In-Person vs. Online Training: What Does the Research Say?

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?

With the increase in spending on online training, you’d think the debate was settled. You might be surprised to learn that it’s not. Research, trends, and opinions are still split between the two.

So what’s a training manager, HR executive, or talent developer to do?

Let’s take a look at the real state of face-to-face 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 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
  • administration.

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.

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?

The Best of Both Worlds: Blended Learning

Many organizations have started moving to blended learning to maximize the benefits of both face-to-face and online training.

The idea of blended learning is simple: learners use both online and instructor-led training. The proportion of both can vary greatly; it might be 90% online with very occasional in-person trainings. Or it could be once a week instructor-led sessions with self-selected follow-up digital courses.

Does blended learning really make a difference? Evidence points to yes.

For example, Hewett, Becker, & Bish (2019) found that the human interaction element of workplace blended learning “linked with more active behavioral engagement, higher cognitive engagement and stronger and more positive emotional engagement than where human interaction was absent.”

Reavley et al. (2018) looked at blended learning and elearning options and found that members of the blended learning course were more likely to highly rate the course in terms of

  • usefulness,
  • amount learned, and
  • intention to recommend the course to others.

Research on the effectiveness of blended learning is still ongoing. But early results indicate that this approach mitigates the problems associated with online-only learning while still taking advantage of some of its advantages.

To be fair, some others studies (such as Liu et. al’s (2016) meta-analysis and U.S. Department of Education’s (2016) study) have found that blended learning shows similar results to online-only interventions.

But even with similar results, the added “soft” benefits of blended learning speak for themselves. Learners who are more satisfied with their courses and feel that they’re more useful and applicable are more likely to engage with their training.

Let’s not forget that learners have preferences, too. And most of them want to self-pace their learning in their spare time at work. You can’t do that with in-person training. But you can offer smaller, quickly consumable training options between sessions if you’re offering a blended approach.

In-Person vs. Online Training: The Final Say

That’s a lot of research and information to digest. Here’s the short version.

Instructor-led training has significant benefits:

  • More fluid exchange of ideas
  • Social interaction during training
  • Good retention due to decreased likelihood of multitasking
  • Improved hands-on training
  • Faster response to questions and instructor feedback
  • Higher satisfaction scores

This makes ILT great for jobs that require physical skill, as well as situations in which learners need information quickly.

Online training, however, has big advantages as well:

  • More cost-effective
  • Option for bite-sized and self-paced learning (which are becoming increasingly necessary in the modern workplace)
  • Higher completion rates
  • Ability to re-access materials increases retention

So who should use online training methods? Just about everyone. Companies get stronger results for less money. But they lose some of the social benefits of instructor-led training. Which brings us to the final option.

Blended learning provides the best of both worlds:

  • Less resource-intensive than ILT
  • More engaging than online-only training
  • Wider appeal to learners with different preferred methods

 

Blended learning is the solution for organizations who want the best results possible. By using a blended learning methodology with modern techniques like bite-sized, continual, and active learning, you’ll deliver great results with a high return on investment.

There you have it. There’s no hands-down, definite answer to whether in-person or online training is better. But by combining the two, you get the benefits of both.

 

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Dann is a freelance copywriter, content creator, and SEO specialist who provides measurable results for agencies and organizations.