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Can online study be as effective as face-to-face learning?

By Cranfield School of Management


Online learning – or distance learning as it is sometimes called – is becoming increasingly popular. Advances in technology are making it easier to access, and it has broad appeal with a modern workforce that values its flexibility.

Despite this, many people don’t consider the knowledge, skills and qualifications gained to be equal to those obtained through face-to-face learning, where you attend a venue at a set time for a number of sessions led by a trainer.

Face-to-face learning has been the tradition, but does that make it the best? Why – when technology makes it possible for us to not have to be physically present in order to learn – shouldn’t we embrace new forms of course delivery?

Here, we explore the pros and cons of both types of learning.


One of the main benefits of online or distance learning is the fact that it often allows much more control over the way in which you learn.

Complete flexibility over location as long as you have access to the internet means you can complete courses from home if you want to, eliminating the costs and time associated with commuting. Flexibility about how much you study and when allows learning to fit around work, family and social commitments. Simple structures allow participants to take a few weeks’ break if required, or to repeat modules as necessary to aid their understanding, without losing their momentum.

Face-to-face learning cannot offer the same level of flexibility as online learning, but providers are increasingly seeing the value of offering participants wider choice of locations, dates and times for their courses, recognising that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for everyone.


Some learners will find the control online learning gives them over when, where and how much to study a huge motivator to complete the course. It may particularly appeal to those who struggle to attend face-to-face training courses because of their set days and times, or to those for whom traditional face-to-face learning brings back uncomfortable memories of school.

However, e-learning isn’t for everyone. With no one to keep you focused but yourself, it is easy to become distracted, attempt to ‘multi-task’, or allow other things to take priority over your learning. Successful participants need to be self-motivated and disciplined to complete the course, and make a commitment to rescheduling their study time if any other aspect of life gets in the way.

Many people find they need the physical act of attending a set place and time over a number of sessions – as in face-to-face study – to motivate them to learn. Teachers and trainers have strategies to keep participants engaged, and being somewhere at a specific date and time can help delegates to organise their study around their life. Where unforeseen circumstances get in the way of a taught session, arrangements can often be made for participants to catch up from home.

Social interaction

This is one area in which online learning cannot compete with face-to-face study: no amount of chat rooms, message boards or online support emails will replace the value to be gained from meeting other people on training courses.

Being in a room with like-minded people experiencing similar business challenges offers a fantastic opportunity for networking. As well as the potential for career advancement, getting to know fellow delegates can potentially lead to business collaborations down the line.

Detailed discussions and debates offer the opportunity to learn from others and consider different viewpoints, as well as get instant answers to questions.


The lack of social interaction that comes with online training can also have implications for participants’ ability to solve any problems they encounter along the way.

While training courses are designed to explain topics thoroughly and in tangible ways that promote understanding, there is no guarantee that every learner will grasp every concept first time.

Everyone learns differently, and some people are happy to work through problems they encounter by themselves until they find a solution. These people will enjoy the flexibility that online learning gives them to stop, review and repeat material where necessary.

For those who prefer talking through questions with someone else, or need difficult concepts to be modelled to aid their understanding, face-to-face learning offers the chance for instant one-to-ones with a trainer. Specific challenges can be often be used as an example for the whole class to learn from.


Some people believe that online or distance learning courses are not as valid as face-to-face programmes, but this is not necessarily true. Many online courses offer participants the chance to obtain the same certifications, and statistics show distance learners obtain similar – if not better – exam scores.


Both face-to-face learning and online learning have their place. There are benefits and drawbacks to both, and many people may choose to do both at different points in their career. So participants should choose the course delivery that best suits their needs.

Rather than focusing on how the course content is delivered, it is far more important to give weight to what it includes in the first place. The key to having a good, effective learning experience is to choose the right provider and the right course. Learners need to be sure that the course they are undertaking has the appropriate value for what they want to achieve. Read our tips for distinguishing between price and value in executive education.

Finally, remember that if you’re struggling to choose between face-to-face and online learning, there’s always the option to combine both. Many providers now offer a range of blended learning courses designed to draw on the benefits of both methods of course delivery. So you can have your cake and eat it too.

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