Have you felt unsure lately what the difference is between such terms as online learning, elearning, webinars, virtual training or digital learning?

The range of digital tools, technology and platforms, the respective terminology and the variety of online training on offer can be confusing. Here’s our brief guide to the most important forms of online learning, what training scenarios they are best suited to, and the questions to ask before you turn your classroom programs digital.

First, let’s use the term online learning as our umbrella term for all types of training that is using the internet and digital technology in some form to deliver and facilitate learning & training.

What are the main types of online learning formats used in the corporate sector?

ELEARNINGrefers to click-and-play style lessons that are hosted on a platform for self-directed learning. Study duration might range from a few minutes “micro-learning” to a few hours. This type of online learning is best suited to knowledge acquisition and the foundation level. It is self-directed, self-paced and accessible 24/7. Elearning is asynchronous learning because subject matter experts and delegates are not meeting directly, with content uploaded on a platform so that an individual can study it at a time of their choosing.

What to look out for – Elearning might be free or specially commissioned; either way, the training manager or sponsor need to take the time to curate or commission content that is of good quality and fit for the intended purpose.

VIRTUAL TRAINING & WORKSHOPS – This is most like classroom training but delivered online. It uses technology to create a virtual classroom where the group of learners come together live to learn with a trainer or tutor. The trainer uses digitalized training content such as slides or a digital whiteboard together with their verbal instruction and the special features of the conferencing technology to actively engage the students with the content and achieve the desired learning. For instance, delegates will discuss questions or carry out problem-solving tasks in small groups in virtual breakout rooms, before they come together again to present their findings in the main group and the trainer. When participants can see the trainer and each other through their webcams, communicate via chat tools or live audio, they quickly feel part of a group, not dissimilar to what happens in face-to-face settings. The technology enables us to bridge the physical distance between participants, but it is still the trainers or moderators who have to make sure that engagement, interaction and exchanges take place.

Unlike elearning, during virtual training tutor and delegates meet at the same time for the duration, which is called synchronous learning. Virtual workshops are best suited where the training needs to go beyond knowledge transfer and where there are clear benefits for a group of employees or a team to work through the learning content together with the help and live availability of a tutor.

What to look out for – While it’s possible to virtualise a multi-day classroom program and deliver it in the same period of time, an online ‘marathon’ session running over days is probably not the most effective way to create, and the training content needs to be structured into manageable chunks suited to virtual delivery. It is better to keep groups reasonably small to allow a feeling of closeness and personal connection to develop. Also, delegates need to have good internet connectivity, webcams and headsets in order to participate effectively during the sessions.

WEBINARS – Webinars are most like lecture-style conference slots or sessions, where one or more subject matter expert(s) talk through a particular question of interest or problem situation online. The audience is there to receive information or knowledge transfer and the learning experience can be more passive, but the conferencing technology does allow interaction and exchange when numbers are small. Q&A sessions, whether through a message or chat function or via live audio, turn webinars into a more interactive experience. Like virtual training webinars are asynchronous form of delivery, but when a session is recorded to be hosted on a website or a YouTube channel, it can become a useful asset for self-directed asynchronous learning too.

The three forms of online learning covered so far – elearning, virtual training and webinars – are able to deliver against a wide range of organisational learning needs, particularly at foundation and intermediate levels. There are no reasons why online training can’t equally be as effective in meeting learning outcomes as any classroom-based training, always providing that;

  • the type of online training chosen is fit for the intended purpose
  • that trainers are both knowledgeable and well skilled in e-moderation
  • that the training designs are adapted to online delivery and that sessions are well planned.

Read the second part of this blog where we cover team-based digital programs as a fourth type of online learning, together with the questions to ask before you decide which type of online learning fits your intended purpose and target audience.

Gabriele Burian – Managing Partner Kingsfield Academy