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Which Is Better? eLearning vs. Classroom

It’s not unusual for someone to ask me about the pros and cons of delivering training via the classroom or through some form of e-learning. Here’s the thing: one isn’t inherently better or worse than the other for learning. We can teach most things either way. It’s not the delivery system (classroom, say, or via the Web) that makes the difference. Still, your decision to go one way or the other is important.

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Instructional Design. With any delivery system, the advantage for learning comes from good instructional design: objectives, practice, and feedback are the three most essential “active ingredients” that lead to learning. No matter how we deliver our learning programs, we want excellent active ingredients.

Practical Matters. Practical advantages for putting instruction online include:

  • Reach an audience that is spread out geographically. Save money and time: avoid flying trainers or students all over.
  • Provide consistent content. Avoid inconsistencies: everybody receives the same program.
  • Give learners control over their practice. Provide varied amounts of practice: learners can try something once or over and over again, depending on what they individually require to master the required knowledge or skills.
  • Offer flexible timing to learners. Make the timing convenient: learners can learn and study when their schedules permit.

Difficulties with eLearning. Some types of learning are difficult (although not always impossible) to arrange without an instructor present, for example:

  • Interpersonal skills practice and feedback can be difficult to achieve if the learner is alone or without someone who knows how to observe their practice and provide useful advice. But the steps for, say, negotiating a deal or the concepts used to describe various approaches to negotiation can easily be taught online.
  • Some tools and equipment cannot be made available online. In those cases, you’ll usually have to provide practice in a classroom or in the actual performance environment. However, if a simulator is available, and can be accessed online, then that can work. Again, the things people should remember and be able to talk about related to the tools and equipment can easily be taught online, for example, the parts of a widget or the steps in starting up or shutting down a big engine.
  • Sometimes we have safety issues that pretty much require an instructor (at a minimum) to be present when people are learning new skills. Always consider the safety implications when asking people to practice on their own.

Blending. Many people opt for a blended approach. As mentioned above, we can teach many cognitive skills effectively online. After that, people can come together in a classroom or on a job site to practice skills. This will be especially important when their new skills require working with other humans or when they must practice with tools that aren’t readily available via the Web.

So, it’s not that classroom instruction is better or worse than e-learning. With great instructional design, we can teach most things in either environment. What we’re left with is more practical concerns:

  • How much time (and money) do we have for development? For delivery?
  • How spread out are our learners? How many do we have?
  • What kind of practice can we offer, and where will that be practical?
  • How do we make sure our learners stay safe?

The answers to these questions should help you to decide whether to offer classroom, online, or blended delivery options.


Clark 1983 & 1994: Although ancient now, these still-relevant articles carefully explain the difference between media and methods, including how most comparative studies between this medium and that one are usually confounded. They also describe why we can’t ascribe learning benefits to a particular medium.

Clark, R. E. (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media, Review of Educational Research, 53(4), pp. 445-459

Clark, R. E. (1984). Media will never influence learning, ETR&D, 42(2), pp. 21-29.

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