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Is Learning Online Really That Effective?

Despite literally hundreds of years (seriously) of distance education, there’s still a debate around its efficacy. While we can’t speak to the quality of distance education in 1798, we’re pretty confident that the latest iteration — online training — is easier to administer. But as for the question of effectiveness, the answer is a little frustrating: It depends.

There’s a ton to consider when you start down this path. People learn in different ways, with different levels of self-discipline, different time and financial constraints, and bring different experiences with them. But most importantly, any teacher can succeed or fail by how well they lead a student from knowledge to application.

It depends on your level of discipline

Discipline plays heavily into the argument against learning online, and we get that. The traditional classroom setting has structure and discipline baked right in. You have to show up. (Well, you don’t have to, but there are typically consequences if you don’t.) You have to do homework. You’re instructed by an expert. In essence, it’s a social experience. There’s a lot to appreciate about traditional, in-person classes.

Then there’s online learning. Learning online appeals to people comfortable digesting material on their own. It’s not so much about the social experience. It’s about the knowledge. You can dig into it at your own pace, on your own time. There’s no syllabus to accelerate you past a trouble spot (or slow you down). As for self-discipline, you need much more. Online classes are great for not requiring a set schedule, but that forces you to carve out the time you need to get everything done and maintain a reasonable pace.

There’s a middle ground here — hybrid online training.

Many companies implement training programs with clearly outlined training plans, deadlines, and outcomes. At CBT Nuggets, everyone has an individualized training plan that’s administered by our training team. The training plan comprises CBT Nuggets training, study groups, books, hands-on practice, conferences, and even MOOCs. It’s a hybrid model that allows our internal learners to learn online — and then interact and practice in real life.

The issue of discipline really comes down to the Socratic maxim: Know thyself. If you’re weaker than you’d like to be in self-discipline, then working independently might be tough for you. However, online training can also help augment in-person classes or play a big part in a hybrid approach.

Online learning is definitely less expensive

Let’s look at a typical in-person IT training method, the boot camp. Generally three to 10 days in-person at a training facility, you’re in class all day, then cramming and reviewing all night. These are great for a couple reasons. You’re isolated from work and given the time to get through the class. There’s less time to forget material, assuming you’re in class for a certification and testing at the end. You have classmates to study with.

Some downsides? They are expensive (hopefully work is footing the bill). Not everyone’s work and personal situations lend themselves to leaving for a week or more. Covering so much material in such a short time doesn’t give a lot of freedom to really dig in.

Online training shines in the face of these cons. Costs are way lower. Devoting a lunch or even 20 minutes a day to a single video is easier. One tricky concept tripping you up? Rewatch it, look up other videos on YouTube, play in a lab. Hammer on it until ready to move on. Conversely, you don’t have to sit through lectures about familiar topics, just skip through those videos. You can set your own schedule and work in the time available to devote to it.

Online learning is effective with application

Whatever your reason for going through any training, it will only be effective if it takes you from knowledge to comprehension to application. You can read all about running web servers, but until you build one yourself, does that knowledge really carry much value?

This framework of learning is called Bloom’s taxonomy, it basically describes moving from learning facts to applying them in technique and problem solving to forming and defending options and judgments. In other words, you move through the stages:

Stage 1, Remember: “I know that Apache is a Linux web server.”

Stage 3, Apply: “I know how to install and setup Apache.”

Stage 5, Evaluate: “Apache is a better choice for this particular project’s requirements for these reasons.”

Getting there takes wisdom and experience (AKA screwing it up more than a few times), but you have to start somewhere.

Good learning will meet you there and move you through the framework, whether online or in-person. Effective training usually features labs, so you can actually get your hands dirty doing real work in simulated environments. If your class doesn’t have labs, we have lots of guidance here on the blog. This hands-on experience will get you started moving from knowledge to application.

The Gold Standard

So what’s really the learning and training gold standard: Online or in person? As we’ve seen, it depends. It depends on you, your personality, your situation, your learning style, or even your goals and level of aspiration. What’s effective for one person at one moment with one set of goals may not work for you, so it’s difficult to nail down. What’s important is distilling down what you need for your learning goals right now and working hard with consistently towards meeting them.


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