Traditional Classes vs. Online Classes: Cliché vs. Cutting Edge?
If we could look into the future of education, what would we see? Well, in a way, we don’t have to do that, because it’s already here, as we will see together. But is the eLearning wave cresting or will it continue to grow in size and proportion, compared to education in a physical setting (classrooms… right?).
In this article, we’ll look at the two modalities of classes: traditional classes that occur in a physical classroom setting with an instructor at the front of the room and fully online classes that can and do take a variety of forms – all in the corporate setting. We’ll outline some pros and cons of each approach and the activities that are best suited for traditional learning environments, as well as those that provide more learning ‘punch’ through online classes (eLearning).
This educational modality is the most straightforward to address, mostly because we have all been there. In a physical classroom, in which there is a teacher or instructor at the front of the room and the students/learners fill the rest of the physical space, the learners generally have a more passive role. They are lectured to and are expected to retain the information for future use (or not).
On the positive side, unlike the school days when we were all kids, the information provided in a corporate classroom has immediate application. The employee will attend either an onboarding session or will be getting informed/trained regarding a set of tasks that he or she will be performing in the organization. So, as an employee, one will naturally be motivated to pay attention.
Ideally, in both scenarios, the teacher/instructor will use an interactive approach in order to engage the learner to the degree that this is possible.
We also need to include in this “traditional” setting, the on-the-job instruction that one may undergo in order to understand how to work with software or perform tasks in the company’s warehouse, as with a forklift operator.
Lest we jump to conclusions, it is worth noting that face-to-face classes have several benefits not found in their fully online counterparts:
- Relationship. Learners have a ‘closer’ and more visceral relationship with the teacher/instructor. The fact is that “Man is by nature a social animal” and “cannot live alone” (Aristotle). This means that we will naturally ‘relate’ to and value the fact that we are interacting directly with another human being.
- Input. A physical classroom setup allows us to receive multiple types of input that facilitate the ‘etching’ of the relevant information in our brain: we can relate to the teacher’s tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, movement through the classroom, and illustrations made on the chalkboard/whiteboard. You might also be invited to handle a relevant object that is being explained, such as a piece of equipment that you will use in your day-to-day work-related duties.
- Exchanges. Other students/learners will be present in the classroom. This provides the multiple benefits of: brainstorming, exchanging ideas in a roundtable fashion; hearing questions asked by other learners, that you would not have thought of asking yourself, answered; relationship building and networking with your colleagues, regardless if the classes relate to the onboarding process or a specific work-related topic.
- Frame of mind. A fixed schedule and place facilitates adopting a learning frame of mind – you ‘tune in’ to learning when you walk into the classroom or training facility and can better focus on the issue at hand.
- Distractions. You won’t have the distractions that might (will probably) be present if learning from home. You know the list: kids, calls, surprise visitors, the refrigerator, an endless variety of noises, etc., etc., etc.
Although we are all so used to a traditional classroom setting, and therefore find it largely agreeable, it does present some challenges that we perhaps previously just ‘put up with’ (as there was no option) and therefore ignored:
- Schedule. A fixed schedule can also be problematic if your work routine is not a fixed one. Having to cancel classes or training – especially if you are not the only learner in the program – can make it difficult or impossible to complete the training.
- Cost and time. If the training is taking place at a distance from the office or factory or warehouse where one usually works, transit time and the cost involved with travel expenses such as gas, tolls, and meals, can be a burden.
- Pace. Some people simply don’t relate well to a rigid learning schedule and/or a classroom environment and function better if a course is self-paced.
- Materials. If the teacher/instructor is handing out printed information or you are required to follow the studies in printed books, the learning materials have to be managed – organized and carried around.
- Inspiration. A classroom setting can be less than democratic or engaging. If one has the misfortune of having an uninspiring teacher/instructor, the learning process can get quite bogged down.
- Classmates. Also, if your classmates include some “noisy” elements or someone who “hijacks” the learning process for whatever reason, the class can go into a tailspin.
Tasks most appropriate for traditional learning
All of that having been said, there are some subjects and/or activities that are most appropriate for a traditional classroom setting:
Role-play situations, such as customer service interactions between a company employee and a customer can benefit from face-to-face (F2F) mock-ups between classmates or between the teacher and a student – allowing the learner to experience a more visceral real-time scenario. Sales training also benefits from role-play sessions, as the salesperson will most likely interact with a potential customer face to face and needs to train tone of voice, body language, etc.
Any task that requires a hands-on approach, such as forklift operator, hospital emergency room assistant, warehouse manager, or assembly line worker, will need to receive at least some physical classroom and/or on-site training.
The advent of personal computers and the Internet has made it essential that eLearning become an integral part of the corporate learning scene. From the learner’s side, eLearning provides a truly mind-boggling amount of resources, including courses of all description and size, chats, document sharing, coworking, and, of course, real-time online group sessions that can be held via a variety of videoconferencing platforms like Zoom or Skype. These sessions can be generally viewed as traditional classes that are taken online via videoconferencing platforms. In this way, we can refer to them as virtual instructor-led classroom training (VILT).
Another aspect of online education that stands out is self-paced eLearning courses. In the corporate setting, these may or may not be linked to a classroom curriculum per se. If they are, they can be used to enhance and ‘round out’ the classroom dynamic, but outside of class time. If they are a standalone resource, they can be more self-paced, with more flexible deadlines, so that the online learner (employee) can weave the course into the time gaps in his or her schedule – both in-office and out-of-office time gaps.
Without wishing to exaggerate, the online classroom offers a plethora of benefits. Here are some of them:
- Flexibility. While classroom learning can require the employee to undergo an extra commute, incur higher expenses, and can disturb the person’s work schedule, online classes are less likely to do so. Indeed, a great portion of eLearning course materials don’t even require the interaction of a teacher/instructor and are thus prêt-à-porter. The learner can take courses when and where they like – often on a smartphone and sometimes even when offline.
- Distance. Think outside the country! The option of online classes allows multinational corporations to instruct their employees across borders – simultaneously. Classes can be conducted with learners in a variety of countries in real-time. Learners can even establish online study groups to move their studies forward faster.
- Multimedia options. Whereas multimedia can be utilized in a traditional classroom setting – often in the form of PowerPoint presentations and videos – the multimedia options in eLearning are truly vast, with videos, quizzes, branching scenarios, screencasts, and a ton of functionality that comes with a premade course. Visual enhancements – images and videos – can put you face to face with an angry customer, show you how to navigate a critical corporate negotiation successfully, or send you careening through space.
- Courses. Besides the online classroom time, eLearning courses can be assigned to enhance the learner’s understanding of the class material. In the corporate sector, of course, a multitude of educational goals, such as tutorials and even certificate programs, can be achieved with standalone courses. The possibilities for professional development are essentially endless. Consider that once a course has been built it is available ‘at the press of a button’ – forever. One only needs to update the material periodically according to developments in that specific industry, and voilà, it is ready to send out again.
- Quizzes. As opposed to the pen-and-paper approach, online quizzes are not only more interesting than staring at a sheet of paper, but even exciting in some cases. For example, with a quiz that employs the branching process, choices made in a medical or military quiz can have life-or-death consequences – in a virtual safe to fail environment.
- Testing results. Quiz and test results can automatically be sent to the teacher/instructor in a report, allowing them to keep track of how things are going. Gone are the days of checking/correcting quizzes and tests manually.
- Supplementary information. It is super easy to provide learners with links to supplementary materials, such as articles, PowerPoint presentations, websites, ebooks, and videos – as opposed to printed handouts.
- Management of materials. Assignments are scheduled and submitted online, and the learner can email the teacher/instructor with questions. Also, study materials can be provided prior to classroom time, which allows the learner to digest the information at a more leisurely pace and subsequently take greater advantage of VILT class time – which is always limited. A learning management system (LMS) is extremely useful for this purpose, as the teacher/instructor can not only manage the distribution of materials, but receive reports on what materials were accessed by individual learners, how far they got, and if they understood the material (with quizzes).
- Equal footing. One distinct advantage of online classrooms is that – in principle – all learners are on an equal footing, in the sense that everyone has an equal voice during class time. The teacher/instructor can more easily manage those learners who have a tendency to monopolize a face-to-face classroom setting by talking more loudly, interrupting, or asking unnecessary questions (sometimes to show off).
- Cheating. Thinking of cheating on an online exam? Think again. While most online exams account for the fact that you will have access to your textbooks, notes, and the Internet, there are ways to foil attempts at cheating.
Those who presume that virtual is a virtue might not be entirely correct. Let’s look at some of the drawbacks of not having some chalk with the talk:
- Blurbs. Although we stated that the online classroom can function to avoid overbearing classmates and blabbermouths, one study concluded that a downside of online class communication is that learners end up communicating mostly in ‘blurbs.’
- Willpower. Whereas the learner has the advantage of being able to schedule his or her out-of-classroom studies (pre-class preparation and homework) with greater flexibility, this can turn into procrastination. As we all know, any environment that is away from the office can be an invitation for distractions, some of which we have already listed. Thus, eLearning requires that one establish a coherent study routine – and stick to it. Those who are more adept at this will find that online classes work just fine. Those who aren’t so organized in this sense will struggle to one degree or another.
- Less socializing. Without time spent in a physical classroom with colleagues, the learner will have fewer opportunities to network and socialize before and after class. Having this opportunity serves to promote the formation of relationships and can subsequently contribute to a stronger overall workforce.
- Tech frustrations. Let’s face it: although we have come a long way since PCs and the Internet were invented, not everyone is tech savvy and some people even resist using it. This can result in lost time ‘fighting’ with one’s tech, and that can transfer to lower success rates with an online classroom situation and related tasks, such as homework. Also, employees’ equipment may not be able to handle the online classroom tech requirements, such as a fast processor and a reliable Internet connection.
- Transition challenge. Although many corporations have opted to shift to remote/distance learning to the degree that this is possible – especially during the current pandemic situation – not all corporate teachers/instructors/educators are ‘equipped’ to embrace this modality as effectively as might be desired. A teacher/instructor/educator might be extremely dynamic in person, but quite ‘flat’ on screen.
Tasks most appropriate for online learning
As you may have guessed, online learning is just about a perfect solution for new employee onboarding and training employees in a multitude of tasks. Now let’s look at the cases when online learning activities are relevant.
Managers can always use improvement in their soft skills, so role-plays and/or branching scenarios can be super useful in this regard, allowing the management professional to address novel circumstances in the ever increasingly multicultural, multilingual workplace. The same is true for employees who find themselves working together with increasingly culturally diverse colleagues. And, as they work with the public, salespeople and customer support staff can always benefit from soft-skills training.
Take a look at this conversation simulation designed specifically for training sales professionals. The dialogue sim was created with the iSpring Suite Max authoring toolkit.
Senior staff members that operate the corporation’s warehouses can’t take time out of their busy schedule to train warehouse tasks, such as stocking, packing, and shipping processes. eLearning courses with videotaped instructions can handle most of this task admirably. An added perk is if the videos are filmed using the company’s actual employees.
As every new hire has to be ‘on the same channel’ as the others in terms of corporate goals, this is a perfect course to have standardized to ensure that the employee has accurate information and can become productive in as little time as possible. Adding a measurable quiz to an onboarding course is also essential.
Here’s an example of a microlearning module for new hires created with iSpring Suite Max.
As government regulations are always changing, it is ever so helpful to have this critical information updated and ready to go for new and existing employees who need it. Not only is it essential for new hires, but veteran employees need to be updated periodically. Delivering this information with online courses allows the company to certify – with quizzes and their resulting reports – that everyone is up to date with requirements that can have serious consequences for the corporation if not handled well.
Product knowledge training
This kind of training has to be done right and providing this through an eLearning modality ensures that all relevant information is passed to the salesperson – and without taking other sales staff members away from their sales tasks, especially if that demands that they are on location (i.e., away from the company’s headquarters) to do their work. This information is also essential for customer support staff, who need to know the product inside out when handling customer requests and/or complaints.
Take a look at this interactive guide on a vacuum cleaner created with iSpring Suite Max for sales assistants.
Blended Learning as a Solution
So, where do we stand? Are traditional classes better than online classes, or vice versa? Neither case is true, because they are intrinsically different in nature. And, nowadays, they are both relevant, to one degree or another. The obvious solution – and an inevitable one – is that a mixture of both is most effective. Is it a perfect solution? Well, let’s call it a “perspective solution.” We need both approaches, and they need to be used in the manner that allows one to reap the greatest benefits from each.
This solution is called blended learning, which can be defined as “synchronous and asynchronous learning used together,” with regard to eLearning, and we can also apply this to our traditional versus online classes discussion. But there are two ways to look at blended learning:
- Predominantly physical: a teacher/instructor-led training conducted in a brick-and-mortar classroom, wherein the learners attend classes in the same room at the same time (synchronous) and receive pre-class briefings and “homework” assignments by email or an LMS, to be completed on their own between classes (asynchronous), and take quizzes online.
- Predominantly virtual: a teacher/instructor-led training conducted online, but augmented with periodic physical classroom encounters to reinforce information, encourage those who are lagging behind, and give the learning process a more visceral feel (both synchronous). Pre-class preparation and ‘homework’ are, of course, completed according to one’s own schedule (asynchronous).
So, it is not really a matter of one versus another per se, as one might imagine from the title, but, rather, which one is most applicable in different settings for different needs and results, and at what point in a specific process or scenario.
We all have many years of experience with in-person traditional classes and, by now, probably have some experience with online learning as well. Both are useful and appropriate.
Being in a physical classroom situation allows learners to ‘feel’ a subject and bond with both instructor and colleagues – and get hands-on training when appropriate. eLearning provides capacities that are simply not possible in a physical setting, such as quiz and survey taking – along with their immediate tracking and evaluation with the use of an LMS.
Each approach has its unique characteristics that make both worthwhile. And neither is going away.