Virtual vs. In-Person Training: Which is Better?

side-by-side photos of virtual instructor-led training and in-person instructor-led training, titled "vILT vs. ILT"
This post examines virtual versus in-person training and what the research says about the factors that affect learning outcomes.

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Introduction

I’ve seen several discussions lately about virtual vs. in-person training. As organizations are looking ahead to the future of work, many are considering whether to continue the remote learning experiences that have dominated the past two years or return to more traditional face-to-face training methods.

It seems everyone has an opinion as to which is better. And, because different studies have drawn different conclusions, everyone can find research to back up their opinion. So, in the virtual vs. in-person training showdown, which method is really better?

TLDR: I’ll give you the true consultant answer: it depends. As with every type of learning experience, effectiveness is all about effective design and delivery.

In this post, I’ll share what I’ve learned about virtual vs. in-person instructor-led training (ILT) from reviewing several studies—including factors that make a difference in the effectiveness of virtual learning experiences.

What the Research Says

Many studies, including a series of randomized trials at six public university campuses, have found no significant differences in learning outcomes when instruction occurs online vs. in-person.

Some studies, such as those discussed in a U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis, have found better outcomes with online learning. 

And still other studies have found that online instruction results in poorer student performance. 

Rather than letting confirmation bias win and only cite the studies that reinforce our own beliefs, it’s important to examine how the research was conducted and what other factors may contribute to the findings. 

For example, one study, which found that “less time in the classroom may lead to lower academic performance,” has been cited as evidence that moving to online learning leads to poor outcomes. However, when examining how the study was conducted, what it really proves is that students don’t learn as much when class time is cut in half and instructors still try to teach all the material in that compressed time frame.

What matters most in the battle between instructional methods are the design, delivery, and implementation.

Factors That Make Virtual Training More Effective

Researchers found that the following factors increase the effectiveness of online learning experiences:

  • Redesigning instruction for virtual delivery
  • Including prompts that ask students to reflect on their learning, set goals, and assess their level of understanding
  • Incorporating simulations
  • Individualizing instruction based on student responses
  • Including frequent assessments with immediate feedback
  • Providing access to an instructor, mentor or coach for questions and feedback
  • Incorporating learning communities

Factors That Make Virtual Training Less Effective

Researchers found that the following factors decrease the effectiveness of online learning experiences:

  • Simply putting class materials online without redesigning them
  • Using simple multiple-choice quizzes as the sole means of practice and assessment
  • Not providing access to an instructor, mentor, or coach for questions and feedback
  • Compressing timeframes, which results in cognitive overload
Virtual Training Do's and Don'ts. See text description.

Virtual Training Do's and Don'ts

Do this:

  • Redesign
  • Include reflection activities
  • Include simulations
  • Individualize instruction
  • Assess and provide feedback frequently
  • Build a learning community

Not that:

  • Convert
  • Focus only on content delivery
  • Provide content without context
  • Use a one-size-fits-all approach
  • Make learners wonder how they're doing
  • Leave learners on their own

From scissortailcs.com

Why Neither Is Necessarily Better

Blanket statements like “virtual training is more effective than face-to-face training”—or the reverse—cannot hold true because there are too many factors in the design, delivery, and implementation of the training that affect the learning outcomes.

In addition, we must consider the preferences and characteristics of the learners. Some studies have found that self-selection bias—when students are able to choose whether to participate virtually or in-person—masks the true effectiveness of each format. Furthermore, online learning is more effective when learners are good at working independently—and less so if they are not. And for many learners with disabilities, online learning is much more effective, because it takes away the barriers that come with in-person training.

So, What’s the Answer?

In my opinion (which research supports), the most effective learning interventions use a hybrid or blended learning approach, especially if learners can choose the mode of instruction that they prefer.

Blended learning offers the most flexible format for shifting our focus away from content delivery and toward “producing learning,” as well as providing ways for learners to build connections and a sense of community. In fact, one study found that blended learning leads to a “stronger sense of community” than traditional courses provide.

For learning experiences that require synchronous interaction, we should give learners a choice between virtual and in-person events whenever possible. Not only does this allow them to learn in the way that they prefer, but it also makes learning events more accessible for those with disabilities that make in-person attendance problematic or impossible.

I love using a flipped classroom approach, which make the best use of synchronous sessions. But that’s a thought for a future post.

Summary

In study after study, researchers have concluded that more research is needed to decide the winner of the virtual vs. in-person training boxing match. Here are my two cents’ worth on why that is: because everything depends on how a learning experience is designed, delivered, and implemented. A badly designed online course will never be as effective as even a mediocre face-to-face course. And vice versa.

So whatever your personal preference is, let’s not argue that one is better than the other. Let’s instead focus on making sure that whatever type of learning invention we use, it’s well-designed and well-executed.

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