Posted On December 5, 2017

Given its hype, digital learning – or learning that primarily occurs using technology – in its various forms seems to be the holy grail for L&D teams. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that eLearning, for instance, is now requiritur modum for helping employees learn anything and everything – from preparing to start a new job, using the latest Excel features, or signing off on compliance and workplace safety directives.

It’s true that eLearning offers a multitude of benefits. The convenience of learning anytime and anywhere is one, so are savings in time, travel and room hire. eLearning makes it easier to train large, dispersed groups, and to update instructional materials that are available 24x7x365. And there are more inherent benefits, but that’s a topic for another article.

But the question is – Which is better? eLearning or classroom learning?

Here, let’s look at four key reasons why eLearning and other forms of digital learning are NOT one-size-fits-all learning solutions, and then how the human interaction of tried-and-tested traditional classroom training is perfectly complemented by new and emerging technology-enabled learning technologies.

1. Interaction versus isolation

Free-flowing synergy between learners and instructors is a substantial part of how people have, and always will, share information and ideas. Some would say it’s sine qua non – essential.

That rules out on-demand self-directed eLearning.

The virtual classroom, however, goes a long way to helping learners ask questions and participate using chat, polls and breakout sessions. Even so, it remains difficult for the most practised VC facilitator to cultivate high levels of interpersonal dynamics in an environment where learners are, to a very high degree, isolated.

Another important ingredient missing in the online environment is non-verbal communication such as gestures, attitudes and facial expressions between facilitator and learners themselves. Here again, technology has a long way to go before it can match the power of a professional trainer or experienced mentor in a face-to-face setting.

While on the subject of interpersonal communication, relationships and bonds formed in the classroom are often far stronger than those found in even the most technological-advanced environment – and notwithstanding dizzying advances in virtual reality, artificial intelligence and holographic technology, the joy and effectiveness of bonding with real people in real time isn’t going away in the near future.

2. Hard skills vs soft skills

We started this article with eLearning’s ability to assist with on-boarding, compliance and improving skills, but changing behaviours and improving high-level skills isn’t always straight-forward.

For example, there’s no shortage of YouTube clips designed to show you how to make sushi or improve your golf swing, but learning how to work more productively, communicate and cooperate in the workplace is much more difficult. Customer service, sales, leadership, time management, mentoring – practically anything that requires interpersonal skills development or a change in behaviour – is by its very nature nuanced, open-ended and developed, not learned.

For these, there is no substitute for the flesh-and-blood instructor.

3. Exchange of ideas

The classroom environment takes open exchange of ideas and substantive discussion to warp speed.

By allowing learners to stump ideas and debate points of view with their facilitator and colleagues – without any communication barriers – makes the classroom an effective learning medium that the online format simply cannot (yet) replicate.

4. Learner motivation

A huge problem with self-paced online learning is that it may motivate learners to tick the box, but not necessarily to learn.

What I mean is that participating in debates and discussions with facilitators and other leaners drives students to develop and hone opinions, handle and give criticism, and engage with people who all have unique personalities. These are skills that are slow to develop when learners can instead complete tasks at their leisure, free to revise again and again – and not under the pressure of time and argumentation.

Even worse, studies now show that more learners fail to complete training, or even start, an eLearning-only program than when they engage with others in a classroom. Plus, for a variety of reasons many learners struggle when a course is changed from the classroom to online.

And the real winner is: Blended learning

Classroom training is tops when workplace instruction must be highly interactive and involve in-depth knowledge sharing and observation. Even still, it’s only one of several “right” training delivery methods.

Once you’ve conducted a thorough analysis to determine learners’ needs and organisational budgets and goals, there’s a good chance you’ll arrive at the need for a blended learning solution. That’s because with all the pros and cons of the various delivery methods we’ve discussed, there’s simply no one way to provide workplace training, and why organisations everywhere are combining methods to maximise training effectiveness and minimise costs. Hence the rise of the popular 70:20:10 approach.

Using technology to deliver virtual classroom, web conferences, self-paced online or bite-sized just-in-time learning can certainly complement the efficacy of classroom sessions by strengthening the learning process through practice and application of things learned in class. It does this in four ways:

  1. Needs analysis. eLearning is great for first determining where employees need help with performance or productivity. A simple online pre-test will rapidly give the L&D leader a crystal-clear view into where training is needed and how best to plug the gaps.
  2. Learner evaluation. Many organisations blend classroom and eLearning formats using online quizzes, games and assessments at the same time as learning is happening in the classroom. As well as adding variety to how instruction is imparted, results can be linked to a learning management system to automatically generate completion certificates and used to track the performance of learners and facilitator alike.
  3. Learning reinforcement. We’ve all heard the term “learning curve” but L&D professionals neglect the “forgetting curve” at their peril. As soon as employees return to the workplace after training, they are already losing some of what they learned. Here, a series of eLearning refresher courses that reinforce what’s been learned and delivered to employees, say, after a week and again a few months’ time, helps ensure the “stickiness” organisations from their learning investment.
  4. Performance support. Short, punchy eLearning can serve as ideal job aids to assist employees whenever help is needed in the workplace to apply a skill or solve a problem. And given today’s proliferation of mobile devices, bite-sized chunks of performance support can be consumed not only anytime but also practically anywhere.

The infusion of eLearning technologies – and others such as social media, CDs/DVDs and virtual/augmented reality – into the corporate classroom represents the best means we’ve yet found to deliver on L&D’s promise to the enterprise.

That said, the conclusion we can say about e-Learning vs classroom learning is that eLearning is not a replacement for classroom learning, or even a competitor, but instead another powerful tool that when used appropriately alongside traditional instructor-led training will deliver a finished product that truly meets the needs of employees, facilitators, managers and L&D professionals.

Everyone wins.