You’ve read the salary surveys that show the value of training. But when you check out the cost of classroom training, you feel both light-headed and light-walleted. So you buy an 800-page tome and settle in for a long winter’s night, but realize after six months that you’ll never finish it on your own. Caught between the monetary cost of the classroom and the self-discipline cost of self-study, you cry out, “Is there not a middle ground?” An answer wafts into your consciousness: “Online traaaiiinning!”

Online training, also known as distance learningin some circles, is gaining attention as an inexpensive alternative to classroom training. The typical online class combines the structure of classroom training with the convenience and self-directing pacing of self-study. Costs can be much less than for traditional classroom training, with results sometimes actually better in terms of retention and testing.

“Sounds like a godsend to me,” you enthuse. “What’s the catch?” Well, there are some, which I’ll address later. For now, though, let’s take a look at how online training works.

An Internet alma mater
The thing that distinguishes online training from other computer-based training, such as CD-ROM-based courses, is the virtual campus. At a typical online training Web site, for example, you’ll find an Office of Admissions, a link to various classrooms, and perhaps a Resource Center or Lab.

Jump to the classroom, and you’ll find the standard material for you to read online. In addition, you’ll often have access to an online chat room for your particular class, where others taking the class can share experiences on the lab exercises or ask questions. Some sites actually have a class time scheduled when the course instructor leads an online class in the chat room, including lecturing, asking questions, and responding to the answers.

One site I visited had bumped the lab concept to a new height. When you register for a networking course, you are given access to an actual network in its offices through a WinFrame client, so that you can carry out your practice activities on a real server. I didn’t sign up for a course there, so I don’t know how well it works, but it certainly is a cool concept and is an example of online learning at its best.

Of course, with all online training institutions, you get various goodies. Typically, you receive some “hard-copy” materials, including the obligatory CD-ROM, some course materials, and perhaps even a book or two. Some online training firms send you the entire course on the CD, or even in printed form, while others require you to read the course online.

So what’s the downside?
As I noted earlier, there are some gotchas to watch out for when trying online training. For one thing, costs vary widely. I visited two sites, both offering a Mastering Visual Basic 6 class. At one site, the course cost $995, while at the other the cost was only $400. Of course, there is also the “get what you pay for” factor. The first course was 10 weeks long, while the second was only four weeks. So, you are going to have to do some serious comparison shopping to find the best deal for you.

The bigger problem, though, is that online training simply isn’t for everyone. Some of us need the actual classroom experience to force us to get the work done. Left to ourselves, we are either too overwhelmed with work or too undisciplined to complete a course. Others of us are disciplined enough and smart enough to get what we need simply by reading a book. For such learners, online training is simply a waste of money.

Is online learning for you?
The best advice I can give is simple and time-tested: Know thyself. If you need more than a book, BUT you really don’t have the discipline to go to virtual class when you need to, then online training will simply be a waste of money. Pop for the real class.

If, on the other hand, you need the combination of learning approaches that online training offers, AND you have the self-discipline to go to virtual class when you are supposed to, then online training can be a wonderful training choice. It gives you more bang for your training buck while being more flexible. It can be a very effective way to learn. And you get to go to class anytime, anywhere. As more and more people want training, it is going to continue to grow in popularity and importance.

Bruce Maples is a regular contributor to Follow this link to write to Bruce .