In recent years, we’ve seen much debate about the benefits of e-learning vs traditional training for onboarding and staff development. The rise in popularity of e-learning as a substitute for, or in addition to, classroom based training over the past five years in particular has changed many aspects of learning and development in the workplace, with many businesses seeing reduced costs and faster time to competency.
But what about the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2015 report, which states that regular use of computers by school pupils in the classroom are shown to “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes”?
The same report states that “In the end, technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching”. It does pose the question of whether e-learning offers genuine advantages over the traditional methods, or if this is an example of technology for technology’s sake.
How you use online education and training is clearly key to its success, and keeping an eye on the project goals and benefits will help to ensure that technology is implemented in a structured, reasoned manner. Here we examine the areas in which e-learning offers something beyond what is possible in a classroom setting, and discuss what this means for the future of learning.
Cost savings from online training
One of the most commonly identified benefits of an e-learning programme over the classroom equivalent is the potential for substantial cost savings.
There are obvious reductions in travel, training premises and accommodation costs, as well as associated expenses such as printing and distribution of training materials.
Within large organisations, training costs have been cut anywhere from 30% to 70% according to many reports.
In addition, e-learning reduces the time employees spend outside their day-to-day jobs, minimising disruption and cover arrangements, as well as the basic cost of labour.
Scalability and repeatability
On a related point, e-learning allows much greater scalability than a face to face, fixed location. Without the physical limitations of a classroom setting, hundreds or even thousands of learners can be enrolled on a given course for the same set-up cost.
Reducing the cost per learner in this way means that more budget can be assigned to the initial development of the course content, potentially allowing for richer multimedia content such as animation or video, which would be less affordable otherwise.
Once the course material has been developed, many standardised courses can be repeated for multiple cohorts of learners with little or no further adjustment, except for perhaps minor ongoing updates, so the cost per learner reduces over time. The opposite would generally be the case for a growing company with an expanding workforce.
With flexibility of scale comes adaptable delivery. As e-learning courses are delivered solely online, the learner is able to access course materials and complete assessments in their own time, and at their own pace.
Increasingly, e-learning courses are specifically developed with mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones in mind, allowing learners to work from any location with Internet access.
This also opens up the possibility of “Just In Time” (JIT) learning, whereby learners access the appropriate training materials to perform a task as and when they need them. For example, on an employee’s first day working in a warehouse, they could access a short course on safe manual handling directly before commencing work. For existing employees, it could mean faster legal compliance training to meet the requirements of new legislation, or rapid deployment of training on new product lines.
JIT learning reduces the time between learning and acting on the information, and also allows learners to repeatedly access the same course to refresh their knowledge as and when needed.
As well as offering a course to a much larger number of users than could be practically trained in a classroom setting, e-learning courses also allow personalised learning – course materials and assessments tailored more closely to the individual learner.
Learners have the ability to move through the course at their own pace, revisiting particular topics as needed before proceeding to the next stage. Courses can also be programmed to offer different learning paths according to the learner’s ability.
For example, on completing an assessment, such as a quiz, high-scoring candidates may be directed to more advanced reading on the topic, while lower scoring candidates are presented with revision materials on the previous topic and directed to reattempt the assessment later.
Rich media and extensibility
The scope for offering course materials in a variety of media is much greater with an e-learning course than with classroom-based training. As well as the potential for a greater share of budget to be assigned to developing course resources as discussed above, the online setting allows greater flexibility in the use of media.
Video is commonly used in classroom training, however the setting requires that all participants watch the material from start to finish at the same time. With e-learning comes the flexibility to create chaptered videos, which can be paused and re-watched at will, allowing learners to digest information at their own pace.
The same benefits apply to material delivered via audio books or podcasting. Creating “bite size” elearning video or audio resources to be consumed as required on a mobile device is an effective way to support “Just In Time” learning as discussed above.
Interactive media in the form of online games or quizzes is also an option within an e-learning setting. “Gamification” of learning is an increasingly widely applied concept, where participants receive virtual badges or other tokens for the successful completion of specific learning goals.
Using hyperlinks to materials on the wider web makes it simple for course designers to direct learners to supporting materials and resources without having to adapt and include these in the course itself. This opens up course design, encourages learners to move beyond the basic requirements, and provides a much broader and richer learning experience.
Communication and collaborative learning
While it may seem that the e-learning approach lacks the “personal touch” of a tutor, there are a number of ways in which it is actually easier for a course leader to keep an eye on individual learners’ progress and respond appropriately. The nature of classroom based training means that it can be difficult for a tutor to pay direct attention to individual learners for more than a few minutes, and often the opportunity for follow-up contact is limited.
In contrast, the course leader of an e-learning course can access specific reports on where learners are having difficulty, for example by reviewing test or quiz scores, and communicate with these individuals via online messaging or email. Additionally, forums and FAQ posts provide a useful one-to-many communication channel for tutors to answer common questions as they arise, and the knowledge gathered here can inform adjustments to future iterations of the course.
The multiple channels of communication available also allow learners to engage with one another during and after the course, whether to collaborate on group assignments, enable peer review of completed work or simply offer support and guidance to others within the group, lessening the burden on the course leader.
Tracking and reporting
As mentioned briefly above, one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of the leader of an e-learning course is access to the large amount of data gathered. The majority of e-learning platforms incorporate powerful reporting tools, which allow both scrutiny of individual progress and an overview of patterns of behaviour within the whole group of learners.
Reviewing the results of assessments throughout the course can identify weaker learners, or those users who need to stretch further, and at a cohort level can alert the course author to areas where the tests are too simple or too advanced.
As well as looking at the specifics of test results, most platforms will report on time spent on certain areas, which resources were accessed and how often, what types of device learners are using to view and complete courses, and even when and where users are logging in.
The more data that is gathered, the better course leaders can adapt and tailor their courses for future use, gather feedback on what works well, and identify where any issues lie.
Is this the end for the classroom?
Looking at the rapid rise in the use of e-learning courses within both the education sector and professional training, it seems clear that e-learning is here to stay. Whether or not we will see the total demise of classroom based training is another matter. There are certainly benefits to the personal approach that comes with on-site, face-to-face training, such as the teaching and practice of manual skills, which cannot be replicated with today’s online learning platforms.
However, this may not always be the case. Current developments in the quality and spread of affordable virtual reality devices raise the interesting possibility that the benefits of a classroom setting may soon be achievable in a “virtual room” and incorporated into existing e-learning courses.
Combining the advantages of the personal and the virtual in this way would seem to be an ideal approach, which will doubtless come to fruition in the not too distant future – and blur the boundary between e-learning and the classroom.
Plan for success
As it stands, e-learning is showing mixed results within the field of education, and schools may need to take more that it is used with discretion and care about eye health, ergonomics and over-stimulation. In a business context, the benefits of e-learning vs classroom training are clearer and more tangible, with many companies seeing significant cost-savings, staff engagement and improved learning outcomes.
Try to structure the creation and implementation of online training with the above potential advantages in mind, in order to ensure that you reap the benefits of e-learning for your staff and your company.