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Class Warfare

Both training approaches are touted by lots of people–usually training providers. But which one will help you the most?

If you ever took a telecourse in college, you know that learning outside of the classroom can be a challenge. There are too many distractions, and you’re always tempted to put off doing the work until the last minute. And yet, thousands of people are doing it every day. For some people, training via the Internet can be just as effective, if not more so, than attending a real-life, brick-and-mortar classroom.

Of course, there are pros and cons to both methods of training. Let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of both styles, focusing not only on tangibles like cost and scheduling but also intangibles such as motivation, your preferred style of learning, and how likely you are to retain the knowledge once the class is over.

Classroom training is usually more costly, requiring a staff of highly paid instructors, fully equipped labs, and a full-time administration to coordinate instructors, lab facilities, and scheduling of students. Printed course materials (manuals, textbooks, etc.) are expensive and often account for as much as 25 percent of the course cost. No-shows (students that fail to show up for class) are also very common and create additional costs in terms of scheduling overhead, costs that are passed on to you in the form of higher tuition.

By contrast, online-based training has very little overhead in terms of personnel and required textbooks. Course materials are often downloadable, and interaction with teachers and other students is carried out via e-mail or live chats.

“Self-paced courses have been an engaging, cost-effective way to help keep our IT employees Cisco-certified,” said Ingrid Fernandes, a corporate IT training manager for Motorola in Schaumburg, Ill.

Online courses are often priced as little as 60-70 percent of their classroom equivalents. Highly motivated students who don’t require a lot of teacher-to-student interaction can often find courses that are even less expensive, perhaps as low as 5-10 percent of the cost of a traditional classroom-based course. And for a business with a budget, online training at even 50 percent of the cost of the classroom means you can train twice as many employees for the money.

Advantage: Online Training

In most instances, it takes a highly-motivated person to get the full advantage of an online course. And let’s face it: How many of us would describe our selves as highly motivated? If no one is standing over your shoulder making you do the work, well, there’s probably a good chance you’ll keep putting it off until the last minute. (I still regret that ill-fated American history course-on-tape I took in college many years ago…) By contrast, the dichotomy of a classroom dictates that you participate and learn lest you be left behind.

Most of us need that little extra kick in the pants–a promised reward, bonus, promotion, or even simply public recognition–in order to excel at what we do. Keeping up with your fellow students and impressing your instructor are strong motivators, and it’s far more difficult to put off answering questions in a classroom than it is to avoid chats and e-mails.

Advantage: Classroom Training

As the old adage goes, time is money. And the more time you spend in a classroom, the less time you’ll have for working or spending time with your family. It’s much easier to fit online courses–which usually let you schedule your own lessons–into your agenda. If your time is already limited, it might be easier to tackle the lessons piecemeal rather than devote a set block of time to a physical classroom.

Another plus to online training is that you can work at your own pace. In a classroom, the pace is dictated by the trainer and, to a lesser extent, the other students taking the course. If you’re already familiar with part of the training, you can spend the time you’d normally spend in a classroom going over material you already know on something more challenging.

Joseph Reynolds, 37, a business analyst in Dallas, Texas, had been planning to update his analytical skills for six months but, with a new baby and a full-time work load, could never find the time.

“Someone finally suggested an online course,” Reynolds said, “and not only could I fit it into my schedule, it was less than a third of the cost of the classroom equivalent. I didn’t miss a class–something that probably would have happened in a normal classroom–and at the end of the training I felt I had really improved my skills.”

Advantage: Online Training

Studies have long shown that students who interact with their teachers and other students tend to retain more of the knowledge than those who don’t. By necessity, online learning is much more solitary than is traditional classroom-based training and thus lacks some of the necessary interaction required to remember what you learn.

Courses that encourage trading e-mail and live chatting between the student and instructor and other fellow students tend to do better than those that don’t, but there’s really no substitute for real-life, flesh-and-blood communication

Advantage: Classroom Training

As you can see, both styles of learning have their advantages and disadvantages. What works for one software engineer, for example, might not work for another. Some people respond better to a real-life classroom, while others are energized by the autonomy of setting their own pace. If you’re highly-motivated and function well without supervision, online training might work best for you; conversely, if you work better under supervision with a clearly defined set of goals, the traditional classroom is probably your best bet.

In the final analysis, in the fight between online and classroom learning, it’s a draw.

Winner: You, for having choices.

Contributing Editor Joe DeRouen also writes Windows Advisor monthly for ComputerUser.

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