Online training and conferencing advocates continue to askthe wrong question. The April 19th issue of eLearning Guild’s Insider Newsletter has an article titled, The True Value of Online Training, which has a link to a whitepaper titled, How to Promote the Value of Online Training Within Your Organization. Although this is obviously a marketing piece to promote Citrix Online’s GoToMeeting Corporate product and does have some useful suggestions for selling Web-based programs internally, it sets up a false dichotomy: online vs. in-person.

No one can deny that online programs offer a substantial cost savings over in-person training and conferences. The authors write:

Members of the training profession often debate the hard and soft performance gains from employee training in today’s workplace, but on one subject there is no argument. As much as 40 cents of every dollar spent on in-person training goes to travel and lodging costs, studies show. Avoiding that expense should be a primary goal of any learning organization.

The single most effective way to eliminate in-person training related costs is to replace classroom instruction with online training. A simple ROI analysis of the savings can underscore the point within your own organization.

The problem with this argument is that it implies that all Web-based training and conferences are superior to all in-person events. The important question is not, “Is online better (or cheaper) than in-person?” The important question is, “What types of learning interventions for what results and under what circumstances are more effective?”This could include Web-based only, in-person only, blended or a multitude of variations within and among each of these broad categories. If I want employees to know the new rules and regulations for FDA compliance, maybe an online program will be sufficiently effective to communicate to them what they need to know. However, if I want those employees to develop good teamwork skills then a totally Web-based program, while efficient, is not likely to get the business results I need. It all depends on what results you want, what you want people to learn, and the organizational circumstances of that learning.

In fact, when the argument shifts to results from online programs, the authors can’t help disagreeing with themselves. They quote Jack Phillips:

“Our studies have shown that participants in e-learning programs are less likely to follow through than in an instructor-led program,” notes Jack Phillips, Ph.D., chairman of the ROI Institute and a renowned expert on accountability and evaluation. “In an instructor-led process there is often a commitment made between the participant and the instructor that might increase the likelihood of participants applying what was learned,” he says.

However, in this quote, Phillips seems to be making the same mistake as the elearning-is-always-better folks in suggesting that instructor-led programs always have better results (follow-through). It always depends on what results you want and under what circumstances. An instructor-led (in-person) program that doesn’t incorporate the 5As , isn’t likely to have any greater follow-through than an “e-learning” program. And regarding the lower-cost argument: a Web-based program that achieves no business results can be more costly in terms of ROI than an in-person program that achieves at least some business results.