In-Person Training vs Online Training? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

Author: Thomas Kiley and Bethanne Chapman | Date: June 30, 2023

Virtual or in-person training? It’s a widely debated topic in the accounting industry. Each format offers distinct benefits that shape the learning experience, so how can firms decide which one best serves their needs? Before we tackle that answer, let’s make sure it’s the right question to ask.

The last few years have been transformational. Before COVID, most accounting training was delivered in person. At the beginning of the pandemic, many firms tasked their L&D departments with an urgent directive: shift fully to a virtual training environment as rapidly as possible.

As the pendulum swung from primarily in-person training to exclusively online training in the space of only a few short months, firms struggled to adjust content design, adapt learning materials, and upskill instructors for the new virtual environment. Attendee engagement and satisfaction dropped after the shift to the virtual environment, with many blaming the decline on the fact that training programs were no longer being delivered in person. 

As firms now enjoy the option of choosing in-person training vs online training, the debate has been clouded by historical experiences and outdated opinions. Many participants have simply never experienced an engaging, high-quality online training program. Leaders are weighing the benefits of in-person training (like networking and personal interactions) against the cost savings and convenience of virtual training, while often operating under the assumption that the training aspect of the event will automatically be better if it’s delivered in person. In fact, online training has evolved to the point that there are few differentiators between the classroom environments. Rather than debating in-person training vs online training, firms should focus on developing the highest quality training experience first and then determine how to deliver it. 


Focus On the Content and the Structure First

In their book Telling Ain’t Training, Harold Stolovitch and Erica Keeps point out that, “Telling in any form engenders passivity…It is transmission.” Unlike passive telling, effective training is interactive and participatory. That’s true whether it’s delivered in person or virtually. Because many firms were forced into virtual training by necessity during COVID, it was challenging to develop techniques to effectively translate these active learning concepts into the online environment. 

In fact, the challenge of incorporating active learning design into training programs exists regardless of the delivery method. Ineffectively designed or delivered in-person sessions can result in poor engagement just like ineffective virtual sessions. The key to any training is planning and presentation by professionals who understand effective teaching and facilitation as well as they understand the subject matter. 

They’re Not Attendees, They’re Participants

Successful training, in-person or online, requires a commitment on the part of the students to participate—and a commitment from firms to champion a “culture of learning.” It helps when employees understand up-front that this is an investment by the firm in their career and they can match that investment through active participation. Encouragement from firm leaders to attend, ask questions and make the most of the experience through discussions in the classroom and afterward, can make a huge contribution toward a successful outcome regardless of the format. 

The mark of a failed attempt at instruction through passive transmission is a restless room of learners who suffer through a class only to rush right back to work—never deriving any value or developing new skills. 


The mark of a great learning experience is often the combination of a well-designed interactive program,

delivered by a seasoned professional to invested and committed participants.


In-Person Training vs Online Training—Networking Is a Different Discussion

Many of our clients tout networking and team-building as benefits of in-person trainings. Those are benefits of in-person gatherings, but those are not the same goals that apply to training. Stolovitch and Keeps in Telling Ain’t Training point out that “the goal of training is to change behavior.” Firms that focus their training efforts on quality virtual learning experiences throughout the year can potentially allocate their dollars more effectively. By converting selected training events to well-designed virtual programs, the organization can save on travel and meeting budgets, providing the opportunity to fund enhanced annual in-person events attendees will be truly excited to take part in.

We encourage clients to think of in-person events foremost as investments in retention —encouraging current employees to stay with the firm. As an example, interns and staff who are first exposed to a firm and courted through high-touch, luxury-class events might easily become disillusioned if subsequent gatherings feature sub-standard classrooms, “death-by-PowerPoint,” and bad food. Continuity of the employee experience matters.

Where Will the Pendulum Settle?

Given the uncertainties of today’s business environment, it is an opportune time to reassess, refine and optimize the delivery of your training experience to ensure it is of the highest caliber, regardless of the format.  20-20 Services is uniquely positioned to understand and provide consultation to the accounting profession that is struggling with the balance between in-person training vs online training.  Our clients enjoy the immediate benefits and consistent quality from all our in-person and online training programs. To learn more about how we can help you maximize the impact of your training budget, contact us today

Picture of Thomas Kiley

Thomas Kiley

Tom is the lead developer of 20-20 Services LLC Tax Training course material. He has been creating and delivering professional education training programs in his entertaining style to CPAs across the country since 2004.

Tom has delivered training or authored material for nine of the Top 30 accounting firms in the country. Prior to launching 20-20 Tax Training...

Picture of Bethanne Chapman

Bethanne Chapman

Bethanne Chapman is the Senior Manager of Audit Learning at 20-20 Services LLC. In this role, Bethanne updates and customizes the audit curriculum content for our clients and teaches audit and professional development courses. She is enthusiastic about participant engagement, audit standards and methodology, and assurance software tools including...

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