Corporate training used to mean one thing: “Here’s an orientation pamphlet and a couple of manuals. If you have any questions, ask Joe.” Then it meant another: “Your training will take place October 14 through 18, from 9 to 5. Bring a lunch and try not to snore too loudly.” And then another: “Just hit ‘Next’ on this computer presentation until you get to the end, and then take the test.”

I jest, of course, but only slightly.

The point is that when many people, even in L&D departments, think about effective corporate training, they have one specific format in mind, and that format is usually either instructor-led training (ILT) or elearning. The popularity of each type of training has risen and declined according to various factors, including who’s in charge, training budgets, and what’s trendy. Today, however, with innovation and new technologies, there are many different types of training formats in use, including the classics (ILT and elearning) as well as newer developments like complex computer-based simulations and massive open online courses (MOOCs).

With so many options, which one do you choose? The various formats are not mutually exclusive, and ideally you would not have to make this choice for an entire training program en masse. Instead, the training format you use should be the one best suited to the content to be learned, the needs of the audience, and the needs of the organization.

Below are some guidelines for when to use traditional ILT, eLearning, and MOOCs.

Instructor-led training

On this blog, I’ve talked a lot about the disadvantages of ILT, even questioning whether it is still the gold standard for training. One of the main downsides of ILT is that it is expensive, especially when items such as travel and accommodations must be taken into account. However, there are certain situations in which there is no reasonable substitute for face-to-face training.

ILT is the best type of training to use when:

  • The group to be trained is small and located in one geographical area. According to 2012 statistics, as much as 85% of an organization’s classroom training budget goes toward delivery, including travel. When travel and its associated costs (accommodation, meals, entertainment, etc.) are eliminated, the numbers start to look a lot better. Elearning and MOOCs have a clear advantage when training programs need to be scaled up, but if you are delivering a managerial training program to 20 or so people once every few years, there is likely no benefit to moving from in-person to digital training.
  • The training is light on content but heavy on the discussion. Digital learning environments have a huge advantage for content delivery, but not all training has content as its main focus. For training that is more centered on synchronous discussion and collaboration, ILT remains the top choice.
  • When the content is highly complex or changes frequently. Both MOOCs and e-learning rely at least in part on people’s ability to learn on their own. For highly complex content, which will likely inspire a good number of questions, ILT remains a top choice. In addition, it is much more difficult to change the content in an e-learning course than a face-to-face one, so ILT is preferable for content that has a short shelf life.


Interest in and use of e-learning have grown exponentially in recent years, as technologies have improved and training budgets continue to be squeezed. While learning can sometimes be frustrating to learners, used well it has significant benefits, especially in terms of saving both time and money. Elearning has been shown to reduce training costs by up to 50% and training time by up to 60%.

Elearning is the best type of training to use when:

  • Significant interaction isn’t required. Interaction among learners and between learners and instructors is advantageous in many circumstances, but it isn’t always necessary. Sometimes, all that is required of trainees is that they read information and acknowledge that they have done so.
  • Content has a long shelf life. It doesn’t make sense to provide expensive ILT for content that is the same every time. Use e-learning or a MOOC instead.
  • The training needs to take place in different places or at different times. Both e-learning and MOOCs allow organizations to provide training on an as-needed basis.
  • Consistency is required. ILT often has a consistency problem, as delivery varies between instructors and even for the same instructor over multiple implementations. Elearning and MOOCs can deliver the same content, in the same way, every time.
  • Learners can easily master the content on their own. For content that is not likely to generate many questions or initiate discussions, e-learning does the trick.


MOOCs are the best of both worlds: they provide the interaction of ILT and the consistency, logistical benefits, and lower costs associated with e-learning.

Here are some additional situations where MOOCs have the upper hand:

  • Training needs to be flexible and on-demand. Since MOOCs are module-based, they are highly flexible. Learners can access modules and lessons as needed.
  • Performance support is required. In addition to providing video content, a MOOC can be a central repository for performance support resources.
  • Learners are at different levels. In a MOOC, learners can easily skip over or test out of the content they already know; thus, the courses are well suited to groups of learners who have different levels of knowledge.
  • Collaboration is required over long distances. Using a MOOC, companies can simultaneously train employees across the globe, and MOOC platforms provide forums where those employees can easily collaborate and network.
  • The content has varying lengths of shelf life. MOOCs are more complicated to update than ILT, but it is generally easier to add or update modules in MOOCs than in traditional eLearning. For courses where some of the content is long-lasting and other content changes frequently, MOOCs offer superior flexibility.

All training formats have their advantages and disadvantages. As stated earlier, the key to success is matching the training format to the content and the needs of both the learners and the organization. Often, the best answer is to use a blended approach, such as a MOOC followed by high-value ILT.

Contact me for additional information on how to leverage ILT, e-learning, and MOOCs to get more out of your training programs.

Copyright  Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

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