Do We Still Need Instructors For Complex Technical Training?

Evidence suggests that those who need training in complex technical topics are far better served by instruction that involves actual instructors and routine human interaction than by training that omits timely personal assistance.

The problem with instructor-led training has always been instructors. If they are any good, they come at high cost. And to be effective, they need carefully crafted (and pricey) instructional materials; expensive classrooms; and, of course, they have to either travel to the students or vice versa.

So we have long looked for better ways to teach and learn. These days, the nearly universal availability of broadband Internet service—along with the remarkable advances and affordability of software tools for the creation of media-rich, interactive, Web-based courseware—have made e-learning a seemingly viable alternative. If employers have employees who need to learn to use a computer, they hardly need to remove them from the office, put them on an airplane, and send them to a costly training event in another city.

But the question remains: Can e-learning provide an educationally effective and cost-effective alternative to instruction that is provided by instructor-led training (face to face or remote) for complex technical topics?


First, some terms must be defined. We are considering complex technical training—and all three of those words are important. We’re talking about training, which is characterized by the presence of clearly stated, measurable objectives; the presentation of information; the performance of practice activities; assessment; and feedback. Training is not mere information.

Technical training is educational activity that teaches the skills needed to design, develop, implement, maintain, support, or operate a particular technology or related application, product, or service.

Complex technical training is training wherein the subject matter is characterized by a complicated arrangement of information and processes, and composed of many interconnected parts. There is no clear dividing line between technical training and complex technical training, but it is fair to say that, as a rule, learning the basic functions of an application such as a spreadsheet is technical training, while learning the complete functionality, language, syntax, sound practices, and pitfalls of a programming language such as C++ or Java is complex technical training.


Obviously, in an ideal world, the answer to the question would lie in statistical observations from high-quality studies. Unfortunately, it is difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons of the effectiveness of training. Before we even consider the styles and/or media of a learning experience, the waters are muddied by such issues as an individual’s intellectual capacity, learning preferences, cognitive and learning styles; the physical attributes and states of the learner; and the student’s understanding of the process of learning, background, and prior knowledge. Beyond that, there are the issues of interest, learning skills (the ability to remember and the tendency to forget), available time, availability of feedback and tutoring, and the context and importance of the learning. To construct accurate studies and reach valid conclusions, it is necessary to have massive test groups and to exercise rigorous controls. No such studies have been conducted.

It’s easy to find articles that refer to small studies that claim to conclude e-learning is equally effective as or superior to instructor-led training for complex topics. The trouble is, they all go on to make the opposite point, or to be fundamentally flawed. I, an ardent supporter of e-learning for the teaching of complex technical topics, was frustrated by the facts that there are no authentic, high-quality studies that support the case that it works, and that even those who literally make a living from espousing the benefits of self-directed learning environments admit instructors are inherently necessary. How mortifying!

Despite exhaustive searches, we are convinced there is no literature (at least no generally available literature) that effectively addresses the problems that are unique to the combination of self-paced training and complex technical topics.


So here is what we know.

Humans have evolved to learn from other humans. We are, in popular parlance, hardwired that way. Dr. Peter Gray (for one) did a splendid job of summarizing this case in a series of articles more than a decade ago. It’s fair to say we evolved in such a way that we learn best through person-to-person teaching and actual practice with personal attention from a mentor.

When faced with difficulty, humans instinctively turn to teachers for help. While both children and adults may be embarrassed by going to elders or superiors or colleagues when they are having difficulty, there is little such awkwardness involved with going to a teacher. As a result, it’s well established that self-directed education most hurts the students who have questions and need assistance. Likewise, it hurts students who are learning complex information, such as programmers who are dealing with truly complex topics. Without a facilitator, there is nowhere to turn but online sources that provide canned or peripheral responses, which are often helpful but seldom complete or on target.

There is little to no disinterested evidence that e-learning or online learning is as effective as or more effective than instructor-led training for complex technical topics. As noted earlier, there is simply nothing to suggest that e-learning works for complex topics. However, there is much evidence that instruction that lacks instructors is problematic. For instance, complex topics require comprehensive task-oriented practice, and students invariably will get stuck from time to time. E-learning simply cannot provide a mechanism to correct the error(s).

People do not complete online training courses. Even proponents of online training admit that studies show that as few as 15 percent of learners complete self-directed e-learning courses. (For the record, I believe this estimate is not credible; it’s too low. Surely more than 15 percent of learners complete self-directed e-learning courses!) That’s a problem, as one cannot retain what one is never taught.

People are frustrated by certain inherent characteristics of e-learning. In particular, students complain they do not get the time to actually complete courses, they miss the interaction and collaboration with others, and there is typically little to no personal facilitation for e-learning students. While conscientious training staff may make an attempt to compensate for these shortcomings, these are problems that simply do not occur with instructor-led training.


While there are no high-quality studies to prove the case one way or the other, the vast predominance of evidence suggests that those who need training in complex technical topics are far better served by instruction that involves actual instructors and routine human interaction than by training that omits timely personal assistance. Blended learning, which involves occasional instructor/mentor interaction with students, is likely to be more effective than exclusively self-directed learning, but does not address the problem of how one both provides challenging lab exercises and assists in a timely fashion when the learner is stuck. High availability of a personal facilitator is necessary to ensure success when learning complex technical topics.

For sources and a complete version of the white paper on which this article is based, visit:

The chief education officer at Software Skills Training, Inc. (Software-Skills-, Phineas Longstaff has worked in the field of technical education for almost 40 years as a technical trainer, programmer, course developer, media developer, manager, executive, entrepreneur, editor, and author. Contact him at: