Virtual vs. Classroom Training

How to design virtual training that performs equally as well as traditional classroom training.

More than ever, organizations are looking for a flexible substitute to traditional classroom training to lower costs, eliminate unnecessary travel, and ease the burden of demanding work schedules.

But can virtual training deliver the same results as classroom training?

We already know virtual training works in domains where knowledge, rather than performance, is being taught. For example, online courses in accounting, employment law, safety procedures, and organizational policies produce the same outcomes as classroom instruction in terms of knowledge retention.

But the situation changes when performance, as well as knowledge, is required. Don’t expect to see swim classes online anytime soon, because performance requires realistic practice.

Most online courses limit participants’ responses to keystrokes. If you taught an online swim class for example, you could answer multiple-choice questions about the butterfly kick. You could even write an essay about the Australian crawl. But you couldn’t demonstrate your skills in a pool or get meaningful feedback from an instructor. The virtual performance barrier prevents performance-based training courses from being successful—kind of a no-brainer.

Historically, this performance barrier made it seem impossible to train soft skills virtually. Learning how to speak up in crucial moments, for example, is less like learning accounting codes and more like learning how to swim. In these kinds of skill-based courses, often more than a third of the classroom time is spent in practice and rehearsals, with feedback and coaching provided by the facilitator and classmates.

But the latest technology has brought meaningful practice and rehearsals to online learning—changing the rules completely and redefining what is possible in the world of learning and development. The technology is called the “virtual synchronous classroom,” and with the right design and methodology, it can replace the traditional classroom. Make no mistake, the classroom still exists—only now it exists online.

Here’s how it works. Say you’re located in London, your manager is in California, and you have teammates in Singapore, Delhi, and New York. They are the people you work with every day, and interacting with this group is necessary in order to get your work done. So it makes sense to train these people as a group. Since everyone works virtually, it makes even more sense that the training be virtual, as well. A virtual synchronous classroom makes it easy to not only connect, but practice the skills you learn together.

Best Practices of Virtual Training Design

There are a lot of bells and whistles that accompany the synchronous virtual classroom. Used incorrectly, these tools actually can deter rather than assist in skill transfer. Not all virtual trainings are created equal. Through rigorous beta testing, we’ve found a right and a wrong way to deliver virtual learning. Here are a few best practices we’ve discovered about designing virtual training to deliver the kinds of results found in the traditional classroom experience:

  • Quickly change learning modalities. In a traditional classroom, it’s typical to change modalities every 15 minutes. However, attention spans are much shorter for virtual learners, so it’s best to change learning modalities every three to five minutes to keep people’s attention and ensure full engagement. These quick modality changes ensure a lively, interactive experience, while also making it nearly impossible for the learner to multitask during the course. Feedback shows this type of demanding engagement eliminates e-mail distraction and Web surfing during the training—a notorious detractor of skills retention and mastery.
  • Don’t skimp on interaction and practice time. Deliberate practice of skills and concepts is vital to any successful classroom training and should not be overlooked in the virtual world. And yet, many virtual programs are light on skill rehearsal. Instead, create as much interaction, practice, rehearsal, and feedback as a traditional on-site classroom course. Technology allows for breakout sessions with two or three virtual participants. In the case of interpersonal skills, they can use this time to practice word choice, tone of voice, and other key conversational elements. The facilitator can join these breakouts to provide instant coaching and feedback to the team.
  • Use virtual tools to increase engagement. Virtual technology easily allows for polling and quizzing. Not only do these tools drive engagement, they also test learning and skill retention. Virtual training is also an excellent medium for video-based learning to build skills, demonstrate mistakes, and model correct behaviors.
  • Design for spaced learning. Sitting in front of a computer screen for hours is much more taxing than sitting in a classroom surrounded by people and interactive discussion. So account for potential fatigue by reducing the time people spend in front of the screen. We’ve found the optimal amount to be no longer than two-hour sessions spaced over multiple days. This delivery model also provides more flexibility in scheduling while preventing learner fatigue.

Virtual Training Is More Like Classroom Training

When designed carefully and consciously, virtual training can provide the same results as traditional classroom training. We surveyed graduates of both the virtual and classroom courses and found equal results when it comes to participant engagement, skill retention and mastery, behavior change, and organizational results. Specifically:

  • 86 percent of virtual classroom participants rated the experience “just as engaging” or “more engaging than” traditional classroom training.
  • 100 percent of participants were highly satisfied with their training experience.
  • Participants averaged a score of 90 percent on a test that measures mastery of skills, 1 percentage point higher than cognitive scores in the traditional classroom.

There was no difference between the virtual and traditional classroom participants with regard to behavior change. For both groups, it was immediate.

About the only area where classroom training rated higher was on long-term maintenance of these behavior changes. We surveyed participants after several months and asked them how confident they were in using the skills at home and at work. Both groups reported they were “very confident” in using the skills, though participants who took the training in a traditional classroom reported slightly more confidence by 2 percentage points.

As the results indicate, the latest virtual training technologies allow for a high-quality training experience that delivers results. And with comparable results, virtual training can offer more in terms of scheduling flexibility and ease of training. Why not embrace virtual as the wave of the future? Just make sure you do it right.

David Maxfield is a three-time New York Times bestselling author and leading social scientist for organizational change. He is also the director of Research and a senior consultant at VitalSmarts, where he has led research and consulting projects involving dialogue skills, performance improvement, and conflict management for the last 30 years. Maxfield has delivered keynotes at venues including Stanford and Georgetown universities. His work has also been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.