The choice between instructor-led training and online alternatives isn’t straightforward. There are many pros and cons to both. To help L&D Departments and HR officers make an informed choice, let’s untangle one key factor. What’s the purpose of your training? Do you need your participants to simply acquire knowledge? Or do you want behavioural change in which people develop long-term capabilities? There’s a time and place for both.

Knowledge such as new regulations or software techniques can be picked up in an online course, perhaps supported by live webinars. Learning professional skills, however, involves deep-seated behavioural change which is harder to develop while eating lunch at your desk during a webinar – camera switched off, along with your interest.

Research suggests that nine out of 10 managers feel that their organisation faces a skills gap or will do so before 2027. In particular, what used to be called ‘soft skills’, also referred to as ‘power skills’, are in high demand. Abilities in leadership, teamwork, and communication cannot be replicated by AI and therefore give people power in the workplace. How best to learn them?

What is online learning?

Online learning involves acquiring knowledge via the internet, whether through an e-learning course or a virtual training session (‘webinar’) delivered live. First developed in the late 1990s, by 2022 the global market in online learning was estimated at $400 billion (up from $250 billion in 2020) and is projected to grow to a trillion dollars by 2032.

What are the advantages of online learning?

Online courses, such as those available through Learnflix, can be learned anywhere, any time. Large numbers of people don’t need to come to one place, which does away with the need for a classroom, along with travel expenses and catering. Other advantages include:

Affordability: Stretching training budgets further, cost-effective online programmes allow more participants to benefit than with face-to-face training.

Asynchronous learning: Rather than ask a large team to come together, e-learning allows each person to learn in their own time, so that the team’s productivity is maintained and disruption minimised.

Measurement: Online learning allows attendance and multi-choice answers to be easily assessed, though there are limits to what can be measured, as discussed below.

Geography: Online learning offers skills to people working remotely who might miss out on a classroom session at a venue they cannot easily get to.

Efficiency: Time-poor participants, carving out a few minutes between back-to-back meetings, can learn online without travelling to and from a venue.

Just-in time learning: Online learning introduces participants to new skills immediately, meeting demand and avoiding the need to wait for a scheduled training session.

What is instructor-led training?

Instructor-led training (ILT), unlike online learning, allows participants to work in-person with a trainer in a classroom. The room and the instructor may be provided by an employer or by a professional skills consultancy (like Working Voices), and the learning takes the form of seminars, workshops, 1:1 coaching, and opportunities to practise new things.

It’s understandable that corporations have been quick to see the benefits of online learning. It offers a range of advantages that chime with corporate priorities – from efficiency to measurement. Indeed, tech’s rapidly expanding capabilities are sometimes billed as the answer to all things.

Unfortunately, however, just because tech has evolved quickly doesn’t mean that we have. We’re a social species. Over hundreds of thousands of years, we have evolved to communicate. It’s something we need to do, it’s why we struggle with isolation. Professional skills are not about shovelling facts into memory, they are people skills and are hard to learn without social interaction.

What are the advantages of instructor-led training?

Instructor-led training offers a learning experience, a key advantage that is often overlooked. Professional skills are best developed experientially, in other words they have to be learned during an in-person event that inspires nothing less than a shift in behaviour. This involves neurological change. It requires an experienced facilitator who knows how to make the most of the brain’s neuroplasticity – its ability to adapt, as explained by the UN’s education agency UNESCO, here.

When discovering a new skill, developing it and practising it under instruction, trainees develop new neural pathways – new abilities. By extending them through training, making mistakes and responding to feedback, these abilities reach further, faster, and deeper than before.

Sitting at your desk, tapping multi-choice answers into an online course, isn’t going to challenge your brain’s neuroplasticity as effectively as an instructor in the room. A capable trainer creates an environment of change through exercises, story-telling, and practise. This provokes a healthy degree of tension – just enough to stretch trainees beyond their comfort zone so that they’re mentally ready to accommodate new ideas.

Other advantages of instructor-led training include:

Social environment: In a group setting, people can share ideas and questions, supporting each other in moments of learning and in relaxed periods of downtime.

Easy to enforce: Online learning needs self-discipline, ILT just needs a start time. Being led by an experienced instructor helps learners stay focused on what’s happening in the room.

Responsive trainers: Instructors can shift gear according to the trainees’ needs. It’s the ability to respond – to repeat something, or crank up the energy – that makes the training effective.

Limited distractions: By stepping away from your desk and learning in a room with other people, there is a clear sense of focus, and fewer distractions.

Customized to what you need: In-person training is usually tailored to the participants’ needs, which is always better than generic, one-size-fits-all resources available online.

Strengthening culture: In a tech-oriented world, shared learning in the room has a therapeutic quality – bringing people together, strengthening teams, and enhancing company culture.

Which is better, in-person or online learning?

The decision between instructor-led training and online learning comes down to the subject involved and the improvements you need to see in trainees. Online learning allows simple things to be monitored, like multi-choice answers. Complex understanding, however, can’t always be easily measured. For example, think of someone you love. How much do you love them, expressed as a measurement, perhaps via multi-choice? Most people might find this is tricky, futile even. Love exists, whether measured or not.

Some have suggested that knowledge developed through online learning is retained for longer, though clear evidence for this has yet to emerge. Studies focusing on online training include:

  • D. Johnson et al (2000): Online learning is as effective as face-to-face learning for graduate students.
  • W. Coppola (2002): Online training is as effective as ILT for corporate software training.
  • Neuhauser (2010): Online learning is as effective as face-to-face learning.
  • Dimeff et al, (2015): Overall, ILT outperformed online training in satisfaction, self-efficacy, and motivation, but online was more effective in increasing knowledge.
  • L. Brady et al. (2018): Participants learning a specific medical interpretation procedure found that online training is as effective as ILT.

In this brief sample of studies into the advantages of online learning, four out of five found that it’s only ‘as effective’ as ILT. These studies and their lukewarm conclusions are overshadowed by the work of business researchers Suniti Hewett, Karen Becker, and Adelle Bish, who in 2018 found that, “Where human interaction was present, it was reported to be linked with more active behavioral engagement, higher cognitive engagement and stronger and more positive emotional engagement than where human interaction was absent.”

Similarly, in 2022, Panos Photopoulos and others found that, “students preferred in-person teaching and reported higher engagement, learning, and understanding during classroom teaching.”

And in 2022, Gregory Gross and others found that, “in-person participants had statistically significantly higher gains in knowledge at post-test compared to the participants who received synchronous virtual training.”

The Sustainable Human

At Working Voices, we understand that an in-person training session harnesses core elements of what it is to be human, specifically the need for social connection. Recognising this need, we have embedded it in our Sustainable Human training programme which aims to reconnect people, not just in occasional training sessions but continuously in all workplace interactions.

Encouraging a sense of connection, the Sustainable Human helps leaders develop the trust, respect, safety, and belonging that together support sustainable working practices, in other words better ways of working than unsustainable disengagement and fatigue.

There’s a place for online learning. But in professional skills, its abilities are limited. Change is less likely to happen when you’re sitting by yourself. For professional skills that truly help you connect with people, the best way to begin is by being in a room with others so that you can successfully connect with the social side of learning.

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