In-Person or Online—What Type of Training Works Best?

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A lot goes into live training: finding a qualified subject-matter expert, identifying and booking a venue, coordinating schedules, paying for travel, printing materials for trainees …

Now, training can happen with the click of a mouse or touch of an icon. But which is better, face-to-face or online training? Each has its benefits.

Online training has the distinct advantage of being either asynchronous or synchronous.

Asynchronous online training – web-based training, mLearning, prerecorded webinars, on-demand seminars, etc. – empowers learners, letting them control their experience with the content. They can participate when they want, from wherever they want. Introverted learners don’t have to battle hand-raising extroverts for attention. Non-native speakers and those with learning disabilities can determine the speed at which they move through the material. Online forums let trainees learn from each other and dig deeper into subjects than they could in a rigidly scheduled synchronous training session. And techniques like the flipped classroom allow trainees to learn on their own – revisiting content as much as they need to if they don’t get it the first time – and then apply that knowledge in the presence of an expert who can steer them back on course if they go off track.

Synchronous online training, or “virtual” training, is instructor-led and, ideally, interactive. In the leading platforms, trainees can chat, raise their hands, break into groups for activities, share their screens, or even contribute via a communal white board. Learners can log on from anywhere in the world and all can have the same training experience at the same time. Gone are the days when remote employees had to take a train, bus, and plane to corporate headquarters in order to get the same training as everyone else.

But despite daily technological advancements, online capabilities can’t directly mimic the benefits that come from physically being in the same room with someone. Subtleties of nonverbal communication are lost. Eye contact, tone of voice, posture, and the facial expressions that indicate confusion or understanding are missing.

Besides the benefits of nonverbal communication, face-to-face training has the benefit of spontaneity.  An experienced trainer can put together a useful training session with relatively little lead time. And as soon as the session is over, those involved can evaluate the efficacy of the materials and revise them quickly for next time.

Online training – at least asynchronous online training – on the other hand, can take weeks of storyboarding, programming, recording, filming, and beta testing before it’s ready for learners. Once it’s released, there’s lag time before a valid sample of learners has worked through the content and transferred the knowledge or skills back to the workplace. Then there’s more lag time while you wait for real-world validation that the training was successful. Usually, all is well. But occasionally, there’s that devastating moment when you find out that all of those weeks were wasted, because the training isn’t hitting the intended mark. And it’s back to the storyboard . . .

Is one topic better suited than another for either face-to-face or online training? Definitely. For example, saving someone from an online, simulated house fire is not the same as saving someone from an actual house fire.

Most experts agree that the best solution for reaching every type of learner is to blend face-to-face and online training. Even if a course has always and will continue to be delivered face-to-face in a classroom, enhancing it with well-chosen social media lets trainers reach learners they might otherwise miss.

Trainers can deliver the theory or steps and then show an online video of an expert putting the theory or steps into practice, thus reinforcing the validity of the trainer’s content and adding a visual and auditory change of pace to the session. Trainers can establish online forums where students can continue in-class discussions online, bounce ideas off one another, or collaborate on a project.  Or they can incorporate the flipped classroom approach mentioned earlier and use valuable face-to-face time to provide expert guidance.

When developing training, whether for online or face-to-face delivery, keep these two questions at the forefront:

  • What do we want trainees to learn or be able to do?
  • How will we be sure they have mastered what we want them to learn or be able to do?

Once you know the answers to those two questions, answer this one: What is the best possible way to deliver the content and test its impact? In all likelihood, the answer is “with a blended learning approach that combines the best of both face-to-face and online training.”

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