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Written by Akshat Mathur

eLearning vs classroom learning: the big debate

Pepsi or Coke? Mac or PC? DC or Marvel? There are some either-or pairings that will always inspire heated debate – and over recent years, eLearning or classroom learning has become another. For some, eLearning presents an opportunity to address entrenched training challenges. Others see classroom learning as the original and best model.

Unsurprisingly, I fall into the former camp. This has less to do with my current role, and more to do with my experience as a Factory Production Manager. For me, workplace training was always a double-edged sword. I knew that it was absolutely vital for building capability within my team and competitive advantage. Yet accommodating training – and more specifically day-long training absences – was always a real struggle.

eLearning negates this issue. And for clarity when I say eLearning, I don’t mean classroom training that’s designed for a larger audience delivered to an individual via a webinar. I mean training specifically designed digital first and tailored to the needs of a single learner, participants don’t have to do courses all at once. Instead, they can take modules at any time of the working day, at their own convenience. This flexibility is one advantage of eLearning over classroom learning, but there are many more:  

  • Learning effectiveness – According to research, students that receive education via eLearning consistently outperform their traditionally educated peers   and retain knowledge better.
  • Time-effectiveness – With eLearning, it’s possible to condense relatively large amounts of information into short capsules that include quizzes to test learning outcomes. When such techniques are used, one hour of eLearning can be as effective as around four hours of classroom training.
  • Scalability – Classroom training comes with inherent limitations, in terms of the size of the classroom, its location, and so forth. eLearning has far fewer constraints. The same eLearning can be administered to thousands of people around the world at the same time.
  • Cost-effectiveness – With eLearning, organizations make substantial savings in employees’ time that would’ve been spent in all-day classroom training. These savings can translate into significant productivity gains.
  • Standardization – With classroom training, there will likely be significant differences between the training received by employees in different geographies, despite guidelines. With eLearning, employees around the world receive exactly the same material.
  • Compatibility with remote work – As remote work becomes the norm; classroom training is becoming increasingly impractical and difficult to arrange. eLearning addresses these challenges.

Skill Dynamics, a company founded by seasoned procurement and supply chain practitioners, has long recognized the benefits of eLearning. However, when designing the format of our courses, we also remain cognizant of its limitations, so that we can overcome them.

One such limitation is that eLearning does not allow for ad hoc interaction between trainer and learner, meaning that it’s not possible to provide immediate clarification if a concept is unclear. We address this by stripping all unnecessary complexity from our courses. We also draw on Cognitive Load Theory to make sure that we’re providing learners with the right amount, type and medium of information to maximize absorption and retention.

The second potential drawback of eLearning, is that learners can be distracted, or merely say they’ve completed the course without doing so. We overcome this by making our courses as interesting and engaging as possible. We use story-telling techniques and real-life anecdotes so that people actually want to take them.

I’m clearly an advocate of eLearning, but eLearning and classroom learning should not be an either-or debate. There are certain skills that are best learned in a face-to-face setting, or through real-life experience – for example, how to operate a specific piece of machinery or lead a team. Moving forward, team leaders and learning and development professionals will need to think carefully about which skills need to be taught this way, and which would be better imparted through a more flexible and cost-effective online format.

Bakia et. al., U.S. Department of Education, 2010

Reid, 2003

According to a technique developed by Michael J. Reid, a researcher in educational psychology

Akshat Mathur VP of learning content Skill Dynamics