Comparing real-time online work-related training with face-to-face formats

In brief

  • Work-related training delivered through synchronous (or real-time) online formats can be just as effective as face-to-face training in building workers’ knowledge or skills.
  • This finding is based on a relatively sparse body of research looking at training aimed at adult learners at the undergraduate level or higher.

Published: August 2022

Why was this study done?

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions on in-person gatherings led to a rapid shift towards virtual classroom formats for delivering a wide range of training, including work-related health and safety training. As organizations plan for a post-COVID world, some are asking whether in-person training should be resumed or whether virtual training formats should be continued.

This review of reviews set out to examine the research to date on the effectiveness of synchronous online learning compared to face-to-face learning in delivering occupational training. (In this study, synchronous online learning refers to learning sessions delivered by instructors in real time via a videoconferencing platform, with students and instructors attending together from different locations. Asynchronous learning refers to online training that students can access any time, and which may or may not involve an instructor.)

How was the study done?

While a systematic review synthesizes findings from many primary studies, a review of reviews pulls together or integrates the findings of more than one such synthesis. To produce timely results, this review used what’s called “rapid review” methods, in effect streamlining or omitting some traditional systematic review steps (for example, by limiting searches to English-language titles or using only one reviewer and not two to screen titles).

This review covered all systematic reviews published in English-language journals from 2010 to 2020.The review included only reviews about synchronous online training and education programs that were related to work or career preparation, and that were delivered to adult learners.

The review team searched for outcomes such as knowledge acquired. Also included were outcomes related to occupational health and safety (for example, injury). Furthermore, the team included only reviews that included face-to-face learning or asynchronous e-learning as comparators. Reviews that compared synchronous or real-time online training to no training were not included.

What did the researchers find?

Out of 1,653 unique reviews found in the search process, only three met the inclusion criteria. Two were meta-analyses and one was a narrative systematic review. All three focused on synchronous online learning as an intervention of interest, referring to it as videoconference-based education, synchronous webinar, and synchronous distance education.

In the three reviews, no difference was found between synchronous or real-time online learning and face-to-face learning in their effects on knowledge or skills.  

The studies included in the three reviews involved mostly health-care professionals and students of health professions (especially nursing and medicine). Little research existed on synchronous online learning that involved more practical hands-on training or that was aimed at learners with less educational preparation.

What are the implications of the study?

When instructional design is sound and all else is held equal, synchronous or real-time online learning and traditional face-to-face learning are similarly effective for occupational or career preparation purposes for learners at the undergraduate level or higher.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

A strength of this review was its use of rapid review methods, which allowed for timely results; however, this could have led to relevant studies being missed.

Due to the sparsity of studies in occupational health and safety training on the effectiveness of synchronous online learning compared to face-to-face learning, the findings of this review were based primarily on career preparation courses and continuing education for health-care students and professionals with high educational attainment. It remains to be seen whether the results found here are generalizable to a wider range of occupations and educational levels, and to a wider range of training types, especially handson practical training.