Virtual Learning vs In-Person Learning

Jul 13 2021 | Insights

The pros and cons of virtual learning compared to in-person learning are often debated, but could there be a better solution for workplaces to adopt that balances the best of both worlds?

The COVID-19 pandemic completely changed the way we work across 2020 and 2021. During the latter half of 2020, Pew Research Center revealed that roughly 71% of employed adults were now working from home, up from a mere 20% that worked from home prior to the outbreak. Normalcy is slowly returning to some areas of the world, but many businesses are giving up their offices. They’ve realized just how cost-effective it can be to run a business remotely.

Unfortunately, many employees have started facing burnout as a result of remote work arrangements. Around two-thirds of employees experienced burnout symptoms during 2020 while working remotely. Stress and financial anxiety were also at a high, especially since many workers can’t fully disconnect from their workplaces.

Remote work and similar topics have caused heated debate. One such area is the introduction of virtual learning versus in-person learning. While online education has been hailed as an e-learning revolution, there are some major setbacks that come with e-learning. 

Does studying online produce the same results as studying in person?

If a worker develops the same skills learning online as they do in person, then cost and time are the next two factors to compare. But do online and in-person learning actually produce the same results?  Initially, it was believed that people would eventually achieve the same level of education, whether they studied in-person or online. But a Tech & Learning University article shows that this may not be the case.

In the article, Justin Reich, director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, has found evidence of what’s being dubbed an “online penalty”. Researchers studying the California community college systems observed that not everyone did equally well online. Reich says “many learners appear to do less well online, they’re less likely to pass a course, and they’re more likely to get a lower grade.” The online penalty also appears to be more severe for learners who aren’t accustomed to the traditional education system.

But Reich says there’s a chance that well-supported high-achieving students can do well remotely. It’s on instructors to provide additional support to help learners achieve their goals.

On the contrary, Provost Dr. Elizabeth Johnson of Post University in Connecticut says outcomes for students are the same, whether remote or in-person. This, Johnson says, is because courses are designed with the same learning outcomes in mind. There is a clear difference in the experience but the intent behind the learning experience doesn't change.

Information retention, though, can be different for remote versus in-person students. As Johnson describes it, “choosing to quit is very easy” with online education.

Virtual learning versus in-person learning in a workplace setting

While virtual learning may have issues in an academic context, setting the stage in a workplace context comes with a whole new world of differences. 

The e-learning market is anticipated to grow at an exponential compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21% between 2021 and 2027 due to the increased demand for e-learning services. With new technologies being revealed and billions worth of investment being poured into tech, businesses are starting to adopt online learning tools to educate and improve the skills of their employees.

And statistics show this method is meeting employee needs. 68% of employees believe that training and development is one of their company’s most important policies. Many of these employees believe that they aren’t reaching their full potential currently. They hope to find better opportunities to grow their careers. This means employees are more than willing to work harder for the company, and this generally involves virtual learning so they can acquire new skills for the future.

But there are some clear disadvantages that can’t be ignored when businesses start relying too heavily on virtual training. One common formula for business training is the 70-20-10 model for learning and development. Created in the 1980s, this model provides a general guideline for organizations to maximize the effectiveness of their in-house development programs. It’s a simple concept;

  • 70 percent of learning and development occurs through hands-on experience.

  • 20 percent is achieved through social learning, coaching, mentoring, and other methods of interaction.

  • 10 percent comes from formal traditional courseware instruction and educational events.

This means that we can’t expect to see large gains when it comes to virtual learning and how efficiently our employees work. While they may gain new knowledge that enables them to perform well in a new role, most of their experience and skill will come through hands-on experience.

This coincides with some of the well-known disadvantages of virtual learning, like unrealistic or irrelevant simulations that may be presented as part of the virtual training course. Virtual learning also tends to isolate learners, so there is little social learning being achieved. Lastly, we can’t ignore the technical issues related to security problems, network issues, and software errors that hinder virtual learning.

Is there a better solution?

The 70-20-10 model for learning and development shows us that true expertise is multifaceted and can only be gained through hands-on experience. A very small part of employee development relies on formal training, but this doesn’t mean we should ignore the benefits or possibilities that come with virtual learning.

Like Johnson says, the goals of academic e-learning and in-person learning are the same. But this is the problem; we’re not taking advantage of the tools and features at our disposal. E-learning is giving businesses and digital learning platforms the chance to merge all three components of the 70-20-10 model for learning and development:

  • Gain real-time feedback on how employees are performing.

  • Record real-world situations that employees encounter which can be used as relevant examples for trainees to learn from.

  • Communicate with managers and team members to take advantage of social learning

  • Access formal courseware instruction.

By combining all three elements of the 70-20-10 learning and development model, we can start taking full advantage of the features and technologies that e-learning offers us.

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