Virtual training

Instructor-led IT Training Vs. Self-paced: What’s More Important?


Sep 30, 2021 - 4 min read
Instructor-led IT Training vs. Self-paced: What’s more important?

Whether for pre-sales demos or post-sales onboarding and training, software companies are shifting quickly from the passive, unidirectional, pre-packaged “presentation” to a much more engaging hands-on approach. The benefits of hands-on practice are significant and are driving companies to replace (or enhance) simple video conferences with a virtual lab environment. The result: Participants can now join a training session or product demo using only their browser and take control of an authentic version of the software using their mouse and keyboard.

There are two varieties of remote, cloud-based training, however. Each has its own benefits:

Virtual Instructor-Led Training (VILT)

Virtual Instructor-led Training (VILT) begins with a traditional classroom approach where the instructor guides the session’s curriculum and content, walking the class through the exercise. It’s not that traditional, however; since this customer experience takes place in an interactive virtual environment, the instructor need not conduct the demonstration while trainees sit by and watch; rather participants try the functionality for themselves.

There are multiple factors to make this VILT approach successful:

  •  After an introduction or overview, the trainer can provide challenges and assignments with specific goals and then watch the trainees work through the interface until they succeed (or, of course, fail). They can correct them, offer shortcuts, and even pause the process and share one participant’s screen with the class for a contextual learning moment. This tactic replaces “seeing is believing” with “achieving is believing.”
  • The instructor can also spontaneously pause the independent session and demonstrate an action for all participants, to quickly teach proper usage.
  • For certification or training programs where it’s essential to complete a specific program of study, this approach provides the structure required for a comprehensive proficiency.

Self-Paced Training

Self-paced training, by contrast, involves “leaving the classroom behind” and letting the participants work on their own – entirely independently and without active guidance – in a virtual lab environment. While this approach is considerably less structured, it is becoming the most popular approach among our clients. In fact, in a recent study we conducted among SaaS companies, self-paced training was actively used by an average of 68% of companies in 2021. All companies – from small to large – use some self-paced training, with 30% of medium-sized companies leveraging self-paced between 60% and 70% of the time.

Why is self-paced learning so popular? Because it offers an even longer list of benefits than the more conventional instructor-led approach:

  • Different people have different learning styles. Some prefer a more formal, frontal approach, and some (especially Millennials, who prefer to be in control) need to explore on their own to engage in and benefit from a training experience. Working at one’s own pace, rather than rushing or waiting for the instructor, can make the experience more fulfilling.
  • Most clients don’t use your complete feature set. They have specific tasks they need to be trained for (a recent report found that about 80% of features in the typical cloud software product are rarely or never used). Allowing them to “deep dive” into those particular screens and functions until they are satisfied and confident will help give them the confidence to get to work. This is a much more efficient strategy for SaaS training than burying specific feature walk-throughs in a broad, one-size-fits-all training course.
  • In a word, scheduling. In an ever-expanding global world, geography and time zones create an ongoing challenge (As they say, “it’s always 2 a.m. for someone!”). Providing access in a “wherever/whenever” format means you can train more people, more efficiently, without the overhead of complex scheduling or repeating sessions for each time zone.

Which approach is better?

Like all debates about educational tactics, the answer is self-evident or universal.

Rarely should either mode be used exclusively, on its own; instead, combining these approaches in customer training yields the ultimate result. As we’ll discuss in a moment, not all platforms are designed to accomplish this handily.

An initial session – or the introductory segment of a longer course – is based on guided instruction and sets the stage, helps define goals, and establishes a connection between instructor and trainees. It is a time to ask questions, request specific tutorials, or establish schedules.

Once complete, with or without a full trainer-led demo, the trainees can now take control. For this to happen, of course, you need a platform to support an environment where the trainees can work independently; to be cost-effective, it must auto-suspend, pausing any costs to you whenever they’re not online working on their own.

Whatever the balance, once you blend them, both approaches share three common benefits:

One version to rule them all. The instance of the software your trainers use is centralized; even if you have trainers and trainees around the world, working in their own time zones, there’s nothing to update, upgrade or set up; everyone teaches from the latest “bulletproof” version. Consistent, templated scenarios can likewise guarantee a predictable experience.

Prebuild and customize training scenarios.  Each option can provide either: (a) a “virgin” environment for trainees to learn how to populate, or (b) can be preloaded from a catalog of convenient sample data sets to manipulate, emulating a variety of use cases and scenarios.

Track it all. In each approach, today’s most advanced remote customer training platforms can track usage to determine who has done what, in which sections of the product, and for how long. This feedback provides trainers and management with information about who is genuinely engaged in training, where they might be having trouble, and where the curriculum, teaching approach, or even the software itself might need improvement.

Not all platforms can handle this synthesis; most are designed either for completely guided, highly structured training sessions, or for completely independent use of what are essentially short-term, licensed copies of the software.

You’ll need a product designed specifically for the hybrid “hand-off scenario,” because without it, each has significant drawbacks:

Exclusively self-paced:

  • No guidance means points are missed and questions remain unasked
  • Tech hiccups can end training as the trainee loses patience
  • Longer time to complete due to distractions and interruptions, with no one to keep the pace. Higher levels of attrition.

Exclusively VILT:

  • Often not customized enough for a specific role
  • More expensive as qualified instructors must be on hand
  • Time zones and work hours require logistics and additional classes for complete coverage

Just as education systems around the world are learning that a teacher-guided, but active, engaging, hands-on classroom is much more effective for students ranging from kindergarten through college, the enterprise software industry is embracing and enhancing customer experiences through a similar mix of instructor-led and self-paced training throughout the sales and product lifecycles.