Online Training: Skills Improvement or Just Ticking Boxes?
It’s a tempting proposition, with groups of staff who need training, to simply enrol them in an online course. Costs are lower, scheduling can sometimes be more flexible, and there is likely to be less time away from the office.

Online Tutorial

But have you stopped to consider whether this is the best option? Although it is easy to see why many companies are choosing online training as part of their mix in these hard-pressed financial times, the reality of the experience can often prove to be something of a disappointment.

In this brief article I'd like to take a closer look at online and instructor-led training methods, and consider whether cost-saving opportunities equal effective training outcomes... or not.

Advantages of Online Training

There are several major points in favour of online training. For instance, if a large corporation needs to certify a thousand trainees in a generic or basic skill, then an online training course is likely to be preferable to sending them all on day's external training. Think of the savings in cost and man-management. (NOTE: let’s hope that learning the skill online fully equips them to use it in real-life, especially if we are talking about something like First Aid.)

Edexcel describe online training as ‘a very cost-effective way to train a group. Train a whole department with one login’. Cost is often cited as one of the main benefits to choosing online training over instructor-led training. Online systems for training dramatically reduce the venue hire, travel and catering costs that come with organising instructor-led training, yet at the same time increase employee productivity. Trainees can complete their work at their desk or from home, without having to fly, drive or commute to another place.

Looking at the debate from the point of view of the delegate, online courses offer a flexibility that may suit some learners better. Courses can be accessed from wherever they feel more comfortable, for instance, and courses can be completed in their own time.

Online training also removes any time or physical barriers to learning, so a corporation with employees all over the world can provide access to the same content online.

Another aspect of this quality of online training is that it is generally considered to be far less disruptive. Employees are able to carry on with their daily tasks of emailing, answering the phone and generally being present in the office, logging in and out of their training course whenever possible. (NOTE: In many cases this can actually be a drawback because it destroys concentration and engagement.)

Whilst the quality of the delivery and sometimes the content of an instructor-led course is to some extent determined by the skill and expertise of the instructor, online courses guarantee consistency in content and delivery, wherever and whenever the course is attended. A course can be developed, perfected and honed, then delivered to ten thousand people.

Disadvantages of Online Training

There is no doubt that online training is an essential part of modern learning. But engaging in a headlong rush towards full implementation of an "online only" training regime is extremely inadvisable.

1. Cut Costs

Without doubt, the costs of online training are low, but be careful or your lower costs will be balanced by a lack of results, and you'll not only waste your time, but fail to get the skills improvements you have decided you need.

Lack of Results

2. Maintaining Interest

The lack of proper human contact will inevitably result in a loss of motivation.  Online training can easily become just reading or observing... perfect conditions for a wandering mind.

3. Maintaining Energy

Staring intently at a computer screen while taking in new knowledge for more than half an hour is tiring, and for more than an hour is, frankly, exhausting. Training should only be undertaken in "bite sized" sessions.

4. Depth of Knowledge

Without the physical encouragement of people around you, questions won't get asked and knowledge won't be expanded.

5. Maintaining Focus

If you're sitting at your own PC, it's just another workday. Remember that one of the most frequent complaints when the 2009 Ukraine vs England match was shown online was that it was "just like being at work" and people often would flip across to check their emails while the match was playing.

To combat the problems of fatigue and focus, online training is often delivered in small bursts, each of which focus on one specific skill. Unfortunately, this fails to properly take into account how individual skills fit into the wider context of the subject, or even the workplace. Additionally, without vital human conversation and interaction during training, a person can learn an entire body of knowledge without having the remotest idea how to apply any of it to real-life situations.

Advantages of Instructor-Led Training

Traditionally, the most effective method of training has been classroom based instructor-led training, where individuals learn in a face-to-face context.

When we consider instructor-led training, we see at once that it is a flexible means of delivering information. Bob Pike, writing in Training magazine, states that ‘caring, connection, and context cannot always be conveyed through an online or distance medium’. It is true that the irreplaceable advantage held by instructor-led training is that real-time feedback is always available to learners. Similarly, the instructor can pick up non-verbal signals from attendees to gauge their true level of understanding.

A good provider will adapt the content and or delivery of the course so that it suits the needs of the delegates, and this will often happen in real time as the day progresses. At the same time, learners can use the instructor as a source of knowledge and experience of the subject, and face-to-face discussion between instructor and student (and between students) increases retention of information on the subject, which is of course the ultimate aim of the course.

Humans are gregarious creatures who respond well to interaction with others, and another argument for instructor-led training is that learning something new alongside other people is a far more fulfilling way to learn that sitting alone in front of a screen. Modern training providers give practical, exciting and interactive training sessions which prove memorable and productive experiences to all those who attend.
Nick van Dam, writing for ASTD, states:
'Taking people out of the office and providing them with development time in a safe environment enables them to experiment with new ideas and concepts, practice skills in simulations, develop solutions for existing business issues, reflect on their performance and that of their team, and turn their learning into new behaviors and actions
.’

In summary, instructor led training is the most motivational and productive way of acquiring skills.  Once you start to remove the direct interaction of classrooms, you compromise this ability to deliver results.

Disadvantages of Instructor-Led Training

It's not the actual cost of the training that's seen as the biggest problem -- the payback is so quick, and the skills ought to be retained for a lifetime -- but the inconvenience of having people away from their workplace. The solution is to manage delegates' work during their absence, and this can sometimes be a problem. You don't want to destroy the heightened motivation of an employee by landing them with a backlog of work when they get back to the office!

Too Much Work

Variability of delivery is sometimes quoted as a potential problem, and this is true. But with a quality provider the individual nature of the interaction during the course provides an opportunity for delegates to ask their own questions and get the most from the training.

Conclusion: A "Blended" Solution

So, although the idea of migrating your training online sounds exciting at first, and certainly appeals to the emotions, several practical issues limit its likely effectiveness.  But on the other hand, to dismiss it altogether would be to miss an opportunity.

There are great advantages for using instructor-led classroom training as the core of any skills improvement programme (apologies, Accounts team!). Learning is wider and deeper, and knowledge retention is greater because the experience is enjoyable, because the demands and distractions of their offices are left behind, and there is the opportunity to interact personally with the trainer and peers. Additionally, employees tend to feel valued when they are sent on training courses (not just "plugged in online") and are likely to be more motivated to use and develop their skills as a result.

However, online training provides a flexible and affordable alternative that reduces "out of office" time and enables people to learn in their own time.  It can never compete with the classroom in the quality of the results it gives.  But it can provide a very cost-effective backup in many situations.

A combination of the two is the way forward.

The solution you choose will depend on the nature, culture and needs of your organisation, so take a short time to think.  If you operate in a small or medium sized business, where training needs are fulfilled infrequently or on an ad hoc basis, there is nothing easier than booking your staff on to a class, or arranging for a group of employees to be trained together.  In this situation, online training, with its upfront technological needs, usually isn't a practical option.  But if you have continuing training needs, you may feel that arranging classroom training for core skills (whether Microsoft Office or improving the results of your sales team) forms the focus of your strategy, supplemented by online elements for secondary skills, and post-course reinforcement.

Activia's Use of the Web

We put classroom-based training at the core of everything we do.  We are a quality-led operation that takes pride in getting results for our clients. We are passionate about this (you get the point...)

As such, we use the Web to support what we deliver. We employ our online Cloud Tools to help you in arranging your training, in the form of a Skills Appraisal and Bespoke Course Creator.


We offer lifetime post course support through our online forum, where delegates can get course-related questions answered by our trainers, and we also have a new YouTube channel where we are building a library of Tricks and Tips, starting with Microsoft Office.

Finally, we are evaluating a number of online options which will supplement our classroom training through more support and alternative (and productive) forms of learning. Quality is everything, so we'll be sure to announce it when everything is right. Watch this space !!

What do you think? Does instructor-led training deliver the best outcomes for your business or do you prefer your employees to complete their training online? Let us know what you think in the comments.

For more information about business skills training courses, click here. If you enjoyed this article, make sure to read the previous post in the series, Online Training: What Are the Options?.