Written by: Sierra Morris
e-Learning and online training have been around for quite some time, but are still subjected to a healthy dose of skepticism. Many seem doubtful of online instruction’s efficacy – which is fair. There is, after all, a notable lack of empirical research on the subject; scientific and objective accounts of adult retention of digitally-presented course material versus “in-person” presentations are difficult to find, and not very widely discussed outside of pedagogical discourse.
But for the companies out there tentatively considering replacing their instructors with online courses, this information is important to know and discuss.
Learning Outside of the Traditional Classroom
Learning outside the traditional classroom setting has been around for a lot longer than digital instruction; the first instructor-less learning took place as far back as 1840, when Sir Issac Pitman offered correspondence courses by mail (Matthews). Today, students from the preschool to collegiate level receive course instruction digitally.
Outside of the classroom setting, a menagerie of online training sources and companies have sprouted up, offering training for hundreds of different industries in thousands of topics. But does it work? Knowing humans to be the social creature we are, one would expect face-to-face instruction to far outstrip digital learning in terms of retention, effectiveness, and student satisfaction, right? Not quite.
Common Assumptions and the Research Regarding the Effectiveness of Online Safety Training
There is a lot of research published that supports the effectiveness of online training. Oftentimes, assumptions are made that this type of training is not effective when it comes to teaching workplace safety principles. The paragraphs below break down the assumptions that may be held which prevent companies from wanting to implement online training.
General Assumption #1: People simply like face-to-face safety training better.
What do trainees really think of online learning in general? If they’re going to be dissatisfied with digital instruction/e-learning, it’s safe to assume this method of training will be unsuccessful. After all, it’s rare that people retain information presented in a training exercise if they have a hard time staying engaged. In short, how satisfying do employees find online learning?
The difficulty with generalizing employee satisfaction with one medium versus another is that satisfaction is an individual matter that will depend largely upon personality, learning preferences, or even generational differences (Jones). For instance, the Mayo Clinic found that 80% of millennial medical students use some form of online platform as a primary source for instruction (Desy); the same may not be true for students of other generations.
But as far as generalizations go, research ranges from “no significant difference” to “slightly pro-digital” for satisfaction with online training compared to face-to-face training.
Research that Debunks this Assumption
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Springfield tested the efficacy of three different delivery methods – face-to-face, blended, and online. Among other metrics, student levels of satisfaction regarding each type of instruction showed no significant difference (Larson), meaning the level of interest and satisfaction with course material was the same regardless of the method of training.
A research exercise conducted at Southwest Missouri State University found slightly more pro-digital (though still considered statistically insignificant) results. At the end of a semester, a group of students who’d received course instruction digitally or in-person were given a survey regarding satisfaction with the course.
Responses from the students in the experimental group (digital delivery) reported more positive feelings about the course than those who’d received instruction face-to-face (Wegner). Still, even these more positive responses were deemed statistically insignificant, as the margins were so thin.
Also in the “no significant difference” camp is Thomas L. Russell – an author, researcher, and educator. Russell wrote The No Significant Difference Phenomenon, a research bibliography containing over 350 research works that document no significant difference between modes of education delivery. This, of course, includes student satisfaction among delivery methods (see the online companion http://nosignificantdifference.org for more information.)
So, what’s the bottom line here? Are employees satisfied by and interested in online training? The objective truth is that there is no significant difference between employee satisfaction with training between different delivery methods. “Internet-based delivery of coursework appears to have no negative effect … on students’ perception of their learning” (Wegner). Online or face-to-face, employee satisfaction statistically remains the same.
General Assumption #2: People don’t learn anything from online training.
So, our employees are statically just as interested in and satisfied with online training as they are with traditional instructor-led training. But do they actually learn anything from a computer, as opposed to interacting with an actual human being?
The research says yes; similar to satisfaction, student retention of course material presented online is statistically the same as retention of course material presented in a traditional setting.
Research that Debunks this Assumption
The research group from Southwest Missouri State University assessed student retention of course material with identical 100-point exams. These exams were given to both the control group (students in a face-to-face setting) and the experimental group (students in an online setting.) The average test score between the two groups differed only by 1.07 points; and the ranges of test scores were nearly identical. Online students actually outscored the face-to-face students on the objective portion of the exam, and only fell short due to three short answer (more subjective) questions.
Despite this, the narrow margins rendered the differences statistically insignificant (Wegner), meaning both groups retained the same amount of information. Likewise, the research group from the University of Illinois found no statistical difference in exam scores or final averages among students taking an introductory course in Management Information Systems; students involved in the study took the course either in person, online, or in a blended environment with both elements present.
A study conducted by Katherine Pang of the University of Texas sought to determine whether web-based training in the corporate sector was pedagogically equivalent to, and as effective as, a traditional classroom setting. The study included a wide range of participants in the corporate sector, from ages 21 to 51, with a range of educational backgrounds and positions within their organizations.
One group was instructed by a live trainer, and the other with videos and web-based learning. Two tests were distributed to both groups upon completion of the course; one focused on perception and opinion of the course delivery methods, and the other was an objective multiple-choice exam derived from the course material.
The results from the multiple-choice exam showed that “knowledge gains were not only evident in both groups but slightly higher among the web-based learners” (Pang). Pang’s research concludes that “live” training is in no way pedagogically superior or more effective than online training.
In a meta-analysis of online learning studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, the DoE found that “students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction” (United States Department of Education), though the DoE does admit elements other than delivery method may have been at play.
The analysis also states that blended (combining instructor-led classroom exercises with online instruction) and purely digital learning resulted in similar learning outcomes; meaning there were no significant differences in retention between students in a purely online setting and those who also had an in-person instructor.
So, do employees actually learn anything from online training, compared to traditional classroom training? The empirical data asserts: yes.
Four Benefits of Using Online Safety Training in Your Workplace
Now that we have empirical evidence to back up the claim that online training is effective and a viable means for instruction, we can look at some more subjective reasons why online training is a suitable option.
Online Training is Arguably More Convenient
Some companies, due to the nature of their work, may have hundreds of employees scattered across the continental United States, or perhaps even in other countries. This presents a logistical issue when it comes to training. I have personally worked for a company that had employees scattered from Texas to Florida to North Carolina, and training them each year was an immense hassle.
The company preferred instructor-led training, which meant that employees had to be brought in to the central location whenever their training was due, or they would have to personally send an instructor to their location to train them. An answer to this could be hiring instructors local to the satellite location, but this presents an issue in uniformity and standardization among the workforce.
Using an online training curriculum will see that training courses are readily available anywhere, anytime, anyplace, and you will know for certain the topics you want to be covered will be covered, without the hassle of having to vet multiple companies.
Allows Trainees to Work at Their Own Pace and Understanding
The typical workplace will have employees with extremely varied educational backgrounds, from GEDs to master’s degrees. Oftentimes, in my experience, some individuals have a difficult time keeping up with the pace of an instructor-led course, which has to be generalized so that it fits the average student.
This means that the more gifted and quick-learning students will be bored to tears, while others may miss important concepts and learning outcomes. Online training often allows students to repeat sections, progress through concepts at their own pace, and ask for additional help without the pressure of being “that person” who raises their hand for clarification during training.
This could also be an immense help to more introverted trainees who need special assistance, but don’t want to draw attention to themselves.
Online Safety Training is More Cost-effective
With the wide range of courses available through digital means, it’s simple to tailor training curriculums to what specifically applies to your employees, meaning it’s more possible than ever before to “trim the fat” when it comes to excessive training costs.
Online training also eliminates the need to provide costly training facilities or consumable materials (think endless, repetitive printing of course materials for 500+ people), as well as any extras (such as lunch for employees staying for an 8-hour training session, room and board for out-of-town instructors, etc.).
Companies such as IBM, Rockwell Collins, and Ernst & Young have reduced training costs by up to 40% by making the switch to online training (Strother).
Facilitates Learning for Employees Whose First Language May Not be English
If you already have employees who may not speak or read English very well, and you come from a small to medium-sized company, you know how challenging it can be to facilitate multi-language training. If your company produces its own training materials, having non-English speaking (or non-fluent) employees means either hiring a translator or purchasing material from another company in their preferred language.
Hiring a translator can be dodgy work, as I have personally seen sub-par translations that looked as though they’d been cranked out of Google Translate, and would not have made sense to a native speaker. Only high-quality, expensive, and thereby trustworthy translations will suffice. If your company hires instructors from the outside, you will either have to hope they have bilingual interpreters on-hand, or you will have to hire one yourself.
However, companies who use online training often have the option of providing standardized training in multiple languages, from trusted and fluent translators.
Online training to this day is regarded with skepticism, though it really shouldn’t be. While digital learning is new, and therefore scary and untrustworthy upon first glance, it is empirically proven to be just as effective for retention and trainee satisfaction as the traditional face-to-face setting. On top of that, online training has an array of other positive attributes that make it worthy of consideration.
Note from editor: Always ensure that the specific and unique hazards and best practices for your workplace are covered along with or as part of the online training utilized.
Desy, Janeve R., Darcy A. Reed, and Alexandra P. Wolanskyj. “Milestones and Millennials: A Perfect Pairing—Competency-Based Medical Education and the Learning Preferences of Generation Y.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 92, no. 2 (February 2017): 243-50. doi:10.1016/j.mayocp.2016.10.026.
Jones, M. Anita. “A Study of Satisfaction with Online Learning in Workplace Training.” PhD diss., Walden University, 2016. Scholar Works. March 2016. Accessed November 25, 2017. http://scholarworks.waldenu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3261&context=dissertations.
Larson, David K., and Chung-Hsien Sung. “Comparing Student Performance: Online Versus Blended Versus Face-to-Face.” University of Illinois at Springfield, 2009. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 13, no. 1 (April 2009): 31-42. Accessed November 25, 2017. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ837556.pdf.
Matthews, Diane. “The Origins of Distance Education and its use in the United States.” THE Journal. September 1, 1999. Accessed November 25, 2017. https://thejournal.com/Articles/1999/09/01/The-Origins-of-Distance-Education-and-its-use-in-the-United-States.aspx?Page=1.
Pang, Katherine. “Video-Driven Multimedia, Web-Based Training in the Corporate Sector: Pedagogical Equivalence and Component Effectiveness.” PhD diss., University of Texas, 2009. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 10, no. 3 (June 2009). Accessed November 25, 2017. http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/629/1265.
Strother, Judith B. “An Assessment of the Effectiveness of e-Learning in Corporate Training Programs.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 3, no. 1 (April 2002). Accessed November 25, 2017. http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/83/160.
United States of America. Department of Education. Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development Policy and Program Studies Service. Ed.gov. By Barbara Means, Yukie Toyama, Robert Murphy, Marianne Bakia, and Karla Jones. September 2010. Accessed November 25, 2017. https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf.
Wegner, Scott B., Ken C. Holloway, and Edwin M. Garton. “The Effects of Internet-Based Instruction on Student Learning.” JALN 3, no. 2 (November 1999): 98-106. Accessed November 25, 2017. https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/sites/default/files/v3n2_wegner_1.pdf.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sierra Morris resides in Fort Polk, LA
with her husband and two dogs. Still relatively new to the OSH world,
Morris seeks to make sense of occupational safety and health
issues through a lens of behavioral and social psychology.
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