Face-to-face learning offers more direct feedback in a collaborative environment, while online learning is more flexible and convenient. A combination of both will serve most businesses best. We discuss when to use each and how to make the most of them.
Table of contents
- Online learning and face-to-face learning both have their pros and cons, and both can be used effectively for employee training.
- Most businesses will benefit from using a combination of online and face-to-face training.
- While online training is becoming more popular, elements of in-person training remain essential for certain roles, such as those in machine operation or customer service.
With the development of online learning tools, employers now have more ways of supporting their employees. Both online and face-to-face training have their merits, and both are useful for different businesses.
Face-to-face learning involves on-site, in-person training. This is often the case with employee onboarding, group training classes, and live demonstrations—especially where safety is concerned, such as learning how to operate machinery.
Online learning refers to any training that takes place online. This is usually location independent, meaning that employees can complete courses from anywhere and in their own time. For example, an online video or training course outlining workplace practices for new employees.
In this article, we compare face-to-face vs. online learning, including the pros and cons of each. We also discuss how to decide on the right method—or combination of methods—for your business.
What Are The Differences Between Face-To-Face Learning And Online Learning?
In addition to the delivery method, there are some key differences between face-to-face and online learning to keep in mind.
The learning experience
Face-to-face learning is typically offered in a classroom-like setting. Here, employees can interact with each other and easily participate in discussions. Plus, they benefit from more frequent interactions with their instructor and more immediate feedback.
Training is delivered in real time. Instructors can use visual aids, such as a whiteboard or smartboard, PowerPoint presentation, or physical objects (such as tools) to help demonstrate important points.
On the other hand, online training courses usually involve fewer direct interactions. However, while your employees can’t discuss their training face-to-face with their instructors and peers, online discussion boards can provide a place where questions can be answered and topics can be discussed.
Course materials for online training are made available as digital documents, videos, or recorded training seminars. These are accessible to anyone they’ve been shared with and can be viewed and completed in the learner’s own time.
Asynchronous vs. synchronous learning
Online and classroom learning differ in terms of flexibility, too.
A face-to-face course is usually synchronous, meaning that students complete their learning as a group, at the same time, by attending physical classes. In addition, students and teachers benefit from synchronous communication—meaning they receive answers as they ask questions.
Online courses are usually (but not always) asynchronous. Each learner has access to online materials and can work through them independently at a time that suits them. This method is particularly suited to online learners with good time management.
Similarly, online classes typically involve asynchronous communication. Students and teachers interact through messages on a board, and may not receive an immediate response to their queries.
In-person training allows instructors to test retention and performance on the spot. This can be very advantageous in certain situations, especially where safety and security are concerned.
Instructors can also correct errors as they happen and offer advice as learners respond to a query or carry out an action. In addition, it’s much more difficult to cheat during in-person training, if assessing retention is a priority.
It’s possible to test employees via online training too, of course. You can offer quizzes with a variety of types of questions, including multiple-choice, true or false, fill-in-the-blank, essay questions, and more.
Dependence on technology
Face-to-face learning can be delivered in person with minimal reliance on technology. This means that you don’t have to rely on a stable internet connection or devices to deliver content to your learners. Even in situations where digital tools might be used—such as in the delivery of a digital presentation—instructors can pivot to using different, physical materials if the technology fails them in the moment.
Online learning is much more dependent on technology than face-to-face learning. You and your employees will need to use some kind of learning management software. You’ll also need to a device and an internet connection to access the learning content.
Face-to-face learning is often a more expensive solution than online learning. In-person training has costs associated with physical classrooms, transportation to a class, physical course materials, and the need for a qualified instructor to be on-site.
Of course, if you’re providing training at a regular job site and have qualified instructors on staff, this mitigates some of the cost. But you still must pay instructors for their time, and fewer employees can be trained at a time.
Online learning can be very cost-effective. You need only spend the time and resources setting up a course once and, on occasion, updating the content. But dozens, even hundreds of employees can then be trained using those materials. And because many of your materials probably already exist in some format (safety documents, workplace procedures, etc.), creating a course with the right tool can be relatively quick.
In terms of costs, you’ll generally need to pay for the software you use to create and distribute the course. There may also be educational resources you wish to purchase and add to your courses.
The Benefits of Face-To-Face Learning vs. Online Learning
Both online and face-to-face learning have certain advantages to consider when deciding how to deliver your training. We explore these below.
Benefits of face-to-face learning
Face-to-face training offers several benefits, including the following:
Engage directly with learners
In-person training involves direct human interactions, which can help make training feel more collaborative, spontaneous, and fun. It allows instructors to establish a direct professional relationship with learners.
In addition, by spending time with each other and learning together, employees may develop a strong sense of team spirit that positively impacts future work. Training sessions are great opportunities for employees to interact and develop good working relationships.
Real-time feedback can be especially beneficial for certain kinds of topics, such as those covering security and safety. Students can ask questions and receive answers in real time. They can also quickly get corrected on how they use tools and machinery, prepare a product for a customer, and more.
In-person interactions also enable instructors to more quickly identify students who are struggling with the course material and need additional support. As a result, each employee receives the appropriate level of training and will be fully equipped to do their job properly.
The only exception to this is when the instructor has too many employees to manage at once. This situation is better addressed with online learning.
Hands-on learning opportunities
In-person training enables employees to interact with, learn about, and become familiar with physical tools, machines, and resources. This type of training can be particularly useful for field workers who work with their hands—such as engineers, electricians, plumbers, construction workers, and waitstaff. It’s not necessary all the time, but it can improve learning outcomes when working with physical materials.
Benefits of online learning
Many employers are already using online learning to deliver training content to their employees. Here are a few benefits of using online learning in a workplace environment.
Greater flexibility and accessibility
One of the greatest benefits for workers is that online learning is usually very flexible. It can be completed from anywhere at any time. This makes it particularly useful for delivering non-urgent work-related training.
What’s more, online learning enables employees to complete training at their own pace. Quicker learners won’t be frustrated waiting for their peers, and slower learners won’t get lost or feel as stressed out.
Plus, it’s easier to ensure training is delivered to everybody, regardless of their professional and personal schedule. Of course, employees should be paid for any time they spend on training. But they’re free to learn at their own pace and from the comfort of whatever location they choose.
Finally, it can also be more flexible and convenient for instructors and businesses. Instructors can respond to questions and offer support as they find the time. And businesses can train dozens of employees, across multiple job sites, at the same time—and with 100% consistency in the training experience. This makes it ideal for multi-site businesses that hope to provide a consistent experience to customers across all their locations.
Cost and scalability
As mentioned, online learning is often a more cost-effective solution for businesses than offering face-to-face learning. It requires fewer physical resources, such as dedicated classrooms, instructors, and paper course materials.
A single online course can be provided to many employees. And with the right employee training software, businesses can put together online courses for a minimal cost. The biggest cost associated with in-person learning is paying instructors for their time, especially for a large workforce.
Finally, online learning is far more scalable than in-person training. This means it’s an excellent solution for businesses that need to train a large workforce. But even for small businesses, it means a single individual can manage a variety of training courses and meet all the training needs of a company’s workforce.
A single store or job site manager may not feel comfortable offering in-person training on a wide variety of topics. But with time and resources, they can put together solid training courses on everything from taking payments to dealing with unhappy customers and selling products and services. Asynchronous communication means they have time to think or do additional research before answering queries, so it’s easier to manage a diverse number of training topics.
Digital course tracking and straightforward assessments
Many online learning tools come with progress tracking. This allows you to keep an eye on how well employees are doing with their training. You can even set up automatic reminders to ensure important training is completed on time.
Quizzes are useful for gauging understanding and retention. One of the advantages of online learning is that a course can simply be repeated if an employee doesn’t perform well enough on their assessments.
You’ll also find tools that help you uncover trends in learning. You can use these to improve courses and training outcomes. Statistics related to test performance and completion time, for example, will help you understand if the training is too difficult or too simple. Of course, this can be accomplished with in-person training. But the fact that your workers and instructors will be using the same platform makes this much easier.
The Limitations of Face-To-Face vs. Online Learning
Just as each training method offers certain advantages, each has certain limitations to be aware of.
Limitations of face-to-face learning
No training approach is right for every situation, and there are a few limitations to face-to-face learning to bear in mind.
One of the major downsides of using face-to-face training is how inflexible it is. You will have to set a clear time and location for each session well in advance. Difficulties can arise if one of your employees is absent on a training day, as there’s often no way to catch up on the course material afterward without scheduling another session.
It also requires that your instructors be available and physically present during training. This means you’ll need to work around their schedules, too. Since most companies’ “instructors” are simply senior staff, such as managers, this can be a major inconvenience.
In addition, if you attempt to run employee training after hours or on the weekend, you can expect to run into scheduling issues. Many people have family, sports, or other personal commitments that they can’t change. It can be difficult to find a training time that works for everyone. Training during work hours is a solution, of course. But it means you’ll lose a part of your workforce during that time.
In-person training often comes with a higher price tag. You have to pay your instructor for their time for each individual training session.
As regular training is an important part of improving any business, this can get very expensive very fast. Because most trainers can only work with a dozen or so employees at a time, in-person training for a large workforce can be especially costly.
Conversely, a single video recording can be widely distributed to any number of employees, over months or even years. This greatly increases the return on investment.
Greater demands on instructors
Face-to-face workplace training may involve a large number of employees working with a single instructor. This is especially true if you’re trying to cut costs. As a result, the instructor may have difficulty providing an adequate amount of feedback to each worker, particularly during shorter sessions with tight time constraints.
Working in this way, instructors are also less likely to catch mistakes from learners. Likewise, they’re unlikely to provide adequate support to slower learners.
Limitations of online learning
Like face-to-face learning, online learning also has its flaws. Keep the following in mind if you decide to go down the digital training path.
Reliance on technology
Technology is great, but it does fail from time to time. Online teaching is only effective if instructors and learners have the right software, a device to work on, and an internet connection. If even one of these is missing, it can make learning difficult—or stop it completely.
Limited interaction between students
The lack of team interaction that sometimes accompanies online learning limits workers’ opportunities for team building. The same goes for interactions between managers and employees, in cases where the manager may otherwise offer in-person training and build connections with workers in a new and different way.
Requires self-discipline from employees
Online learning is usually self-guided. This means your employees need to complete the training in their own time and keep themselves engaged and motivated. As a result, employees must be very self-disciplined. And that’s not easy to guarantee.
One good strategy to address this is to use automatic email or mobile alerts to give your employees a quick reminder if they’re a little slow completing their training. Another option is to offer incentives for course completion and positive training outcomes.
Blended Learning: The Perfect Mix
Blended learning brings together the best of face-to-face learning and online learning to create a mixed model. It allows for a more flexible approach where employees can complete a portion of the training in their own time online before attending in-person classes, or vice-versa.
Businesses can take advantage of the many benefits of online training, especially where cost, flexibility, and accessibility are concerned. All the while, they can ensure workers benefit from in-person interactions with peers and instructors. Plus, they can make sure employees have the chance to ask questions and receive immediate answers. Likewise, instructors get the opportunity to assess performance in “real-world” situations and offer timely feedback.
With a smaller workforce, for example, a single manager can create and offer a variety of online courses throughout the year. Then, they can assemble employees all together once per quarter for additional, in-person training.
Larger workforces will enjoy the significant savings of only having to pay instructors or managers very infrequently for in-person training as it’s required, such as for safety and security training.
As a general rule, you should use online training when focusing on theory and in-person training when focusing on practical application.
For example, a bar or restaurant might offer an online course that teaches waitstaff how to prepare and serve alcohol. Then, they follow it up with in-person training where workers actually make drinks alongside an instructor and carry them to tables.
For industries that work with machinery and tools, such as construction, engineering, and plumbing, employees can be taught the theory behind a complicated piece of machinery or how to fix a specific kind of problem. Then, they can practice it in a real-world setting. Because everybody comes prepared with knowledge from the course, just a handful of instructors or senior staff can assess and correct dozens of workers.
Federal and state regulations may also require you to offer some of your training in person. Safety and security training, for example, typically requires some kind of in-person assessment. Bear this in mind as you put together your training strategy.
What Type of Learning Should You Use?
At the end of the day, both online and face-to-face learning have advantages and limitations. The best solution is to use a combination of the two.
Use online learning for training that’s heavy on theory. Use in-person training for practical exercises. Online training will work well for information that can be delivered in the form of a video or document. Meanwhile, if live demonstrations or physically using machines, tools or materials is necessary, face-to-face learning is your best option.
Most workflows include elements of both. Thus, using a combination ensures the best balance between costs, flexibility, and successful outcomes.