Pros and Cons of Virtual Learning
Industries and organizations are increasingly turning to virtual learning for their training needs. But when is it appropriate for you?
In this article, we'll look at online training and learning: what it is, when it's useful, and how you can use it to enhance your knowledge and skills.
Online Training Explained
"Online training" is an umbrella term that covers areas such as e-learning, some distance education, web-based training, virtual learning, and computer-based training, to name a few.
We use these terms to describe learning that takes place on a computer, or on a handheld device like a smartphone or a tablet. This type of learning experience can use a variety of different media, such as articles, graphics, audios, podcasts, interactive content, streamed and recorded presentations, videos, and self-paced tests.
Sometimes, organizations also use "blended learning," which is online training combined with human support, such as interaction through forums or similar channels.
As examples of online training, your organization might ask all new hires to go through a Web-based workplace safety course on their first day. You might enroll in a distance-learning course to learn Chinese, which you'll use when you relocate to your organization's new offices in Shanghai. Or you might use a site like MindTools.com to develop your management and personal effectiveness skills.
All of these are good examples of how you can use online training to build essential knowledge and skills.
Online Training Options
There are two main types of online training: synchronous and asynchronous.
"Synchronous" learning involves the real-time exchange of information between people. An example is a live class streamed to students, who can ask questions and have them answered by the instructor through instant messaging.
"Asynchronous" learning describes online training that takes place in a non-simultaneous, back and forth manner. For example, you might read, watch, or listen to resources on your computer, and take part in a forum discussion with your classmates. You might complete online tests or assessments, or send assignments to an instructor through email. This means that you decide when you "attend the class," which means that you can complete it in a way that suits you.
Advantages of Online Training
There are several advantages of using online training.
One of the biggest benefits is the flexibility that it offers. Instead of attending a training class in a set place and at a set time, you can log into your learning program when it suits you.
Another benefit is cost-effectiveness, for both you and your organization. When you learn online, you eliminate travel costs to and from class each day, avoid any accommodation costs that you might have incurred, and minimize time away from work.
Online training is often very cost-effective, especially for large groups. For example, many more people can usually be trained online for a given spend, compared with the number of people that could be trained using instructor-led training. Online training also allows organizations to offer training to teams on a global scale.
Because of the variety and mix of media used, online training can create an active learning experience, and also accommodates a variety of different learning styles. Online training can be enjoyable and engaging, especially when you collaborate with others. And, because you work at your own pace, you're far more likely to understand and retain the information that you're learning.
According to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, students who take part in online learning perform "modestly better" than those who learn in a traditional classroom setting; while those who take part in blended courses perform best of all.
Last, online training instructors often report that engagement is higher in e-courses than in classroom settings. One possible reason is that online learning can encourage quieter learners to participate more comfortably. Another reason could be that the level of autonomy is much higher with it.
Drawbacks of Online Training
While online learning provides many advantages, there are also several drawbacks to this type of training.
First, online learning isn't suitable for everyone. Self-directed learning needs a certain amount of organization and self-discipline; if you have trouble staying motivated, or if you're disorganized, you might find that you fall behind with online learning. You'll also need good time management skills to take part in online training.
Online training can sometimes present a learning curve for students. If you're not confident with technology, it can take time to become familiar with the learning platform and with any technology that the course uses. And online training is difficult to access for people with literacy problems.
There is also often a lag between your performance in an e-learning course and the feedback that you get from an instructor. Unless you're using live online video, feedback isn't immediate, and this can slow down development, or become frustrating for some students.
When to Use Online Training
For some, online training can be very effective, while others may work better in a traditional classroom setting.
Online training is best suited to teaching knowledge and specific skills. For example, new team members can take part in online training to learn about the company's policies and expectations, or an entire organization could train online to learn how to use a new software system. You can also use online resources to learn management, business, technical and professional skills.
However, this learning format isn't always practical for skill sets that require hands-on, mechanical, or lab work. Some subjects or courses simply won't work in a virtual environment, and should be taught using on-the-job training, or in a traditional, practical, classroom environment.
For example, you can learn about counseling from an online course, and you can practice it via a webcam, but there's no substitute for talking to people face to face – as you'd do in group training – to practice some aspects of it.
Choosing a Training Provider
Once you decide that online training is right for you, it's important to weigh the different options that are available.
First, look at what you're trying to achieve. Do you want to focus on increasing your knowledge, or do you want to develop a particular, practical skill? Should there be an instructor, or should the training be self-directed? If it's an instructor-led course, how often will the instructor be available for questions or individual help? If the course is self-directed, how will you get help?
Next, look at the session format. How good is the material, and will you enjoy using it? How will you learn the material, and what technology will you need? Will you have assignments to complete?
If the course is synchronous, how much interaction will you have with classmates during the training; and how will you communicate with classmates? If the course is asynchronous, how will you organize your learning?
And are you learning to boost your skills, or earn a qualification? If the latter, how much work will be needed, how will it be assessed, and what benefit will it give you?
Getting Started With Online Learning
You can do several things before your training starts, to get the most out of the experience.
First, check that your computer is compatible with the learning platform, and that you can run all applications and software that you'll need for the course. Will you need any new tools, such as a webcam or tablet device?
Online training takes self-organization and good time management skills. Take time to get organized before it starts. You can also take our interactive quiz, "How Good Is Your Time Management?," to uncover any aspects of time management that you need to work on before you begin your online training.
Last, it's important to find a quiet space to take each class. While learning at home is often more comfortable, it's easy to be distracted. Learn how to manage interruptions when they occur, and try to do your learning in a room where you're unlikely to be disturbed.
Online training is a learning experience that takes place online, using a computer or other digital device. Organizations are increasingly using online training because it's so cost-effective, and because they can make it available to teams around the globe.
Keep in mind that online training isn't suitable for everyone. If you struggle with disorganization or motivation, or if you have trouble managing your time, you might find that you fall behind with online training.