Online Versus Face-To-Face?

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This article will seek to summarise the recurring themes that emerged from a survey of 300 people, drawn mostly from a number of Linkedin and Facebook groups related to VET and higher education.  Where used here, the responses of participants will be in italics – other than correcting a few typos, the comments are unedited.

Perhaps not surprisingly is the almost universal agreement that one is not intrinsically better than the other.  Or, in the words of one respondent:

…it just depends.

While that may be true, it is not by itself helpful for people trying to decide which way is best for them.

So, what does it depend on?

If you learn best from interacting with others in a social environment, then the general consensus is that face to face training may offer more opportunities for open discussion and group work.  However, this was tempered by the need for the facilitator of such training to be sufficiently skilled to be able to manage this.  If the trainer is not able to effectively manage the group to this end, then it can quickly deteriorate into “group non-work” or, worse still, you could end up enduring death by PowerPoint.

The Trainer’s Skills

If the training is going to be more akin to death by PowerPoint, then the online environment is likely to offer more opportunities for interaction with others.  While this interaction may be somewhat asynchronous, such as through forums and online groups, people seem to believe that this is a great way to access the social aspect of learning without the disruptions that come from actually being in the same room.

I will never do face to face again – as long as the online course lets me talk or chat to other students – even if it’s not at the same time – I’ll prefer that to putting up with an ineffective trainer or some fool who seems to forget that they are not the one who is the trainer.

If the trainer is good at it, then there is nothing that beats face to face, but it seems the rush to cover everything in less and less time is making it harder to spend the time in that sort of thing.

How quick you get your questions answered

The ability to ask questions and get immediate answers was a clear plus for face to face learning.   With face to face, the trainer is essentially captured.  With online, the access is a little less clear:

We can’t assume we can call the trainer any time during the day, right?

I will never do online again.  It took ages to get even the smallest question answered….

Compare that with:  

I had a great [online] trainer who was so quick in helping me with questions and my stuff was marked so fast. I got what I needed and when I needed it and they kept me motivated.

How efficient you use your time

Interestingly, this was also seen as a disadvantage of face to face training, where some respondents suggested that having to listen to everyone’s questions can be a big waste of time….especially if the group has really different levels of experience or ability.

I like being able to ask questions as well, but people seem to expect that if they have paid to be there, then they are somehow entitled to as much attention as they need.  The poor trainer can spend half the day helping one or two people, and the rest of us just have to wait.

As suggested above, there is a clear trade-off between getting questions answered and getting through the content in time.  The opinions on this differed, as shown in the following two quotes:

It’s awful when you get to the end of the day and know you have not done everything you wanted to.

One thing about face to face is that there is a clear finish time.  If the stuff doesn’t get covered it’s the trainer’s fault.  With online, you don’t get to finish until it is all done.

How much you really learn

Along the same lines were comments to the effect that online learning demands much more of its students.

Being self-paced really means do-it-yourself, or With face to face, you can really just sit there and zone out and it’s okay.

Online, by yourself, is considered much more intense.  While not overtly stated by more than a couple of respondents, there was present an undercurrent regarding the motivation of the participant.

I mean, if you just have to get it done, you just go and do face to face.

If you do face to face, then you might learn some stuff, but that’s not really why you’re there.  There is no way you are going to learn as much in 4 or 5 days as you would in an online course where you had to do that same amount of stuff yourself. You do the face to face course to get the certificate to say that you learned it.

This relates to an earlier comment, where the responsibility for learning is seen as different: for face to face training, respondents seem to believe the responsibility lies with the trainer.  For online, it is up to the participant to learn.

I’ve done both, and both were good. If I want to learn something, I would do online. But, if I just have to get a course done, I’d go face to face if I could.

Perhaps interestingly, this last comment suggests that face to face training is more convenient than online, which goes against the dominant view that online is the most convenient option.  But perhaps that has to do with the nature of attendance rather than the nature of the learning that takes place.

How it fits with your lifestyle

With respect to face to face training, it appears that modern lifestyles present many barriers:

For students to get to the venue location, need to fit their lives with session times, their travel time, possible need to be accommodated adding to the cost.

Not flexible with time. Travel time location

You have to be there at scheduled times if you or a family member are sick and you can’t come, what then?

How much your employer supports you

When employer support is provided, however, these issues seem to fall away.  Having said that, the support here was repeatedly clarified as not just paying the course fee or providing time off – which were identified as very important – but not expecting the time in training would be on top of their other duties.

I mean, it’s great that they want me to go to training, but what’s the point if I just sit there all day worrying about all the work that is piling up while I am away?

Not that online is necessarily any better in that regard, as made clear with this comment from the same person:

I said I couldn’t attend a face to face course, so they said ‘just do it online. I mean, if I can’t afford the time to do it one way, what makes them think I can afford to do it another?!

How much flexibility you need

Notwithstanding issues surrounding workload, general consensus is that online does offer a greater degree of flexibility and convenience.

Learn when and where you want, you are the master of your time.

Flexible schedule, reduced cost, self-paced, don’t have disruptions from other students, can fit around full time work

How motivated you are

But, with the increased flexibility and sense of convenience offered through online delivery comes the burden of increased responsibility, and it would appear that it is something that should not be taken lightly when making a decision to study online.

It requires strong student motivation.

[Online learning] is ineffective in its absence.

…need to be disciplined and stick to study plan.

I wish I never went online.  I just hate the feeling of it hanging over my head.

The overall cost

The issue of cost received surprisingly little comment.  The cost of participating face to face was viewed as higher due to costs associated with attending, such as travel, meals and accommodation for those who live outside major centres.  This issue appears to be connected with shifts in delivery trends, evident by people’s experiences with cancellations due to insufficient numbers:

Face to face courses seem to be getting thinner on the ground, which makes it harder to get to them unless you live in a big city. And then when you do go, there’s only 2 other people so they cancel it. Why risk it?

Why would you bother offering a face to face course when a third of the people won’t turn up, another third will be late and it costs half the price to deliver it online?

The only courses that seem to run have too many people.

Of course, there was much comment about the value of blending both face to face and online.  Strong opinions were offered that this was the best model to capture the advantages and reduce the disadvantages of both delivery modes.  However, unlike many other responses, these comments were far less anecdotal in nature suggesting that while a good idea in theory, it had yet to be trialled in practice.  And that could be because it is seen as presenting the logistical difficulties of both modes of delivery.

Doing a combination of both would be ideal, but how do you organize it?

I know one RTO stopped doing face to face days for its online students because nobody ever turned up.  They all said they wanted it, but never came.

Interestingly, respondents seem to presume this blended approach as being predominantly online, augmented by some face to face component.  The model whereby the course is delivered “face to face with homework” received some attention, although few respondents suggested the homework needed to be taken too seriously.

Some face to face courses say you have homework,– you always just do it when you’re there.

Courses that say they have homework is just to keep ASQA happy to make it look like there is more hours.

Does your qualification prove your competence?

This last comment points to a thought about assessment and the vexed question of assessment authenticity versus validity and sufficiency.

If you are taking face to face course, you can see the students doing the assessment. They cannot cheat.

When you do a face to face, you can do the assessment with other people that makes it easier.

The last course I have done, the assessor just handed out the answers. Everyone loved it!

You can’t really tell who did an assessment with online.

It appears that for trainers, the issue of authenticity is easier to deal with in face to face programs, while the convenience of having everyone present gives rise to questions of validity.

Just because I am in the room, it doesn’t matter if I know it or not, they will mark me as Competent.

For some [face to face] courses, it’s like the roll is the assessment. As long as you turn up you pass.

By contrast, the onus for online assessment is, once more, the responsibility of the learner.

You have to do it all, and get it all right otherwise you get it thrown back.

It’s like the online assessments are more thorough than face to face. I guess that is because they are just assessing you one at a time, instead of doing the whole group at once.  They can’t assume you know stuff just because you were in the room when they said it like how it happens in face to face.

How much one on one attention do you need

And with that, we seem to go back to the beginning, but more in a spiral than a circle, for here people tended to view online as offering greater opportunities for one on one attention.

In a group, you sort of get lost a bit and you cannot really ask all the questions you want. In online it’s more like just you getting just the help you need just when you need it.

So, while interaction with others was generally lauded as a great advantage of face to face, the one on one interaction was seen as better with online learning.  And, just like the quality of the interaction with face to face came down to the quality of the trainer, the quality of the one on one interaction online came down to the …. quality of the trainer.

It’s no different really.  A good face to face trainer will be good, and a good online trainer will be good.


I am not sure what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from this.  What is clear is that there are some recurring themes held among the opinions of others.   These relate to the time it takes to do a course, how much you actually learn, trainer skill and responsiveness,, assessment validity, personal preference and group dynamics.

Not surprisingly, it is clear that there is no one way that is better for everyone.  Amid the consensus that “it depends” were very strong opinions leaning one way or the other; anecdotes offered suggest that while people accept that not all face-to-face training is the same, and not all online training is the same, their future decisions are – rightly or wrongly – heavily based on past experience.  Consider these two comments:

I mean, I had the best face to face trainer recently.  I’ll always go for F2F because the trainers are better.

The best trainer I ever had was online so I’ll go online again next time.  Face to face is always so boring!

It reminds me of the statement adorning all financial documents these days:  “past performance is not an indication of future gains”….  if anything this likely further complicates things for prospective students who rely on the vicarious experiences of others to guide them in their own decision-making.

For people looking for training, it would appear that researching available options would benefit from starting by working out your own motivations and what is important to you, then have conversations with possible providers to work out if and how they will meet your particular needs.

To learn how Fortress Learning responds to the challenges of online learning, click here.

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