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In-Person Training vs Online Training: What’s the Difference

The primary distinction between in-person and online training lies in the location of the learning experience.  In-person training, or more specifically, instructor-led training, involves hands-on participation between the trainer and the learners in real-time in a shared space such as a classroom or designated learning area. Training is conducted face-to-face and has a predetermined time duration for classroom instruction and may include multiple learning sessions over a set period.

On the other hand, online training empowers learners to engage in training via a series of lessons and activities using several internet platforms. With their personal computer or mobile phone, learners can receive training without the guidance of an instructor. Online training encompasses eLearning which includes innovative technology and applications that enhance the learner’s experience by making the process of learning convenient and efficient.

How Online Training & eLearning Dominated Learning Altogether

Online learning isn’t anything new but something that’s slowly started to gain traction with the growth of the internet, accessibility to personal computers, and now the omnipresence of smartphones.  According to Josh Bersin’s review of corporate training, learning initiatives using new software and an early learning-via-the-internet model that were promising during the early 2000s however were almost impossible due to a swath of technical predicaments:

  • Software that’s too expensive to build
  • Loading times of video glitchy and slow
  • No technical support (aside from rebooting)

However, with time, better software engineering and hardware capabilities became available to corporations and at-home consumers. As a result, the goal of on-demand learning would be fulfilled and eventually usher in the development of learning management systems alongside the dotcom bubble in the early 2000s.  Each LMS platform developed from that point onward would then begin to address the learning objectives of employees. Interactive training material whether on the CD-ROM or the internet would then be designed to fit the needs of the learner.

Software of this nature would soon become sophisticated as new developments would go beyond LMS capabilities and include further consultation by HR professionals, learning specialists, psychologists, software developers, and instructional designers.  These new iterations that go beyond the internet-based LMS would lead to the growth of the eLearning market which, at the time of this writing, includes over 6,582 vendors and is expected to reach a total valuation of $50 billion by 2026.

How Effective are eLearning & Online Training Methods?

Amidst all the technical innovations in learning, the main question L&D professionals have asked is how effective are eLearning solutions provided by an LMS or other learning software.  The simple answer is that they are effective. Depending on the type of training, online learning can be as effective and in some cases more effective than the traditional in-person, face-to-face learning we’ve grown accustomed to in our primary school days.

Studies Against eLearning and Online Training Methods:

Photopolous et al (2022): Students were dissatisfied with utilizing eLearning compared to instructor-led learning.

Song, Koh, & Singleton (2003): Learners expressed a lack of community with fellow students and instructors as well as confusion with online assignments and modules.

Pilotti & Alaoui (2022): Learners had a higher chance of lacking comprehension of given topics compared to traditional face-to-face learning.

Studies in Support of eLearning and Online Training Methods:

Coppola & Myre (2002): Usage of online training modules was seen as effective as traditional in-person training.

Rodriguez & Armellini (2013): For corporate learning environments, eLearning was efficient if the content was engaging enough. Training interactions with L&D were still needed to measure changes in job performance.

Wong & Sixl-Daniell (2017): eLearning was effective in a positive training ROI but only if employees had the proper time slots set in place.

Studies in Favor of a Hybrid Approach:

Regmi (2023): Despite the omnipresence of online learning platforms, online course designers should allow an in-person training option when needed by learners.

Raymond, Jacob, and Lyons (2016): Online learning combined with traditional in-person learning positively impacted the learning experience.

Schoop (2023): Online learning and traditional in-person training on location will depend on the context given the cost difference between the two and the convenience each gives for learners.

The consensus may seem like it is a straightforward answer in saying that online training is as effective as ILT however this is limited to a variety of factors including the scope of training, what is provided to the learner, and what is being instructed via the learning platform used. The research on online training and eLearning implementation as the most effective solutions to meet a company’s learning goals is more or less a split decision. The best learning method depends on what the organization is trying to accomplish and how they can meet their learners’ needs.

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Cost Efficiency: The Main Reason Organizations Use eLearning

Why are so many organizations infatuated with online training technology? It’s just cheaper to use compared to using live trainers and instructors. Digital learning methods have become the biggest thing since sliced bread in the learning & development community since 2019 due to their cost efficiency and convenience for all L&D stakeholders, HR, and learners. From recreated learning modules for compliance training to mobile gamification, learning tech is advancing to make learning as easy as possible for learners and L&D teams. In a 2022 study by Judith Strother, eLearning proves to be just as effective as instructor-led training methods and also reduces the training budget needed for training facility space and travel & lodging costs for trainers.  However as the old saying goes, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Organizations whose training is predominantly online-based will still need to keep watch for a variety of things in learning tech upkeep including:

  • Cost of maintaining learning systems. Most LMS platforms are a software-as-a-service model
  • Researching up-to-date course material on a given topic
  • Administrative work related to updating learner profiles, monitoring course performance by learners, and awarding certifications.

As learning tech becomes more sophisticated, exclusive, and convenient for organizations and their learners, we may notice a trend where the once cost-efficient online training model becomes more expensive than ILT.

Learner Perception of Online Training: Yay or Nay?

Most L&D professionals get lost in the weeds when it comes to planning a training program and don’t think about the primary metric of success: learner satisfaction It can seem justifiable as to why L&D doesn’t pay as much attention to the learner experience as one might expect.

Organizations invest in learning and development projects to address talent concerns which in turn are associated with business cases unique to each organization. Whether it’s improving a sales team’s closing skills using enablement training or ensuring their engineering team is up to date, L&D teams want to make sure learners have a solid comprehension of the material being taught in their courses. The concern for the learner as the individual has gone out the window with the advancement of new learning tech.

Online training and eLearning tech often produce lower satisfaction scores in comparison to in-person training. Within academia, Dargahi, Kooshgebabagi, and Mireshgollah (2023) found medical students had “relative satisfaction” with eLearning platforms noting the technical issues associated with the tech implemented and the need for instructor guidance.

Within the corporate learning space, Burklund (2020) found that among 15,577 learners, a majority preferred in-person training within a physical space as opposed to online training. The study also concluded that learners had better comprehension of the lesson material as opposed to pure eLearning or hybrid modalities.

What does this mean for the balance between instructor-led training and online training for the future? As skills become more demanding in any given industry and learning technology becomes more sophisticated and convenient, it will be the task of L&D professionals to find the perfect balance (or no balance at all) between utilizing instructor-led training and online training to satisfy learners while meeting an organization’s training objectives.

How Does Online Learning Compare to Old-Fashioned, Instructor-Led Training?

While eLearning and all things online training have the benefit of convenience, old-fashioned in-person instruction has significant advantages that may never be replicated:

  • Immediate assistance from the trainer or subject matter expert during instruction
  • Interaction with other learners and the ability to develop rapport between learners and their trainers.
  • On-the-job training allows for one-on-one guidance between trainer and trainee and allows for real-time feedback and questions.
  • Decreased multitasking between learning objectives within a course.
  • Flexibility for instructors, trainers, and subject matter experts to add their personalization to their courses.
  • Ability of instructors to recognize the “human” element of learners and act on individual learner needs.

Face-to-face training will always triumph over online training given these advantages that can only happen when student and teacher share the same space. Even with pre-recorded online videos and checklist-based learning modules, there’s no substituting the quality of instruction and the quality of comprehension grasped between in-person interactions. Period.

Where and When is Instructor-Led Training Best Used?

While any training course has the benefit of being entirely taught using online learning methods, this doesn’t seem to be the case when training within specific industries, job roles, or professional skills. Industries that require their associates to have more technical skill sets such as transportation and logistics and manufacturing are usually best suited to using predominantly in-person, on-the-job training.

Skulmowski (2024) found that activity-based learning or learning-by-doing generated greater comprehension in a shorter amount of time and decreased the amount of working memory needed by learners to grasp an instructor’s concepts. This proved to be a much-needed necessity for roles and job duties that don’t revolve around computers and internet usage.

Keep in mind the points delivered in the previous two sections regarding the advantages of ILT and its strong correlation with learner satisfaction. The finding still permeates even for roles that can still use an online learning method. Shendell et al (2017) found that workers enrolled in safety & compliance training for OSHA had statistically higher test scores and learner satisfaction when ILT was utilized compared to purely online training. Given the two studies above it’s safe to say that with face-to-face learning in a traditional classroom or work setting, the 70:20:10 model plays a significant role where:

  • 70% of learning takes place with tasks on the job.
  • 20% from collaborative relationships (between trainers and peers)
  • 10% through traditional learning material such as written coursework and exams.

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Blended Learning: Where ILT and Online Training Meet

When L&D can’t decide which is the better method to provide training the answer is usually the middle ground between the two.  Blended learning is a method of learning delivery that uses both online methods and instructor-led training. The composition between the two learning methods varies depending on what the learner’s objectives are. It can be split down 50-50 or it can be more favored toward ILT with 70% in-class instruction and 30% eLearning modules. It’s up to the discretion of key players in the L&D strategy — the chief learning officer, the learning director, or the training managers — to decide how training will be planned and presented to learners.

How Effective is Blended Learning Compared to Pure Instructor-led Training?

Unilaterally, blended learning is seen by most L&D researchers as the more effective option compared to pure online training. Comparing blended learning with pure online training, Stohr and Farnevik (2020) found that learners in the corporate setting found eLearning methods to be useful in the short term but expressed doubt in engaging learners in lifelong learning throughout their careers due to a lack of engagement from facilitators.

Learners expressed greater satisfaction and understanding of the material during the face-to-face instruction portion. In another study by Reavly et al. (2018), blended learning received a much more positive reception than online training in terms of comprehension of the material taught and retention of information in proceeding days throughout the course.

Other researchers also found it to be somewhat mixed. Findings by Ma and Lee (2021) suggested that the eLearning component of blended learning programs should be adjusted more to ensure learner satisfaction. Reducing the length of instructional videos and creating more engaging online courses that mimic on-the-job training or learning in the lab were key in inhibiting disengagement from learners.

Amongst the learners themselves, the reception was also mixed. Belur et al. (2021) Police officers and police trainees in the greater London area found the eLearning portion to be beneficial in receiving information at first but found it difficult to develop long-term memory and comprehension. Amongst seasoned and new subject matter experts and trainers, face-to-face instruction was preferred.

Planning and Organizing Your Team For Success

HR and L&D specialists looking to reduce costs may find themselves in a rough spot between delivering increased ROI for learners’ skill sets while balancing the costs of managing training operations. However, L&D must make a case that Instructor-led training (ILT) offers several benefits:

  • Facilitates exchange of ideas and creates dialogue between learners and trainers
  • Develops social interactions between trainers and learners as well as trainers and learning specialists.
  • The hands-on training component increases learner comprehension
  • Faster response times from instructors for feedback and help
  • Higher learner satisfaction ratings
  • Preferred method amongst seasoned trainers and instructors
  • Preferred method of job roles that are physical and require specific tactile skills

Online training and eLearning have their advantages including:

  • Cost efficiency with most training budgets
  • Smaller amounts of information via short videos and lessons allow for learner flexibility
  • Increased completion rates on lessons
  • Ability to review past lessons and course material as well as feedback notes
  • New and continuing innovations from learning tech specialists

Online training and eLearning capabilities have provided a significant improvement in how L&D is brought compared to before. While online training isn’t necessarily bad, the lack of real-time feedback and direction from an instructor is a key component that can’t be ignored.  L&D teams can look to implement blended learning as an option where training is delivered with elements of both ILT and online training. When formulating the right amount of in-person instruction and online training, L&D should focus on learner satisfaction as a key metric.

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