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Digital Courses vs In-Person Training: Which Is Most Effective? - HRDQ

Digital Courses vs In-Person Training: Which Is Most Effective?

Every year, more and more companies invest in online training and continued education for their employees. Predictions show that, by 2026, the online learning industry will reach a market value of $50 Billion, growing 15% per year.

"The Global Corporate E-Learning market accounted for $14.23 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach $49.87 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 15% during the forecast period." - BusinessWire.

This much investment must mean that online learning has some tangible benefits over traditional in-person training, right? Well, the truth is that there's still much research left to do. Add to that the gradual change of in-person learning techniques, and it can become quite challenging to tell which option is the better choice for your business.

Is Online Learning New?

One of the biggest roadblocks to adopting online training and e-learning is this perception that it's somehow the New Thing. Many decision-makers are skeptical of new trends, fearing that they're just that: trends that will die-off before long.

With online learning, we can safely say that the point where it might die-off has long passed. E-learning was initially developed in the 90s; it has withstood the test of time for over two decades. The technologies powering it have changed and evolved, as have the techniques used to convey information.

Online Course Study

However, the same is true with in-person learning, including significant shifts in how we go about teaching specific subjects (Common Core math, anyone?).

"We've been using these kinds of tools for 20 years. So if you're considering making the switch from ILT to online training, don't be in the mindset of trying "the new thing." Online training is here to stay." - Continu.

The reality is that many forms of in-person learning today are, actually, hybrid models in disguise; they may involve a significant portion of in-person learning, but they also include online resources. Plus, the addition of video and screen sharing technologies – which have been broadly adopted due to the pandemic – means that online components are commonplace.

So, if you're a decision-maker, business owner, HR representative, or another influential individual in your company, and you're considering the decision of online versus in-person training programs, you likely want to know the pros and cons of each. Let's dig in.

The Benefits of Online Learning

As you might expect, there are many benefits to adopting an online learning process and technique.  

You have greater flexibility with online learning.

With online learning, you can do many things you wouldn't usually be able to do. For example, you might be able to attend a (virtual) lecture by an industry-leading instructor whose classes are sold out or booked up years in advance or unfeasibly expensive. You can attend training that would typically require costly business trips across the country. You can participate in various forms of training, all of which might conflict with one another if attempting to attend them in person.

Taking Online Course

Additionally, you typically have flexibility within the program. Employees being trained can complete the courses at their own pace, learning in whatever way they're best at learning. Even lectures can be recorded and watched at their own pace, instead of having to follow along with a lecturer even if they fall behind.

Identify your preferred learning style: What's My Learning Style

You gain a greater variety of program access.

One of the most significant benefits of online training is the opportunity cost is much lower. Employees don't need to take time off work to complete training, don't need to travel across the state or country, don't need to book a vacation, or otherwise adjust their schedules. The opportunity cost of in-person training is even higher with full-team training; your team needs to be off work entirely, which sets back productivity an untold amount.

Online Program Access

With online training, all of these costs are significantly reduced. They aren't gone; after all, every moment spent in training is a moment not spent working. They are, however, a lower barrier to training than the additional physical and in-person requirements would be.

Online training is safer, physically.

This is a new benefit, relevant primarily only now due to the ongoing pandemic. Many in-person seminars are canceled, dramatically reduced in availability, or quite dangerous to attend.

Safe Online Training

Many of your employees may be reticent to participate in in-person classes, no matter how small, due to the risk of contracting a COVID-19 infection. Once the pandemic is as settled and over as it will be, this benefit might not be as much of a benefit, but it's still relevant. Even before the pandemic, "convention flu" was a common issue.

Online learning is dramatically cheaper.

The expense of in-person learning is often relatively high.  

If you're bringing an instructor into your workplace, you need to pay their fees, which can be pretty steep. If they're teaching online, you need only pay a much smaller fee, with some options even cheaper due to online learning platforms archiving videos and lectures.

Woman Online Learning

If you're sending your employees out to a seminar or lecture, conversely, you have even more costs. Transportation costs (from plane tickets to vehicle wear/tear and gas), lodging costs, meal costs, course costs; all add up.  

You may have increased networking opportunities.

One of the fringe benefits of in-person training is the potential opportunity to meet and network with others throughout your industry. With in-person training, only those with the resources to attend are present to network. However, with online learning, the option may exist to network with people worldwide, many of whom would never partake in in-person training due to difficulties in attending an in-person seminar.

Increased Networking Opportunities

However, this does require the online courses to exist in a format that includes networking opportunities. Asynchronous training, such as courses presented through a learning platform, does not offer this opportunity.  

What You Lose with Online Training

It's not all benefits with online learning; otherwise, there would be no debate. Online learning loses out on a few aspects of training that can be beneficial in certain situations.

How to deal with challenges that may arise along the way: Conflict Strategies Inventory

You lose hands-on experience.

One of the most significant benefits of in-person training is the opportunity to learn hands-on. You can't digitally train a skill that requires manual dexterity and hands-on access to niche, expensive, or massive tools and machines. 

Hands On Experience

Some forms of training can't easily be completed without access to facilities, resources, or in-person demonstrations. For example, machine repair on an assembly line, hands-on welding, and other physical disciplines need in-person training to be effective.  

You lose in-person nuance, body language, and clarity.

One of the foremost benefits of in-person learning is the ability to work closely with a more knowledgeable and experienced human being. There are thousands of tiny aspects of communication, from body language to the opportunity to ask minor questions that wouldn't be worth an email, that are all lost with online learning.

In Person Nuance

The caveat here is that many – though not all – of these small benefits are returned when using a virtual learning space or even just video conferencing for learning. Body language can be conveyed through video chats, though not as effectively as in-person.  

You lose synchronicity.

One of the benefits of e-learning and online training is the ability for employees to learn at their own pace. This benefit is, however, also a drawback. If you want to train up a workforce across the board, encouraging them to attend in-person learning courses and seminars ensures that they're all on the same page, learning at the same pace. Online courses split up employees into smaller cohorts based on how quickly they progress through the material. This split can lead to various adverse outcomes, from resentment from those who fall behind to those who rush ahead not retaining the information, just passing tests.

Employees on Same Page

To an extent, this can get mitigated through gated and time-limited training options but can be difficult for the people on both ends of the scale. The people who progress quickly may forget aspects of training or chafe to finish it, while those on the slower end feel constantly rushed.

You lose some satisfaction.

Studies from 2005 and 2008 indicate that students generally had unfavorable opinions of the online training they undertook. This lack of satisfaction comes from various sources, including uncertainty about the quality of the training or dissatisfaction with the platforms used.

Unsatisfied Business Employee

Fortunately, this is getting better. More recent studies, like this one from 2021, indicate increasing satisfaction in online learning options. They still lag behind in-person training, but the gap is closing.

"The highest areas of satisfaction for students were communication and flexibility, whereas 92.9% of faculty were satisfied with students' enthusiasm for online learning. Technical problems led to reduced student satisfaction, while faculty were hampered by the higher workload and the required time to prepare the teaching and assessment materials. Study-load and workload, enhancing engagement, and technical issues (SWEET) were the themes that emerged from the thematic analysis as affecting student and faculty satisfaction."

You lose flexibility.

Different students will learn at different paces and have different areas where they struggle in any training course. With an in-person course, the opportunity exists to adjust the course progression to focus more on those areas, spend a longer time on them, and answer specific questions. With an online course, this opportunity may not exist. Students may need to contact the instructor through other channels, do independent research, or ask their peers for assistance instead. 

 Video Call Class

This holds true primarily with pre-recorded or large class formats. For smaller, live training courses, students may be able to interrupt a video call to ask their questions and get answers in real-time. As technology evolves, so too will these opportunities.

Which is More Effective?

A listing of pros and cons is great in the abstract, but as a data-driven decision-maker, you want evidence. Studies are still ongoing – and always will be – but some results are pretty conclusive.

Which is More Effective

Which one is more effective?

  • "Johnson, Aragon, & Shaik (2000): Online learning is as effective as face-to-face learning for graduate students.
  • Coppola & Myre (2002): Online training is as effective as face-to-face training for learning corporate software.
  • Neuhauser (2010): Online learning is as effective as face-to-face learning.
  • Dimeff et al. (2015): Online training resulted in superior knowledge acquisition compared to instructor-led training for clinicians.
  • Brady et al. (2018): Online training is as effective as face-to-face training for learning a specific medical interpretation procedure."

Data gathered by Continu.

As you can see, studies show that online learning is, at worst, equally effective to in-person learning. In some cases, it's even better. The benefits listed above can indicate why; online training can be more consistent, without the variance of in-person lecturing and interactions between people who might not get along.

Should You Invest in Online Learning and Training?

The truth is, there's no one correct answer for everyone. Instead, you have to answer questions to determine which course is best.

  • Is the skill being trained only learnable hands-on?
  • Is your training aimed at individuals or larger groups?
  • Is your training time-sensitive?
  • Is your training nuanced enough to need more reactive and interactive discussions?
  • Is expense an issue with your training choices?
  • Is physical safety an issue of concern?

These kinds of questions will guide you towards your answer.

Whether online or in person training, identifying your team's communication style is a helpful next step: What's My Communication Style

Online Learning and Training

In truth, the best option is typically a hybrid approach. In-person learning can teach some skills more effectively than online learning can. Others virtually require hands-on experience. Some may even do best with a complex hybrid system, wherein instructor-led training starts and ends the curriculum, online learning supplements it, additional online resources are provided for self-driven learning, and tests get proctored in-person.  

There's so much variation available for learning that there's no single correct answer for every business. Even if one method works best for your business for one skill or a particular group of employees, it might not be the best choice for a different skill or a different cohort. Adaptation and adjustment are the name of the game, which is why hybrid learning is so often the best choice; it can be adapted to any needs and for any group of potential students.

Have any additional questions regarding the use of digital courses or in-person training? Please feel free to leave those in the comments section below! We'll reply within a day or two and make it a point to reply to every comment, question, or concern that we receive.

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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.