Today's Learning Management Systems and Virtual Learning Environments are great for delivering online learning. They provide great tools to create and deliver both self-paced courses and the more traditional live instructor-led sessions. But which is the best? Which should I use for creating and delivering my next course... instructor-led or self-paced?
What is instructor-led and self-paced learning?
First, what is instructor-led and self-paced learning.
Instructor-led learning is the kind of delivery you'd expect to see in a classroom (physical or virtual), where an expert instructor guides a group of learners through a series of concepts and activities in scheduled, face-to-face / screen-to-screen meetings or workshops.
With self-paced learning, learners work independently through a course of pre-built learning activities (articles to read, recorded presentations to watch, exercises to complete, etc.), all in their own time and at their own pace, often with little or no input from an instructor.
Both have advantages and disadvantages, and both have strengths that will make them ideal for different types of learning and different situations. It is not the level of complexity that determines which to use, as both (with a good LMS) can be highly effective in delivering complex, highly technical topics.
So what should I consider when making my choice?
Flexibility in learning
With busy lives and demanding work schedules, it is often a challenge for learners to leave the responsibilities and demands of the workplace and attend a live, instructor-led course. It can also be a logistical challenge for the teacher to schedule just the right number of classes to cater for demand and to ensure learners have an acceptable wait time between booking and attending.
With self-paced courses, learners can enrol and study immediately - wherever and whenever they want: between tasks at the office; on the train; at home in the evening with the children in bed.
Self-paced learning also allows learners to progress at their own pace, taking just the required amount of study time to understand. In the classroom with a live instructor and the varied abilities of other learners, the pace may be too fast - leaving some struggling to keep up others bored and frustrated.
Self-paced learning offers greater flexibility in both scheduling, immediacy of access, and pace of learning.
Cost of delivery. Cost of learning
Your course delivery must be financially viable and must be in budget. For profit oriented projects, that means the revenue from course sales must exceed the cost of course creation and delivery sufficient to make it worthwhile.
Self-paced courses typically take longer to author, and are therefore more expensive to create than instructor-led live classes. Self-paced materials need to be completely self-contained and can't rely on instructor expertise to fill any gaps! It takes extra time, equipment and skills to record and produce engaging video lessons, presentations and interactive exercises. The cost of hosting your courses on an LMS will also need to be considered. Once created and online, however, the cost of delivery is minimal.
Live instructor-led courses on the other hand, typically take less time to develop and are therefore cheaper to create. However, the costs of instructor fees are not insignificant, and will be ongoing with each delivery. The cost of a physical classroom or online meeting room must also be considered. The cost of delivery is higher. The course fee charged to the learner will need to be significant to cover the cost of the instructor and the room booking.
You'll also need to consider the cost of learning - how much will it cost your learners to learn with you. Besides course fees, learners may need to lose revenue from time away from work and may have travel and hospitality costs.
For large scale teaching projects, self-paced courses are typically more cost effective. For smaller scale projects, it may be more cost effective to employ an instructor. Costs to the learner are typically lower for self-paced courses.
You'll also want to consider the scale of your teaching project and the size of the audience you want to reach.
Once created and published online, self-paced courses are immediately available to an unlimited audience throughout the world, and will continue to be so as long as the course is relevant and in demand. Good self-paced courses generate revenue while you sleep! A friend of mine spent a few weeks creating a good 8 hour self-paced course which is currently generating a passive income of around £2000 a month. I was involved in creating a self-paced course back in 2012. Although it took months to build, it has since generated over £100,000 of revenue, and continues to be enjoyed by learners throughout the world - all whilst I get on with other things.
Instructor-led courses work best with smaller class sizes that allow interaction between teacher and learner, enabling the teacher to assess learning and adapt the pace (and possibly content) as they go. Class sizes of 10 to 20 are typical. Classes with more than 30 learners are more lectures than classes, and can easily be replaced with a video. To reach a large audience with an instructor-led class, you'll need to consider (and cost) how many sessions and how many instructors will be needed over time.
Community & learning together
Learning in a community is often much more effective than learning in isolation. Being able to ask questions, discuss topics and assist other learners really engages the mind and enriches the learning experience. Also, feeling the personality, passion and experience of the teacher can be a real plus for the learner.
With a good teacher, it is hard to beat an instructor-led course to provide that sense of learning together and community. Some self-paced courses can leave the learner feeling isolated and unsupported.
However, with the right approach, self-paced courses can come a close second. Well constructed teaching videos and presentations, made by a good teacher with personality and experience, can equally convey personality and passion, and can/should include the same interesting and engaging experiences that would be shared in the live classroom. With a good learning management system (LMS) your learners and teachers can post and respond to questions and discuss concepts in topic-specific chat rooms. A good LMS will also provide tools to help virtual instructors keep an eye on learner progress and offer encouragement and intervention where appropriate.
Objective v. subjective knowledge?
A major factor you'll want to consider is the type of knowledge you wish to convey - whether it is objective or subjective.
For courses of an objective nature, where process, how things work and technical application are forefront, self-paced courses are ideal. Such courses typically include a series of 'teaching activities' (video lessons, articles, presentations, etc) that describe a process, explain how things work and/or how the theory is applied to solve problems. Teaching activities are typically followed up with exercises that help the learner solidify understanding by applying theory to actually solve problems. Good self-paced courses include learn-by-doing activities that allow the user to practice and consolidate learning - before taking an assessment. Try to avoid the all-too-familiar 'teach-to-test' scenario, where after being taught something the learner is then tested on what they have learnt without having had an opportunity to apply and learn by doing. Choose a good LMS that provides tools for learn-by-doing exercises before assessing learner understanding. Self-paced courses score high for courses of an objective nature.
For subjective topics, perhaps ones with more open-ended themes, where thinking, review, evaluation and creativity is paramount, it's hard to beat an instructor-led session. In these sessions the instructor acts as facilitator, with learners being guided and thoughts being steered as they consider, plan, execute, review and assess. Such instructor-led sessions can be held face-to-face with teacher and learners in the same physical location, or screen-to-screen with all participants connecting in a video call. For remote instructor-led training, be sure to select an LMS that provides integrated video calling with the option for collaboration, screen sharing and breakout rooms.
Although it takes more thought, it is not impossible to deliver subjective content through self-paced courses. In fact, the need for flexible learning, reduced cost, and large scale may actually dictate an online, self-paced approach. The key to effective self-paced subjective courses is the ability for an expert to accompany the learner on the learning journey, albeit remotely and probably non-real time - much like we'd expect with a distance learning programme such as the Open University. Be sure to choose an LMS that provides assignment type activities through which the learner can work through a reflective exercise and submit a documented response - perhaps a piece of writing or a reflection on what they have learned. An instructor should then be able to review and discuss the work with the learner.
Which is better, instructor-led or self-paced learning?
We've discussed how both have advantages and disadvantages. It's up to you now to weigh up the pros and cons of each in the context of your course needs and the needs of your learners.
That said, there's one more option to consider...
It's also worth noting that it is not necessarily a binary decision - not simply one or the other. Many successful courses today take a blended approach, where learners study the bulk of the course in a self-paced environment, enjoying all of the benefits of immediate access, flexible learning, and lower cost of learning. Mixed amongst the self-paced activities, learners then also book places on scheduled live instructor-led workshops or webinars for those activities where you just can't beat live interaction with an expert teacher and fellow learners.
With a blended approach, you (as trainer) will also benefit from the limitless reach and scale of a self-paced course, as well as enjoying the lower cost of delivery. A blended-learning approach, with periodic live workshops supplementing the self-paced experience, means that you'll pay for expert instructors only when it is absolutely necessary - again, keeping costs to a minimum while not limiting the scale and reach of your course.
Whether you choose a self-paced, instructor-led or blended learning approach, be sure to select an LMS that helps you deliver flexible learning, community / collaborative learning, and live teacher-led instruction with integrated webinar rooms and workshop booking!
To learn more about an LMS that provides these facilities and more, visit calibrae.com.