning that instructors can use to track individual student progress and to revise and improve course design. This also allows the creation of detailed, targeted feedback, and assessment results can be accessed immediately to reveal compliance rates or areas requiring further skills development.

Advantages of face-to-face training

While online training has a number of operational advantages, not all learning is best done sitting alone in front of a computer screen. Traditional lessons still offer a number of advantages.

Real-time responsiveness

Face-to-face training is a direct, dynamic and social activity, which can surpass the online model in important ways. In a live environment, the instructor is able to evaluate the students’ level of engagement in the material, attentiveness and level of comprehension. By asking questions and judging the students’ responses, instructors can immediately detect misunderstandings as they arise. With this awareness, instructors can alter the pace and structure of the lesson to address any issues.

Peer-to-peer learning

Traditional teaching methods create a collaborative environment that can foster discussion and dialogue among students. This not only produces broader learning outcomes through the sharing of different perspectives; group training can serve as a team-building exercise that helps strengthen interpersonal relationships between employees. In addition, while some students prefer solitary, self-directed learning, many find the structured face-to-face environment much more engaging and are able to learn more effectively as a result.

Neither is perfect

Both online and face-to-face learning have their individual advantages, but neither alone is the perfect solution for every situation and every person. Online training, for example, tends to be difficult for employees without strong, self-directed learning skills. It works well for learners who are mature, well organised and have good time management habits. It also tends to favour those with strong abilities in computing and literacy, which many employees in some industries don’t possess. They may find it very difficult to motivate themselves to undertake the lessons or fail to engage properly with the course material. It’s just not their style.

Certain subject areas, particularly those focussing on soft-skills such as conflict resolution or organisational communication, benefit greatly from face-to-face delivery because non-verbal communication, such as gestures, body language and facial expressions can be integral to communicating all facets of the subject matter.

Essentially, online training shines brightest when it comes to lower-order learning objectives: recalling basic facts, processes and general comprehension of straightforward material.

Face-to-face training has the advantage when the subject matter is more complex and the instructor can easily confirm whether students are comfortable with the material. For interpersonal ‘soft skills’ training, the face-to-face environment enables participation in group work and role-playing exercises where the ability to judge subtle non-verbal clues is essential.

And, the winner is…

Perhaps a little anticlimactically, the winner is both! Each training style has advantages and disadvantages – so the optimal choice for training in your workplace really depends on the subject matter you want to teach, as well as the your employees’ comfort level with each teaching method.

In general, online training is the best choice for procedures and compliance training, while face-to-face is best for more abstract concepts and soft skills. As a result, ‘blended’ or ‘hybrid’ learning methods that employ each style to its best advantage are considered the current gold standard both in the workplace as well as at schools and universities.

Fortunately, this has led to the development of learning management software platforms that integrate both online and face-to-face courses to facilitate the administration, scheduling and analysis of the effectiveness of blended learning campaigns.

In doing so, these platforms narrow the administrative gap between online and face-to-face training – allowing the decision on whether to use one or the other to focus more on the educational effectiveness of each method, as opposed to their relative cost, administrative burden or other operational considerations.