Debunking the 4 Myths of Online Learning


Online learning gets a bad rap—and deservedly so. For decades, eLearning courses have been clunky, ugly, awkward, difficult to use, boring and just plain ineffective. As teachers of face-to-face, interpersonal skills, we’ve seen the live classroom as the only place where complex interpersonal behaviors could be taught, or at least taught well.

But slowly, we watched as online learning platforms started leveraging best practices in learning design. Technology began to allow for more social interaction, bite-sized and easy-to-integrate content, and content with spaced and blended learning options. So, we ditched our role as skeptic and became converted to the idea that we could build an online course that would deliver a high-quality and effective learning experience—especially for modern learners.

This evolution in learning technology was driven by and walking a pace or two behind an evolution in the learner who boasted increasingly shorter attention spans, higher expectations, and greater susceptibility to distractions. In addition, learners are increasingly data-driven, protective of their time and value efficacy. Most importantly, the modern learner sees the internet, not the classroom, as the primary place of learning.

Utilizing the latest e-learning advances and leaning on our decades of experience in designing training, we debunked four common myths of online learning.  

Myth #1: Instructor-led training is the “gold standard” for every learner.

The Truth: Online learning is designed to be the gold standard for many learners.

This is the most common myth of all. But as it turns out, not all learners are created equal. We often receive feedback that learners struggle in a classroom designed to move at one speed. Slower learners fail to grasp key concepts let alone think about ways to apply them outside the classroom. These learners feel like they are “drinking from a firehose”. Meanwhile, faster learners disengage when the instructor slows the pace.  

In an online modality, slower learners can engage with the content at their own speed. They can learn new skills, spend time with challenging concepts, and even review content they’ve already covered—luxuries that are difficult to pull off in the classroom. Faster learners can move quickly, leading to increased engagement, shorter time to application, and less time away from their job.  

Data also shows the modern learner is distracted. Each day, they check their phone eighty-five times and their email fifteen times. They’re also bombarded with chatty co-workers and a barrage of meetings. Online learning addresses (if not mimics) these constant distractions with bite-sized modules delivered through a variety of modalities from videos to discussion threads to quizzes and games. And when learners do get distracted, they can easily pick up where they left off.  

The spaced nature of online learning also better accommodates workforces that are remote or can’t carve out the full days required to attend classroom training. Online, learners can learn when it is convenient or in the very moment they need new skills to solve a pressing problem. And while convenience is key, the supreme benefit of spaced learning is skill mastery. Research shows transference demonstrably improves as people digest and apply small amounts of learning over time.

Myth #2 Online learning’s primary purpose is to serve scale, not individuals.

The Truth: Online learning is designed to serve the individual.

Most assume online learning is only preferable when you need to train a large workforce quickly and inexpensively. When you have more time and money and can prioritize effectiveness over scale, that’s when you turn to the traditional classroom. We politely disagree.

Instructor-led courses tend to treat learners as a monolithic group—forcing people to learn in specific ways through wrote modalities. On the other hand, online learning can be mapped to the learner with a variety of pathways and tools. Visual learners are drawn to videos, auditory learners lean on podcasts, and hands-on learners gravitate towards role plays and journaling sessions. This level of flexibility and control allows learners to move through the content at a comfortable pace aligned with their learning style and scheduling demands.

When done well, online learning does not take an assembly-line approach to learning. Instead, it offers the ultimate experience in personalized learning—allowing each learner to wander and discover, to explore and ponder. Two wildly different learners may go through the same online course and both leave feeling like they’ve had an experience hand-crafted just for them.

Myth #3: Online learning creates a lack of accountability for the learner.

The Truth: Online learning is built to provide a greater sense of accountability.

When it comes to learning, engagement is measured by attention, not aptitude. Facilitators do their best to juggle the demands of both teaching and keeping people engaged. But with a large class, that juggling act is challenging—to say the least. Not to mention, the accountability a facilitator creates typically ends the moment the learner walks out the door.

While keeping an online learner engaged presents new challenges, there are also benefits. Moderators can view each learning activity a learner has (or hasn’t) completed, signaling learners’ progress through the course. And because of the spaced nature of the modality, moderators can follow up with learners frequently to offer encouragement and coaching—all while holding the learner accountable to applying the skills outside the classroom.

Myth #4: Instructor-led training is more social and better leverages social learning.

The Truth: Online learning allows for more social interaction and learning when it counts.

When teaching interpersonal skills, many practitioners see social learning as imperative. We agree. Online learning is optimized for social learning—especially when it matters.

In a traditional classroom, learners interact with a handful of peers during discussions and often practice skills in small groups or in pairs. In addition, they may get a smidge of personal interaction with the instructor.

In online learning, a cohort of learners can discuss the application of a skill in social threads. When a learner practices a skill, they do so for the rest of the class to observe and provide feedback. Conversely, learners can also see how the other members of their cohort apply the same skills. Rather than seeing a partner demonstrate the behaviors, they see how everyone in the class approaches the skills—allowing them to pick up even more social nuances than they might in a classroom. Rather than a handful of social exchanges, online learners experience dozens and dozens of interactions.

Additionally, the spaced nature of the course allows course moderators to give feedback to each individual learner—this type of one-on-one coaching is at the heart of effective learning.

A Powerful Modality for the Modern Learner  

For modern learners who are comfortable with technology and thrive in an online environment, who crave social collaboration and learning, who want their learning on demand and specific to their immediate needs, and who find it difficult to carve out the time or impossible to sit through day-long classes, online learning is ideal. And we can comfortably wager that while this type of modern learner may feel few and far between today, they will fit the archetype of learners in your organization in the very near future.

Equipped with traditional classroom training, live instructor-led online classrooms, and now the online asynchronous class, learning professionals have a powerful arsenal to meet their learners when and where learning will be most powerful.


Emily Hoffman is the Vice President of Product Development and Client Delivery at VitalSmarts. She leads the VitalSmarts product teams, works with clients to customize products, and sets the standard for all VitalSmarts facilitators.

Chase McMillan is the VitalSmarts Research and Development Manager. He brings credibility and data-driven insight into the classroom. He’s researched trends in patient safety to project management in industries as diverse as healthcare, finance, and technology.

Justin Hale is a subject matter expert on the VitalSmarts development team and is the VitalSmarts virtual training guru. He has led the effort in virtual and online development and instruction and seventy percent of attendees rate his virtual courses as equally engaging as or more engaging than face-to-face training they’ve attended.

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