The complete list of advantages and disadvantages of online courses

How do you train your employees? Is traditional classroom teaching still state-of-the-art at your organization? Think twice! Offering online learning is a great, revolutionary alternative. Carefully weigh your audience and training content against this list of advantages and disadvantages for online courses, and decide if you’ll be a pioneer.

Advantages and disadvantages of online courses

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Advantages of online courses

Better knowledge retention

The goal of every course is that the provided information sticks. According to an overview article of Arkorfull Holmes and Gardner (2006) [resource 1], online courses are a great medium to achieve that. Research indicates that online learning enhances the efficacy of knowledge by making it easy to access a huge amount of information. Read more about the effectiveness of online learning in our article ‘Is online learning as good as face-to-face learning?

Online courses can be tailor-made

Online courses make it easier for your employees to retain knowledge because you can make them tailor-made and take into account the individual learner differences. Some employees, for instance, might prefer to concentrate on certain course parts, while others prefer to review the entire course. But how do you track individual needs? By asking, of course. You can also set up a basic course to track results and identify knowledge gaps. Based on this information, you can set up multiple individual tailor-made courses, which result in better-educated personnel that can excel in their jobs.

Higher revenue per employee

Research [resource 2] shows that a comprehensive training program leads to 218% higher revenue per employee. To stay up-to-date with best practices and developments in their industry, the average employee needs to dedicate around 1% of their time per week to training. That translates to 4.8 minutes of training per day. Not much, right? Fitting regular face-to-face training into this timeframe is somewhat impossible. Online learning is a solid alternative. It enables a style called microlearning. So, an employee can start and complete a course in a quick five to ten-minute time frame.

Flexibility to choose where and when

Your employees can proceed through a course at their own pace, at their place, and on their own time. It doesn’t force your employees into a poorly fitting schedule. They have the power to adjust their study scheme to their situation. For instance, early birds can start their course at dawn, while night owls can take advantage of their last work hour by starting a course. Positive side-effect: you will be less distracted by your co-course takers (but maybe more by your family or friends 😉, see disadvantages).

If you have an international organization, the flexibility argument is a big plus. It reduces travel time (and expenses) for your employees.

Online courses cut additional expenses

Reduced costs

Imagine that you need to administer GDPR training to an organization of 100 employees. By offering an online course instead of in-person training you skip the following costs:

  • Hiring an external trainer for multiple days. You can’t train all employees at the same time.
  • Travel expenses of the external trainer.
  • Travel expenses of your employees (if they have they are stationed at different locations).
  • Non-worked hours by your employees. According to Chapman Alliance [resource 3], a half-day of classical training is the equivalent of one hour of an e-learning course.
    Printed materials and a physical location to host them.
  • We don’t have to do the math to show that pricing is a huge advantage of online courses. 

Easily update content

The world around us is changing so fast. Laws are being adjusted, legislation constantly changes, and research gets refuted. That’s why books and articles quickly become outdated. Replacing printed materials and handbooks from time to time is a high-cost item. Updating online courses is not. Of course, it takes time. But the changes you make to any of your content are immediately available to your learning audience anywhere in the world.

More insight into the performance

You can set up an online course in a learning management system. These systems offer the option to test your employees throughout and after the online course. These exams enable you to evaluate whether their knowledge level increased. At the same time, the failure and success rates give you insights into which aspects need more attention.

Disadvantages of online courses

Requires self-discipline and time-management skills

Great freedom comes with great responsibility. Some people can handle it, and some can’t. Taking an online course requires self-discipline to set aside chunks of time to complete your training. It means you have to make it a priority and let no other activities interfere. That could be difficult if you have a never-ending daily to-do list.

Less control over cheating

Scientific evidence on cheating isn't straightforward

Our gut feeling is that online exams are more susceptible to cheating. The evidence isn’t straightforward about this topic. For instance, research of Watson (2010) [resource 4] and Stuber-McEwen (2009) [resource 5] showed the opposite result, while Lanier (2006) [resource 6] confirmed our gut feeling. What’s the truth? We guess it is somewhere in the middle. Participants who are inclined to cheat will cheat, whether they attend an online course or traditional training. The fact is that online learning management systems deter cheating much better than they did ten years ago.

Communication with the instructor is often limited

Online courses reduce the interaction between the trainers and participants to the bare minimum. For some, a trainer, personal attention, and discussions with fellow students are essential to take in new information. These aspects bring the learning content alive. The need for these things depends a bit on your generation. Research [resource 7] indicates that the baby boom generation flourishes with in-company training, but millennials, who were born and raised with the internet, don’t mind taking online courses. They don’t miss the contact with instructors and colleagues.

Not suitable for every topic

No one wants to have a surgeon at their bed that learned how to stitch through an online course 😉. Some topics, like safety standards and information about products, lend themselves more naturally to e-learning than others. Repetitive content, especially for new employees in a high turnover environment, is ideal for e-learning.

Besides the topic, it is valuable to consider your employees’ motivation levels. Not every employee is eager to take compulsory courses. If you do away with the encouraging trainer, it becomes difficult for someone with low motivation to start or finish a course. For this reason, creating motivating materials for your employees becomes more important than ever with online learning.

Unpleasant to read

Spending hours at a computer or tablet without any breaks can ruin your vision [resource 8]. Also, back problems could become a serious issue. It is quite understandable that you won’t be eager to read from a screen again if you have already spent the whole day behind your desk.

Distraction outside the office is a potential threat to your productivity

Possibility of distraction

You can ignore your lip-smacking colleague, but can you ignore your screaming child, the popular Netflix show Tiger King in the background, the smell of excellent coffee, or that pile of dirty laundry in the corner? Distraction outside the office is a potential threat to your productivity. But it certainly depends on your learning style. If you want your participants to take the whole course at once, distraction will occur faster, than if you advocate a microlearning style. Research [resource 9] shows that microlearning helps diminish distraction.

So, what’s next?

Will online courses completely replace in-company training or training at a location? We don’t believe so. Online courses aren’t suitable for every organization, person, or topic. And we still say humans need human contact.

If you are thinking of replacing traditional learning with online training, then carefully weigh your audience and training against this list of advantages and disadvantages. Write down your goal and specific use case. Take a product tour of several LMS suppliers. Easy LMS is one of the systems you can try. With Easy LMS, you can create and manage effective training courses, challenging exams, and customized certificates. It includes a great analysis tool and automation options.

Useful resources

1) CiteSeerX
2) e-Learning Industry
3) Chapman Alliance
4) University of West Georgia
5) University of West Georgia
6) Taylor & Francis online
7) Training Magazine
8) Fast Company
9) The Harvard Gazette

Frequently Asked Questions

✔️ What is an online course?
An online course is a series of online lectures or lessons about a particular subject, leading to an examination or qualification.

✔️ What are the advantages of online courses?
Better knowledge; higher revenue per employee; flexibility; lower costs; easy to update; more insight in performances

✔️ What are the disadvantages of online courses?
Impersonal; learning from a computer screen; requires a lot of self-discipline and time-management; not suitable for every topic;possibility to be distracted;more susceptible to cheating

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