What is online training?

Susan Hurrell
Woman smiling slightly with brown, chin-length hair and glasses.
min read
min watch

What if I told you that there was one proven strategy that has the potential to help your organization improve efficiency, reliability, and scalability? Let me whisper two little words in your ear - better yet, let me shout it from the rooftops! 

And the answer is…drumroll, please…ONLINE TRAINING!

Like every organization, your company has a unique set of challenges. Some of those challenges can definitely be assessed, addressed, mitigated, and resolved through the tools and processes of online training. 

Let me take you through a quick overview of what online training is, what it can do for your organization, the three key components that make up effective online training, and the numerous ways training can be delivered online. 

Here we go! 

Defining online training

Let’s start with a definition of “online training” to ensure that we are both saying the same thing. Online training is any form of instruction that takes place completely on the internet. It can be text-based and have graphics, video, audio, animations, simulations, and other interactive elements as complex as augmented or virtual reality components. It is usually delivered through a learning management system (LMS) or microlearning platform.

Online training can be so much more than just electronically delivered courses, so don’t worry that your team is going to suffer “death by PowerPoint™,” as a friend of mine referred to her corporate training as she slogged through endless online presentations and YouTube™ videos. Properly done, online training should present your learners with opportunities to interact with their course material and demonstrate that they are learning and retaining the content. Flashcard drills, game-based learning activities, quizzes, and tests can be part of the mix. Some online training programs also have social learning components - everything from Zoom-call office hours with the instructor to synchronous or asynchronous communication through chat, email, or professional social platforms like Slack™ or Microsoft Teams™.

"Online training, also known as..." is outlined with a circle. Branching off the circle are four lines, each leading to another name by which online training is known: computer-based training, distance learning, eLearning, and web-based learning/training.

Online training has been known by many names over the years. You may encounter some of the following:

  • Computer-based training (CBT)
  • Distance learning
  • eLearning (sometimes spelled e-learning)
  • Web-based learning or web-based training

All these terms mean essentially the same thing – learning or training delivered via the internet and taken on a computer or mobile device. Online training that is built specifically for mobile devices is sometimes called mLearning, just to add another term into the mix. 

Sometimes, depending on the industry, you may run into a couple of other terms that are often linked to online training but don’t reference it specifically. Continuous professional education (CPE) can encompass digital and analog training methods. There are two terms that are used to measure the amount of training (again, online or offline) that a person takes, usually for certification purposes. These are Continuing Education Units (CEUs) and Continuing Education Credits (CECs) – but these do not mean that the training was delivered online. 

Some analysts think these two measurement units need to be reevaluated, given the predominance of online training. Ticking a box that a course was “taken” based on a classroom-style in-person training model may no longer be a good enough measurement of employee engagement, retention, or anticipated performance improvement. It’s easy to have corporate training become a game of just earning credits, with no guarantee of retention or changed behavior. Online training allows for a different form of measurement – based on training delivery that can be measured by more firm KPIs, such as knowledge retention over time, improved job performance, and the movement of the KPIs that matter. Online training helps companies move from counting credits to measuring outcomes. So let’s look at the benefits of online training.

What are the benefits of online training?

In today’s highly competitive business environment, every business needs to leverage all possible tools to its advantage. And as Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, says, “The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.” This has never been truer than it is today – and online training helps deliver better training faster. Let’s dig into the benefits online training offers your company.

All skill levels welcome

A properly structured online training program allows you to train every person on your team based on the level that they are at. You can assign training by cohort, job description, role, or responsibility. New employees get onboarded, and tenured employees go through everboarding – keeping their current skills at the level that meets your standards, with the ability to add additional training as needed on an ongoing basis for each individual.

Expand your training offering

Online training removes your reliance on the availability of a qualified instructor to deliver a real-time course, to a sufficient number of learners, in an accessible location in order to upgrade or add new skills to your team. Once a course is built and deployed, learners can access the course as assigned, wherever they are, without having to rely on the physical presence of an instructor, or as part of a cohort of fellow employees who need that same training. Gone are the days of waiting for the trainer to visit your region or having a sufficient number of people who needed to learn “X” in order to justify the training expense of bringing everyone together. Build a course, launch a course, and your learners can take a course. 

Learning without fear, but as fast as you can

Most online training is delivered asynchronously, meaning that each learner accesses their courses according to their own schedule and progresses through the courses at their own pace. Your trainees will be learning as fast as they can without slowing down a classroom of more experienced team members or feeling foolish, overwhelmed, or frustrated in front of their instructor or peers. This is a huge boost to learner confidence and competence. An environment that is resource-rich and supportive inspires confidence rather than a fear of judgment for not knowing. And of course, they don’t know – that’s why they are being trained! Now your learners can feel better about their training experience and happier overall with their work environment. 

Measurable cost savings

Remember when a trainer used to cross the country, visit a string of cities, stay in hotels, run up room service bills, take cabs, print up binders of training materials, and rent classroom space? Or maybe your trainees all came to head office once or twice a year – more hotel and food bills, plus airfare – it all added up to make training a cost-center for your business. Online training provides you with the opportunity to make your learning and development division a profit center instead.

By having relatively fixed costs for training delivery, continually assessing retention and performance improvement among your team, and being able to measure the effectiveness of training by how it has an impact on your company KPIs over time – you will have the numbers to demonstrate the ROI generated by your training through improved sales, higher customer retention, lower employee turnover, and if health and safety are your thing – reduced workplace accidents (and lower insurance costs). 

Keeping workers working while they train

To expand on what I said in point 4, not only does online training reduce costs, it also keeps your team productive because training becomes part of the job, not a special event. You don’t have to remove people from the workplace for days at a time for an instructor-led training session because your employees can learn in just hours per week, every week – and tools like microlearning can deliver ongoing training in just minutes per day – every day. Employees can self-schedule their training around their work priorities and press pause if a project takes priority or there is an emergency they need to deal with. According to an IBM study, every dollar invested in online training returned $30 in productivity – because employees were able to return to their work faster. 

Infographic of eLearning stats from the IBM Study: Typically requires 40% to 60% less employee time than traditional classroom settings; Nearly 5 times more material is learned without increasing time spent training; Gives $30 of productivity (working faster by applying skills learned immediately) for every dollar invested; Increases retention rates 5% to 60% versus face-to-face retention rates of 8% to 10%; and 42% of companies say eLearning has led to an increase in revenue.
Click image to zoom in.

The Online Training Trifecta: Learning faster, retaining more, reducing turnover

Did you know that 40% of employees leave their jobs because they feel they are not being adequately trained or supported in growing their skills? Given the costs of replacing an employee (See my article What is employee onboarding? for more insights), employee retention is a high priority for profit-driven companies.

According to The Research Institute of America, online learning increases retention rates from 25% to 60%, whereas in-person training retention rates are from 8% to 10%. As the old saying goes, “the brain can only absorb what the butt can endure.” It’s hard to maintain enthusiasm and retain information in a full-day training session. There’s just no time for it to sink in.

Online training gives you the ability to break learning down into smaller chunks, and knowledge can be applied on the job, possibly even on the same day. One last thing, an online training best practice is to build in ongoing knowledge checks and gamified interactivities to help reinforce the concepts and check for knowledge gaps, as well as having quizzes, tests, and final exams. If your online training delivery is adaptive, then course delivery will be customized to close those gaps for each specific learner - again, keeping your learner engaged and not exposed repeatedly to information they already know.

There is a laundry list of other benefits as well, including the ability to ensure accessibility for learners with visual/auditory or mobility challenges, localization/language-delivery for international learners, real-time learner feedback on course content accuracy, the ability for learners to immediately access additional information like knowledge bases, glossaries, schematics, etc., and the ability to add gamification elements such as points, rewards, leaderboards and contests to provide extrinsic motivation to your learners. 

And who doesn’t like being rewarded for doing well? Make mine a Starbucks gift card, please! 

What are the key components of online training? 

To deliver online training, you need three things, at the very minimum. You need to know what your desired training outcomes are, essentially, what KPIs you want to change as a result of your training program. You need to have course content able to be delivered in a measurable and engaging way to your learners. Finally, you need to have an online platform to deliver that training and measure your learner’s performance. Let’s dig into each of those.

A simple circle diagram showing the the key components of online training. The circle is split into three sections, each with an icon representing the key items: top section is Your Training Outcomes (target icon); left-third section is Your Training Content (a page with a folded corner icon); and the right-third is Your Training Platform (laptop and mobile phone icon).

Your training outcomes

Of course, you want your employees to know what they need to know to do their jobs properly and safely – that’s a given for any responsible employer. Effective training is more than just measuring “butts in seats” or courses completed – to be worth the investment, learners need to change their behavior to improve performance and deliver more benefit to their employer. 

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are the metrics that measure the outcomes of improved performance. What is the change you want to see? Here are some examples:

  • Reduced employee turnover/higher job satisfaction
  • Reduced health and safety incidents or violations
  • Improved productivity/rate of work (more widgets made)
  • Measurable compliance to industry regulations, especially if you’re in an industry that is monitored by a third party or government agency
  • Increased sales
  • Higher customer retention
  • Increased ability to promote from within (reducing new hire costs) 
  • And there are more, depending on the industry you may be in.

Online training gives you the ability to measure improvement over time, relying on hard numbers to demonstrate training ROI. A 30% decrease in worker injuries is worth so much more than a handful of smile sheets and a spreadsheet full of “butt in seat” attendance numbers. 

Your training content

You’re already training your team, but you may not know what all your resources are, how old they are, how accurate they are, and even where or how they are being delivered. Time to do a training audit – I’ve written a couple of articles that more deeply explain what is a training audit and how to perform a training audit. But before you go, let’s talk about what training content can look like. 

Here is a short list of ways that you can deliver training content online, some of which are static, some are interactive, and some can be both. 

  • Text-based, with graphics and images, in a format that resembles a PowerPoint presentation
  • Rich media – audio files, videos, etc.
  • Animation
  • Simulation – recreating real-world scenarios (a form of interactivity)
  • Augmented or virtual reality
  • Learning games
  • Flashcards, quizzes, tests, and exams (you learn from your wrong answers) 
  • Webinars and instructor-led training sessions

Your training outcomes and training goals will determine what type of content is used to deliver your training. For most companies, there is a mixture of formats involved, so make sure your training platform can deliver your training the way you want it. 

This brings us to the next section.

Your training platform 

You’re going to need some form of online software to deliver your training. There are a number of types of eLearning platforms, and we have articles on many of them. Follow the links for a more detailed exploration of each platform type listed below.

Learning Management System (LMS)

An LMS or learning management system is a platform that manages eLearning materials — hosting course content and resources, a search function, an online learning space, and a way for learners to find, enroll in, and take courses. An LMS usually includes a way for administrators to manage courses, content, enrollment, and assessment of learning.

Learner Experience Platform (LXP)

An LXP is designed to offer a more personalized learning experience and to help learners discover new learning opportunities. Some LXPs combine content from a variety of different sources or creators and deliver them with the assistance of complex artificial intelligence. An LXP acts as a curator, repository, and dispenser of learning content and learning records in a highly personalized and comprehensive training experience.

Learning Records Store

An LRS or learning record store is part of an xAPI ecosystem that enables the collection and storage of learning data from an enormous variety of places where learning occurs. The xAPI standard makes it possible to create statements about learning activities, such as viewing a video, reading an article, completing an activity, or participating in a simulation, far beyond the course completions, engagement time, and test scores that a SCORM-based LMS gathers. These data statements are stored in the LRS. 

Microlearning Platform

Short, narrowly focused learning content, generally digital and available online, though infographics and short printed texts could also be considered microlearning. Each unit of microlearning addresses a single concept or idea. Microlearning is usually mobile-first or mobile-friendly to enable learners to use it anywhere, on their favorite digital devices.

Some of these platforms can be combined or integrated with other software you might use to manage employee records to create an eLearning ecosystem, your complete digital learning system that encompasses content creation, content distribution, a knowledge base or content management system, and other software like an HRIS – your Human Resources Information System, which might also manage your payroll as well as your learner records. An HRMS – Human Resources Management System is used more specifically to manage talent and performance.

Another feature of many training delivery platforms is the ability to deliver adaptive training – using complex algorithms to deliver specific content to each learner based on that individual learner’s performance. This feature is often sought by companies who are required to deliver and monitor compliance training for an external audit by a third-party agency. This is an example of where your training outcomes and KPIs influence your choice of a training provider. 

One last thing. If you want to be able to move your training content from one platform to another, ensure that your content and platform are both SCORM-compliant

I know I said quick overview. I lied.

Not that I make a habit of telling fibs. But okay, I’ll apologize. This wasn’t quite as quick as I hoped it would be. I wanted you to be well-informed about the potential that online training can offer you. There are many things to consider when it comes to moving your training online, and my team and I have written about a lot of them, so I invite you to continue to explore our learning hub and continue with our introduction to online training to deepen your understanding.

Bottom line, though – online training is the most powerful way you can deliver training to your team and is flexible enough to accommodate your learners’ needs and increase their job satisfaction. It can turn your learning and development program into a profit center by delivering positive ROI and improving your company’s most important KPIs. 

And, just so you know, by reading these articles online – you’re already participating in a form of online learning. See how easy it is? How well it works? Now you know.

Now imagine sharing the power of focused, directed, company-specific online training with your team. You’ve taken your first step towards an exciting new future in training delivery.

Woman smiling slightly with brown, chin-length hair and glasses.
Susan Hurrell

With 15+ years of online marketing and online learning experience, Susan loves to share insights about where these two ROI-building practices can intersect and complement each other for your business or organization.

Become part of our L&D community

We publish a new learning hub article — full of useful, practical topics —  weekly.

Not sure where where you want to start? Jump into one of our recently published articles and see where it takes you!