•   Article   •   4 mins

When is eLearning More Effective than In-Person Training?

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted worklife and wellbeing a little more than two-and-a-half years ago. In that time, the way people work and learn has evolved along with the rest of life as we once knew it.

As early adopters of remote working and learning, astute business leaders doubled down on flexible workplace policies in response to the disruption. Those leaders not as keen on remote work were compelled, or some might say forced, to enter a new era of virtual learning that persists to this day. Across the globe and mostly irrespective of industry, talent development leaders are managing tighter budgets and quicker response times as companies strive to meet business goals in the new remote work paradigm.

Looking ahead to what comes after the pandemic, how will organizational learning permanently evolve following a decline in in-person training?

Hopefully, business leaders realize elearning is just as valuable as in-person instruction.

Learning leaders can play a big role in demonstrating that value.

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What Research Tells Us

Studies show elearning can be just as effective or even more effective than face-to-face (F2F) instruction when proven adult learning methods are used. Decades of research shows the  precursors to elearning were effective. In 1947, for example, the U.S. Army found no differences in learning outcomes between groups taught with an instructional film and those taught F2F by an instructor who used the same film script, performed a demo on real equipment and displayed still pictures.

Will Thalheimer, a learning, technology and design leader, compiled a range of research that supports the conclusion of elearning experts Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer: Methods, not the medium, are what matter.

In the appropriately titled “Does eLearning Work,” Thalheimer states that:

  • “When learning methods are held constant between elearning and classroom instruction, both produce equal results,” and
  • “What matters, in terms of learning effectiveness, is not the learning modality (elearning vs. in-person); it’s the learning methods that matter, including such factors as realistic practice, spaced repetitions, real-world contexts, and feedback.”

A Chance, Not a Problem

Learning is a process influenced by perception. Yet many organizations don’t recognize the advantages of virtual learning.

Some practitioners contend participants’ attention spans are significantly longer when people are physically present in a classroom. But whether training is in-person or online, learning suffers when the instruction is stale, boring or repetitious. The quality of the instructor and curriculum matter more than location. 

Some learning leaders believe virtual learning reduces or eliminates their ability to manage workplace development, especially if it’s employee-driven learning. Self-directed elearning requires L&D pros to rethink participation and strategize anew, which of course takes time and resources. Many believe that exposing their employees to asynchronous opportunities versus attending in-class sessions yields better accessibility through learning flexibility, thus improving productivity and efficiency.

But once such challenges are overcome, the opportunities that remote learning creates can bring substantial business value. For instance, you can:

  • Deliver training concurrently to a population with a wide range of cultural backgrounds without incurring travel and hotel expenses
  • Cut the costs of classroom supplies including manuals, study aids and office equipment, and 
  • Allow learners to digest the content at their own pace, thus minimizing cognitive overload and learning fatigue.

Benefitting from elearning means adopting a new perspective on online learning. This begins with top-down leadership.

To influence the acceptance of virtual learning across your organization, you can:

  1. Waste not, want not.

The time, money and effort invested in training are wasted when employees don’t put what they’ve learned into practice. Forgoing responsibility for reinforcing the learning is a common source of learning waste in office settings, and it’s true with remote work and learning.

Hold management including directors, managers and supervisors accountable for knowledge transfer to performance by providing necessary training, templates and guidance and hold periodic meetings (one-on-one if needed) to ensure purposeful application. Physical and virtual learning settings have challenges, but these issues are easily overcome with performance support and accountability. Employees must put what they learn into practice, and executives must measure it to have the greatest organizational financial value.

  1. Prevent feedback fraud.

Train managers to understand performance indicators central to virtual learning, such as employee engagement, retention, and career mobility. Understand how training facilitators can work harder to grab and hold learners’ attention and encourage the use of this engagement to promote and stimulate “real life” application back at work. Don’t let learning be just an event, but a mindset. Coach managers to have one-on-one developmental meetings with their employees and provide them with opportunities to apply the learning.

Accountability is expensive. Give trainers the tools they need to remove roadblocks to advancement that lead them to an inflated sense of accomplishment and presumptions of success. Make sure training administrators have access to the right resources, such as proper learning technologies, professional development and staffing for measuring the impact of their learning initiatives.

  1. Transform attitudes and strengthen learning.

Jack Phillips, creator of the ROI Methodology, encourages us to go beyond  learning evaluation Level 1 (Learner Reaction) and smile sheets, and provide more than drive-by feedback. Change your perspective on training evaluations and start aiming your measurement strategy to capture application data (Level 3), which will lead to identifying business impact (Level 4) and yield a stronger ROI (Level 5). Rethink the way training is designed (identify learner needs and how those impact the business outcomes) and the way it is delivered in a virtual learning environment (selecting the right learning platform and creating an evaluation strategy that ensures learning transfer back to their jobs).

Similarly, equip learning program administrators with the materials and training they need to quickly advance their knowledge of virtual teaching and learning approaches.

As your program evolves, you might find the benefits of virtual learning are actually significantly greater than those of in-person learning.

Often,  elearning creates special opportunities in which  the challenges of conventional learning are swept aside for benefits that include: 

  • Increased engagement
  • More customization
  • Greater choice of media
  • Significant time savings

Elearning presents opportunities that otherwise are not possible in traditional classroom settings. We know that the time, efforts and resources of our employees are too important to waste, that’s why our resources need to be easily accessed through our elearning platforms, all at the click of a mouse.

Nelson Santiago is Chief Learning and Inclusion Officer at Learning DNA.

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