With the increase in spending on online training, you'd think the debate of in-person vs online training was settled. You might be surprised to learn that it's not. Research, trends, and opinions are still split between the two.
Research shows that by 2026, the corporate online learning industry will grow by over 250% hitting almost $50 billion.
In 2019, 59% of learning and development pros spend more of their budget on online training than they did three years ago. Over a third of them also spend less on instructor-led training (ILT).
That's a big shift in three years. But is it a good change for the industry? Does it really help people learn more effectively?
So what's a training manager, HR executive, or talent developer to do? Let's take a look at the real state of in-person vs. online training.
Online Training Isn't New
Before we dig into the research, it's important to realize this fact: online training is no longer the "new thing" in learning and development. Josh Bersin's timeline of corporate training shows that e- and blended learning started taking hold in the late 90s.
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 (and Bersin says we've actually moved far beyond it to newer, better models of learning—but we'll get to that a bit later).
Whether online training is actually better than face-to-face training, however, is still a contentious issue. There are lots of factors at play, and getting a straight answer from the research isn't easy. But there are some important lessons to be learned. Let's start with the basics:
Does Online Training Result in More Learning?
This is one of the main questions people ask in this debate. As we'll see shortly, there are other questions that might be more important. But there's a reason why L&D professionals ask about learning right away: because it's their job. If they can show that training programs result in learning, they have a success to show their bosses.
So let's take a look at the research:
- 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 when 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.
Are you seeing a pattern? Online training is just as good as—if not better than—instructor-led, face-to-face training across industries and disciplines. Few studies show that online training results in more learning outright. Most of them says that online learning is "as effective" as ILT.
When combined with other advantages of online learning, we start to see a compelling argument in favor of digital learning techniques.
But the story doesn't stop here.
Is Online Training Cost-Effective?
This is one of the biggest draws to online learning. If you're in the talent management world, you've almost certainly heard that digital learning tools save money. But is it true? All signs point to yes. Strother (2002) puts it like this:
E-learning is less expensive than traditional classroom instruction. In addition, many expenses - booking training facilities, travel costs for employees or trainers, plus employee time away from the job - are greatly reduced.
It's hard to argue with that (though Strother does point out that not all companies investing in online training are saving as much money as they'd hoped).
Of course, there are upkeep costs involved in online training, like:
- learning management system subscriptions,
- outside course materials,
- keeping courses and systems updated, and
That adds to the price of online training. But when compared to ILT, it's a safe bet that most companies save money.
So online learning is cheaper and just as (if not more) effective than face-to-face learning. That's the end of the discussion, right?
Not by a long shot.
But, Do People Actually Like Online Learning?
Are you surprised to see this question? Many L&D professionals don't think to ask it. But learner satisfaction is important. If your employees don't like online training, they'll struggle to complete it.
As learning and development has begun to focus on learner experience and design thinking, learner satisfaction has become an important factor. Low satisfaction and poor experience are detrimental to learning.
And online training tends to generate lower satisfaction scores. Summers, Waigandt, & Whittaker (2005) found that students were significantly less satisfied with an online course than they were with an equivalent in-person course.
But this study was released almost 15 years. What does the research say about the new generation of learners?
Unfortunately, it's equivocal. While academia and parts of the workplace training industry are worried about the efficacy of training methods for "digital natives," others are skeptical. Bennett, Maton, & Kervin (2008) say that this is more akin to a "moral panic" than an actual concern.
Which means we're still looking at a method of training that, while cost-effective, just doesn't provide the same experience for learners. That's true across generations. And that means online learning does have some notable drawbacks.
Are there others?
Where Does Online Training Fall Short of ILT?
Face-to-face training does have specific advantages. Here are a few that come up often:
- Social interaction during training sessions
- The ability to get immediate answers to questions
- Hands-on training is easier in a physical setting
- Fewer chances for multitasking and decreased focus
- Flexibility and personalization of each training session
There's little point in arguing these advantages. Instructor-led training provides some things that online training can't. There's no way to adjust a pre-recorded training to focus on the issues that learners are having trouble with. But good instructors do that every day.
Organizations using online training have tried to make up for many of these downfalls with varying degrees of success. Audio, video, forums, and instant messaging increase social interaction in online courses. Augmented reality helps hands-on distance learning. Self-directed learning tracks enable flexibility.
But there are some ways in which online training just can't compete. Instructors can shine in face-to-face settings, and that's extremely valuable.So what's a modern organization to do?