Is V-Learning Better Than C-Learning?

While the research does not provide a clear message regarding v-learning and c-learning, one thing is clear: The quality of the instructional design, and more specifically the instructional design relative to the modality (c-, v-, or e-learning), has a great effect.

By Michael Leimbach, Ph.D., Wilson Learning

As a provider of both classroom-based learning programs (c-learning) and programs delivered virtually (v-learning), we often are asked by our clients which is better at producing the desired learning and performance outcomes.

There are many opinions as to the effectiveness of v-learning (most of them expressed by people who sell technology that supports v-learning), but what does the research say? We are committed to providing clients with research-based recommendations and solutions. Therefore, we analyzed studies that compared v-learning to other forms of learning, and were surprised by what we found. (For a description of v-learning, see the sidebar at the end of this article: What Is V-Learning?)

After an extensive search, we were able to find only 10 studies comparing various aspects of v-learning with c-learning. Overall, we found that:

  • There were few studies with good research methods. Most had small sample sizes and did not fully describe their methods or what they measured.
  • All research studies were done either in educational settings (K-12 and college students) or in the military arena. It is a stretch to generalize their findings to adults learning in business settings.
  • All studies involved some form of technical or school-related content. Therefore, the results may not be relevant to other focus areas, such as communication, leadership, sales, or other behavioral skills.

Since the studies varied widely in quality, size of population, type of learning content, and technology used, it is difficult to draw many conclusions. But in general, we can say the following:

  • No statistically significant differences between v-learning and c-learning were found. However, this is most likely due to too-small sample sizes and less-than-appropriate research methodologies. Thus, the best that can be said is that the verdict is still out on the learning outcome differences between v-learning and c-learning.
  • Students said they like v-learning better than c-learning. But the studies assessed students’ first experience in v-learning, and they likely were influenced by its novelty. Novelty is known to influence students’ learning method preferences.
  • V-learning poses significant challenges regarding student involvement and participation. Student multi-tasking during v-learning sessions is common, and it is nearly impossible for an instructor/facilitator to know when a student is not attending to the learning. While multi-tasking is not absent from c-learning (thank you, smart phones), it is much easier for the facilitator to recognize and deal with it.

Instructional Design Rules!

While the research does not provide a clear message regarding v-learning and c-learning, one thing is clear: The quality of the instructional design, and more specifically the instructional design relative to the modality (c-, v-, or e-learning), has a great effect. Thus, you cannot take a c-learning program and “convert” it to a v-learning event without meaningfully changing the instructional design to address the v-learning capabilities and limitations. Robert Bernard and his colleagues probably said it best when they wrote:

“Research shows that the quality of the instructional design and approach outweighs the effects of vs. . That mean, you cannot just take your class and put it on —you need to design for the virtual classroom. Attention to quality course design should take precedence over attention to the media.”

Thus, choosing v-learning vs. c-learning should begin not with the choice of delivery approach, but with the instructional design. Ask yourself, “What are the skills and behaviors I am trying to create? What are the learning methods required to effectively teach them?” And then, only then, “What is the best way to deliver that learning?”

Blended (Multi-Mode) Learning

While the research is fuzzy regarding differences between v-learning and c-learning, it is clear about the impact and value of learning that utilizes multiple delivery approaches. Studies have shown that when you carefully match the learning outcomes of individual program components to different delivery methods, the results of that learning are superior to any one delivery method alone.

J. B. Arbaugh provided a good description of when c-learning , v-learning, and e-learning are best applied to different situations and learning outcomes.



+ When networking and dialogue across participants is needed

+ When facilitators need to observe body language to determine comprehension

+ When learning is more process oriented


- When physical distance is cost prohibitive



+ When structured dialogue is needed

+ When comprehension can be assessed through tests

+ When learning is more procedure oriented


- When technology and bandwidth prevent smooth interactions



+ When participation in learning is required and must be tracked

+ When comprehension can be assessed through summative tests

+ When learning is more declarative knowledge oriented


- When smaller populations make development cost prohibitive


Overall, while the research comparing v-learning to c-learning leaves a lot to be desired, I think we are safe with the following recommendations:

  1. V-learning alone is an acceptable substitute for c-learning when distance and time out of work are significant barriers to c-learning; however, it probably will not be as effective as c-learning alone or as multi-modal learning.
  2. Blended learning is superior to both v-learning and c-learning alone. It is best to do the c-learning component earlier in the process, when building rapport among participants and the facilitator will carry over to the v-learning components.
  3. It is important that v-learning components be designed as v-learning, not just c-learning converted to v-learning. Remember: “Instructional Design Rules!”
  4. It is important to frequently check on participants’ level of engagement and attention during v-learning sessions. This can be done with tests, by calling on participants to comment, or by using technology that tracks attention.
  5. To maintain engagement and attention, v-learning sessions should be kept to one or two hours. If the content demands more time, multiple one- to two-hour sessions should be linked, with appropriate time between the sessions.

What Is V-Learning?

We all know what we mean by classroom learning (c-learning)—a group of people, physically located together, with an instructor/facilitator guiding their learning. V-learning shares some of the same characteristics—a group of people, learning at the same time, with an instructor/facilitator guiding the learning. The one big difference is that rather than being physically together, they are “together” because they are all logged into the same virtual classroom. While each provider of virtual classrooms provides somewhat different features and benefits, the following core features are shared by most:

  • All participants can simultaneously view learning materials. Usually this is in the form of a PowerPoint-like slide show.
  • All participants are connected via voice. Participants can speak and can hear the other participants.
  • Participants and facilitator can write/draw on the visual material as a way of highlighting, annotating, or adding to the materials.
  • Participants and facilitator can write/draw on whiteboards or blank pages that serve as a place for participants to share ideas or comments.
  • There is a polling function that allows the facilitator to ask multiple-choice or true-false questions and then display the results. Can be used to engage participants or test their understanding.
  • Most platforms have ways to conduct “breakout sub-sessions”; that is, to place sub-groups of people in their own mini-sessions during the main session. These are used for group work or discussions.
  • Most can play other media such as audio and video recordings, or display other Websites.


US Department of Education (2010). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.

Bernard, Abrami, Borokhovski, Wade, Tamim, Surkes, and Bethel (2009). A Meta-Analysis of Three Types of Interaction Treatments in Distance Education. Review of Educational Research 2009 79: 1243.

Bernard, Abrami, Lou, Borokhovski, Wade, Wozney, Wallet, Fiset, and Huang (2004). How Does Distance Education Compare with Classroom Instruction? A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature. Review of Educational Research, Vol. 74, No. 3 (Autumn, 2004), pp. 379-439.

Smart and Cappel (2006).Students’ Perceptions of Online Learning: A Comparative Study. Journal of Information Technology Education, Volume 5, 2006.

Rovai, Wighting, Baker, and Grooms (2009). Development of an Instrument to Measure Perceived Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor Learning in Traditional and Virtual Classroom Higher Education Settings. Internet and Higher Education 12 (2009) 7–13.

Tamim, Bernard, Borokhovski, Abrami, and Schmid. (2011). What Forty Years of Research Says About the Impact of Technology on Learning: A Second-Order Meta-Analysis and Validation Study. Review of Educational Research 2011 81: 4.

J. B. Arbaugh (2000). Virtual Classroom versus Physical Classroom: An Exploratory Study of Class Discussion Patterns and Student Learning in an Asynchronous Internet-Based MBA Course. Journal of Management Education 2000 24: 213.

Michael Leimbach, Ph.D., is vice president of Global Research and Design for Wilson Learning Worldwide. With more than 25 years in the field, Dr. Leimbach provides leadership for researching and designing Wilson Learning’s diagnostic, learning, and performance improvement capabilities. Dr. Leimbach has managed major research studies in sales, leadership, and organizational effectiveness, and has developed Wilson Learning’s Impact Evaluation capability and return on investment models. He has served are a research consultant for a variety of global client organizations, is on the editorial boards for the ADHR professional journal, as well as serves a leadership role for the ISO technical committee, TC232: Standards for Learning Service Providers. Dr. Leimbach has co-authored four books and is a frequent speaker at national and global conferences.

To learn more about the concepts shared within this article, contact Wilson Learning at 800.328.7937 or visit

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