Study: People Learn Better Online than in a Class (Although a Mix Works Best)

April 17, 2017

A study found that people actually learn better online, versus via in-person training, although a blended approach that uses both works best.

In 2010, the United States Department of Education released an expansive study comparing online learning to in-person learning (classroom time); compared to a mixture of the two.

This was a critical study, as the department was determining where it would allocate more than $600 million in funding it had received from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – aka the stimulus package. Should the money go to facilitate more online learning in schools across the country, or would it be better spent on increasing classroom time?

Now, before I go any further, I’m sure you are thinking: sure, this is interesting for students. But, what does this have to do with companies looking to develop their people?

A lot. You’ll see the findings are highly relevant to organizations of all kinds.

Okay, back to the study. What did the Department of Education find?

Two things; one unsurprising, one surprising:

  • Unsurprisingly, the study found a blended model of learning was the most effective, where both classroom teaching and online learning were used.
  • Surprisingly, between just classroom and online training, solely learning online was proven slightly more effective than solely learning in a classroom. In other words, if you only had money to spend on one, students would learn more through just online training.

A bit more about the study

The study itself was actually a study of studies. The U.S. Department of Education studied the results of 99 studies on the matter between 1996 and 2008 – a process known as meta-analysis – to determine what was superior: online or classroom learning.

Here are the results, printed from the study itself:

  • "Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction,” the study read.
  • “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction,” the study read. In other words, whereas online learning is relatively effective on it’s own (although does improve with a blended model), in-person training is greatly improved by incorporating online elements.
  • “The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types,” the study read. So online training worked well with students young and old, males and females, affluent and disadvantaged.
  • “Effect sizes were larger for studies in which the online and face-to-face conditions varied in terms of curriculum materials and aspects of instructional approach in addition to the medium of instruction,” the study read. What this means is that classroom learning and online learning shouldn’t cover the exact same topics in the same manner. Instead, the most effective blended models utilize online learning differently – i.e., in lieu of lecturing – than they do classroom training – i.e., to use that time to practice with peers.

What this means to businesses

Again, this study had a huge impact on policy. After it’s results, the Department of Education spent more than $600 million – most of the money it had left from the stimulus package – on online tools, so more students could learn online.

Now, again, this is about students, not professionals. But, as the study found, there were few differences in age, as online learning consistently proved slightly more effective than in-person learning across all age groups. So it’s relatively safe to assume that holds true for people across the board, including professionals.

Hence, if you are only going to spend money on one form of training, the study found online learning worked better than “ILTs” – instructor-led training. That’s music to most CFOs' ears, as online training is generally more cost effective and scalable than ILTs.

However, if you really want to invest in training, the best solution is to mix the two. Use online learning as a place where professionals can absorb information, instead of having them sit through a lecture. And then use classroom time to empower them to practice those skills with others, and turn those learnings into a habit.

For a practical example, when we surveyed more than 500 learning and development professionals, they said ILTs are still the most common way they train their people. Using the information in the study, if companies added online learning to those ILTs, they would become more effective.

"This new report reinforces that effective teachers need to incorporate digital content into everyday classes and consider open-source learning management systems, which have proven cost effective in school districts and colleges nationwide," said then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement, when the study was released. "We must take advantage of this historic opportunity to use American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to bring broadband access and online learning to more communities."

That’s a point that applies to businesses just as much as it applies to education.