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Self-Paced Learning – When to Choose it

— by Bill Cushard

Course developmentEmployee trainingJob trainingLearning and developmentLearning development

As you begin to learn about the different ways to bring e-learning into your organization, you will invariably come across the question, “Which is a better option: self-paced e-learning or live, on-line training?” It is not an easy question to answer because there are benefits and drawbacks to both methods.

There is some good news in the pursuit of an answer to this question. 

Study after study has shown that no matter what type of learning mode or technology is used, learning outcomes are no different. In her book, e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning, Ruth Clark cites several studies that show evidence that, when it comes to learning outcomes, it does not matter what technology or learning mode you use. In other words, from the perspective of achieving learning outcomes, it does not matter which method you choose.

On the other hand, each approach has benefits that you should consider when deciding whether to implement self-paced e-learning or live, on-line e-learning. There are four factors: pacing, timing, content permanence, and peer interaction.

1. At What Pace Do People Learn

Pacing refers to the speed at which people want to or need to go through the content. Some people need to review content more than once in order to learn it most effectively. One of the major benefits of self-paced e-learning is that people can review the content over and over again at their own pace without the pressure that exists in live, virtual classrooms. To determine whether self-pace learning is appropriate, consider whether your audience would benefit from reviewing material more than once.  

On the other hand, not all training content requires repetition, and there are people who can view learning materials once and learn it just fine. These are occasions for which live, on-line training is appropriate.

2. On Their Own Time

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Self-paced learning requires no physical logistics, like scheduling sessions. When you need to conduct training that large numbers of people must complete (annual compliance training, for example), self-paced learning is an ideal choice. You can launch a training course and tell people they must complete it by the deadline, and all you need to do is run reports to check who has and has not completed training. Scheduling live, on-line training sessions to accomplish the same course could take weeks to complete, not to mention the repeated sessions that need to be re-scheduled to accommodate those who failed to attend their originally scheduled session.

3. Permanence versus Changing Content

Another way to look at the question of whether to select self-paced learning or live, online training is to “link self-paced learning and live real-time training to the idea of permanent vs. transient content,” according to Jesse Harris, EFL Instructor and Content Developer at KnowledgeONE, Inc. Harris suggests, “If you are designing training that you will be giving over and over on a fairly regular basis without too many major changes, self-paced e-learning might be the way to go.” Harris continues, “On the other hand, if you have training material you constantly need to adapt or change based on the nature of the content and/or the audience, you might want to use live, on-line training.”

Take an inventory of your current learning content and content you need to create in the near future and decide what is permanent and what is likely to change often. This will help you decide which e-learning method to choose.

4. Learning from Others

There are times when people need to interact with others during the learning process. For example, it is one thing to read a definition of a new concept, but sometimes it only “sinks in” after a learner has asked a question and received a response from a facilitator or from peers during a live, in-class discussion. We have all been there, when we ask, “Wait, can you clarify that?”

One of the big benefits of live, on-line learning is the interaction between learners and a facilitator. But virtual classroom technology is not the only way to host live discussions. An enterprise social network, like Yammer, can be used to host live discussions between facilitators and peers. However you do it, there are situations in which learners benefit from live discussions.

With self-paced e-learning, learners are left to figure concepts out on their own. With live, on-line learning, people have a chance to engage in discussions to clarify what they are learning. Consider the complexity of your content and whether you believe learners will benefit from live discussions.

5. Solution: A Blended Approach

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As you can see, there are benefits and drawbacks to each e-learning method. So the question is not so much about which approach is better, but how can learning designers use a blended approach of both methods to deliver learning that is effective for most learners. For example, the approach that best takes advantage of the benefits of each method is a flipped approach that might look something like this:

For all of your content that is mostly permanent (sales process, product features and benefits, customer service method, performance feedback process, leadership competencies, etc), use self-paced learning. You can use Mindflash to build up an extensive library of learning content that your employees, partners, and customers can access on their own time, at their own pace, and use as an ongoing resource.

For learning content that is dynamic or when discussions will help the learning process, use live, on-line training. Examples of this would include training courses on How to apply your company sales process, handling customer escalations, how to deliver constructive feedback, etc. And…yes, you can use virtual classroom tools to conduct these live training sessions.

With a flipped approach you will use self-paced learning to deliver lectures and concepts and use live, on-line training to allow facilitators to focus more time on higher level discussions with learners rather than on lectures.

How do you decide whether to use self-paced learning or live, on-line training? 

Bill Cushard, authorblogger, and learning experience (LX) designer, is a human performance technologist (HPT) with extensive, in-the-trenches experience building learning organizations in start-up and hyper-growth organizations like E*TRADE, the Knowland Group, and Allonhill. You can follow him on Twitter or on Google+.

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