As training options expand, many questions remain unanswered about self-paced learning’s return on investment and how to measure it.

First, it’s important to consider the fact that both the workforce and the nature of the workplace need to be taken into account when measuring self-paced learning’s ROI.

The Challenge of Measuring Self-Paced Learning’s Return on Investment

At what pace do people learn and more importantly, at what pace do you need them to learn? A younger workforce may absorb new information more quickly and as a result, self-paced eLearning and mLearning models may appear both appropriate and appealing. But the same demographic may be less likely to possess the self-discipline and motivation to sustain longer or more demanding training requirements on their own. The ROI depends on the cost effectiveness of the chosen model and the short- and long-term impacts of the training.

Is collaboration a key part of the training you wish to deliver? While some training may be best carried out independently, other types of training aim to enhance collaborative skills in the workplace. If the goal is to enhance face-to-face interactions, on-site training may still yield the highest ROI, because it’s best designed to accomplish the training’s central learning outcomes. If the collaboration you wish to promote will ultimately take place online, however, a highly interactive and self-paced eLearning or mLearning model may yield a higher ROI.

What type of content is being conveyed? Is it the type of content that will likely only be used in the short term, or does it have long-term implications? For example, technical information about how to use a new software program, which may only be relevant for a year or two, may be best delivered in micro modules that can in turn be referenced by employees on an on-demand basis (e.g., on their own mobile devices). Information about a company’s long-term vision, however, is information you want employees to retain over time. In this case, an on-site training session or even a weekend retreat may ultimately yield the highest ROI.

Given these considerations, accurately measuring the ROI for self-paced learning can be a challenge. As the above examples demonstrate, in order to even begin crunching the numbers, you need to consider who is being trained, the content of the training, and the desired retention time of the content being delivered. While there may be no definitive answers, over the past two decades, a growing number of studies have highlighted self-paced learning’s potential benefits to employers.

A pioneer in self-paced learning, in the late 1990s IBM estimated that it was able to deliver five times the training for a third of the cost when it adopted an eLearning model with increased self-paced learning options. A more modest but equally notable study comes from Wells Fargo’s Phone Bank. In 2004, the company was training up to 2000 service agents each year in a training program that cost up to $3000 per employee. With the introduction of their self-paced curriculum, the company not only reduced training time by 33%, resulting in significant annual savings, but also increased productivity on the job. More recently, some studies have suggested that mLearning’s ROI may be even greater, but in this case, much depends on whether or not the organization opts to create a new application or purchase an existing one.

What’s clear is that traditional on-site training can and does add up and often in ways that are not immediately visible to employers. Among other costs, one needs to take into account development costs (e.g., salaries and benefits for personnel), implementation costs (e.g., the production of training manuals, instructor salaries and equipment rentals), related overhead and administration costs, employee participation costs (e.g., stipends) and most notably, lost productivity during training. By 2011, American businesses were spending an estimated $156 billion per year on training and development.

Bearing in mind that as training costs continue to rise, there are compelling reasons to explore self-paced learning as a potential alternative to on-site training models. However, it would be naïve to assume that self-paced learning necessarily yields a higher ROI, because the ROI is contingent on many factors. For this reason, in the case of self-paced learning, building assessment into the design may be particularly important. The more data we can generate on the cost effectiveness of self-paced learning, the more quickly we will be able to predict its true ROI across learning environments.