Training Delivery Methods & Styles

Online Learning vs. Face-to-Face Learning: Which Is Best?


Online learning has never been more popular. With flexible self-paced learning tools providing information at one’s fingertips, online learning has become the go-to classroom and employee training method option. 

But can online learning be as effective and efficient as traditional, face-to-face learning?

In this article, we explore key differences between these two learning methods to find which one may be a more effective method for organizations and learners.

What Is Online Learning?

Any type of learning that occurs on the internet could be considered online learning, also known as eLearning. Today, virtual learning is most often used to refer to asynchronous learning material, which allows for learners to engage with instructional material at their own pace, from anywhere, available at any time. 

An online learning program encourages self-study and could refer to anything from a remote training seminar such as a LinkedIn Learning course to a full-fledged, virtual college degree program. For both classroom and corporate learning settings, learning management systems are utilized to create and publish courses, connect learners and learning materials, monitor progression, and more.


Benefits of online learning

eLearning presents clear advantages for learning and development professionals, for end-user learners, and for organizations. Those include:

  • It is more cost effective. Online learning doesn’t require in-person training, meaning you save costs on travel and related expenses. You also create digital learning experiences, meaning you no longer need to purchase physical learning materials like books, tests, videos, and so forth.
  • It’s easier to scale. You no longer need to consider how many people you can fit into a room.
  • It’s available when and where learners need it. Online learning can be accessed anywhere an internet connection is available, anytime.
  • It’s more consistent. Online learning relies less on individual instructors, meaning course material is less dependent on the person teaching it. This allows the learning experience to be less impacted by biases or opinions.
  • It’s more interactive. With online learning, instructors can take a multimodal learning approach with links, videos, text, assessments, and more.

What Is Face-to-Face Learning?

Face-to-face learning refers to the traditional, classroom-based method of learning. This style of learning involves in-person sessions that is instructor-led. The pace of learning is set by the instructor and students in this setting are passive learners. Face-to-face learning is considered effective due to the benefits of live interaction between the instructor and the group of learners and/or students.

Learners are held accountable for their own progress by attending specific classes or training meetings, interacting with their fellow students, and by interacting in real-time with their instructor.


Benefits of face-to-face learning

Face-to-face learning provides in-person benefits that online learning lack. These benefits include:

  • Social aspect. Learning with your peers, in the same room, fosters a sense of learning that is physical, unlike online learning. The entire group is learning together, at the same time, at the same place.
  • Individual learning. In-person, face-to-face learning allows instructors to develop 1-1 learning plans and relationships with learners that can’t be replicated online.
  • Discussion and collaboration. Being a part of an in-person group provides nuances that online forums can’t replicate.
Related Resources

What Are the Key Differences Between eLearning and Face-to-Face Learning?

Both types of learning can be beneficial, depending on the goal of the lesson plan. Here are a few of the most crucial differences between online learning and face-to-face learning.

1. The Learning Environment

In a traditional face-to-face learning scenario, classes are planned and structured according to a fixed schedule. This system of learning is thus more disciplined. Classroom learning also happens in a group setting and may spur more discussion, interaction, and involvement. 

Online learning is more spontaneous when compared to a planned, in-person session. Learners may choose to take up a course or a learning module online whenever inspiration or curiosity strikes. Best of all, they can do it at their own pace – whenever they choose. Since this kind of learning doesn’t involve a live instructor, the learner is by themselves in this setting.

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2. Type of Learning Content

Face-to-face learning methods usually only involve traditional learning materials such as textbooks and lecture notes. An online learning session is more interactive in comparison, with many different types of training.

With the advancement of technology and adaptive learning platforms, elearning modules are supported via digital textbooks, live chat support, community forums, online discussion boards, video and audio materials, interactive quizzes, virtual announcements, and much more.

For example, below you can see how enterprise organizations now embed a self-help learning module direct into their digital apps and processes – allowing employees to learn in the flow of work.


Above: Example of an embedded self-help learning module using Whatfix’s employee training software.

3. Pace of Learning

The instructor leads the learning pace in a traditional classroom setting, and students are likely to learn passively. There is little scope for the learner to slow down and re-learn difficult concepts in a live, instructor-led scenario – as this hinders the entire group.

On the other hand, the learner is free to move at their own pace in an eLearning setting. They can pause whenever needed and revisit modules for better clarity before proceeding with the rest of the course. With the addition of assessments and interactive tools at various points in the learning module, the learner is no longer passive but is active in the learning process.

4. Types of Assessments

In a traditional learning scenario, the instructor often tests students after delivering a fixed set of learning modules. This is most likely an in-person test that is closely monitored and occurs at a specific date, time, and place. 

Assessments in eLearning contexts are generally more flexible when compared to traditional methods. Today, eLearning modules have frequent knowledge checks and short training assessments in place to ensure that the content has been well received and allows training facilitators to measure training effectiveness. Exams in an eLearning scenario might be timed and may use screen recorders to ensure integrity.


Above: Example of L&D professional building a quiz assessment after an online learning course.

5. Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Interaction

In an online learning scenario, learner-instructor interaction is often asynchronous. With asynchronous learning, the learner is able to study at their own pace, but queries are usually posted on an online forum to be answered by an instructor. This leads to some delay in interaction, which can be minimized via timely virtual support.  

Traditional classroom-led teaching involves live interaction between an instructor and a student, thus facilitating instant discussions and query clarification.

Is Online Learning or Face-to-Face Learning Better?

Both online and face-to-face learning methods have their own set of unique advantages and disadvantages.

While a lot of learners may still prefer the discipline and familiarity that face-to-face learning brings, there is no denying the immense benefits of online learning. The self-paced nature of eLearning content may be highly favorable to the modern learner – as well as organizations searching for new ways of managing employee development and training in a post-COVID world.

This type of learning is more flexible than traditional learning and is generally more practical for learners. However, a lot of learners still prefer the presence of a live instructor to assimilate content better because of the unique advantages of instructor-led training. Both learning methods are highly effective in their own ways. Choosing one type of training over another is purely dependent on an individual’s learning style and preference – as well as the course material at hand.

What Is Blended Learning?

Blended learning is the concept of implementing both face-to-face learning and online learning together into a hybrid approach, allowing learners to benefit from both methods of learning.

This style of learning is also popular in corporate settings, where learning and development leaders will use data to create an adaptive learning style that is personalized to the needs of different roles and departments.

You can explore more on different styles and methods of learning below:

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