The demand for trained, qualified and competent personal trainers continues to grow. What we hear anecdotally from employers is supported by projections from the U.S. Department of Labor. Specifically, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), we can expect a 29 percent increase in opportunities for the category classified as "fitness workers." This is great news for the industry and indicates the increased awareness and acceptance of the importance of exercise and fitness as part of the health care continuum.

However, with the increased demand comes a need to ensure that fitness professionals and personal trainers are receiving the education, training and credentials to ensure competence. Dozens of certifications are available, and they all vary. The industry has little consensus regarding standards in education and training for personal trainers, testing procedures, certification and credentialing, and even scope of practice. The training and education aspect—specifically, the role of e-learning in the education and training of personal trainers—is one of the primary concerns.

The debate between online vs. traditional classroom-based education is not new or unique to the fitness industry. Ultimately, delivering quality learning experiences can happen in a multitude of ways, depending on the variables considered when determining the best and most effective approach to education and training. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on student characteristics and learning styles, the nature of the content and learning outcomes, and instructional design strategies.

When determining if online training is appropriate for personal trainers, one of the first considerations is the student. E-learning offers a number of benefits that students enjoy: convenience, 24/7 access, the ability to work at a preferred time and place, the ability to work at your own pace and the ability to connect with other students. However, this mode of learning is not for everyone. Some students struggle with self-directed learning and benefit from live, face-to-face interaction with other students and faculty. Some students feel uncomfortable with the technology, and it becomes a distraction that inhibits learning. Some students feel isolated in an online class. The bottom line is that online education is not for everyone.

A second factor in the online vs. live classroom debate is the nature of the content and learning outcomes. Quality instructional design begins with the learning outcomes. Instructional methods, content and assessment should be selected to support and align with those outcomes. This suggests that e-learning is completely appropriate and effective for some content but may not be the best strategy for other content.

As an example, we can teach the principles of exercise physiology well online. We can provide a variety of content to address different learning styles and appropriate assessment to test comprehension. But we may not be able to do the same when teaching and testing how to perform a push-up, how to motivate and coach a client, how to demonstrate and correct a client when performing an exercise, and how to correctly and competently take a body fat measurement using skin fold calipers. Clearly, some content is more appropriate for online education, and other material should be taught, practiced and assessed in a live, face-to-face, learning environment.

Finally, not all online education is created equal. Different instructional design strategies and tools are available, as are a variety of learning management systems. The question is not just about whether training should be online but how should that training be developed and delivered and what instructional strategies (whether online or in a live classroom) are most effective.

A variety of instructional methods should be incorporated to accommodate different learning styles and keep students engaged and interested. Different assessment strategies should be employed to insure that students are learning key concepts before moving forward. Interaction should be built into the class so that students are learning from each other and from the faculty. Support services should be available to make sure that students who are struggling receive assistance and do not feel isolated.

So the question is not whether personal training should be taught online or in a classroom, but what is appropriate for the students, the content and the learning outcomes. E-learning and all of the different technologies for online education are simply tools to use. Educators must determine which tools to use to provide the highest quality education and training experience, which produces competent professionals.

Content Sponsored by World Instructor Training Schools (W.I.T.S.)

Dr. Amy Hyams has more than 20 years of experience in continuing and adult education. She specializes in instructional design, accreditation, certification, assessment and online course development. Hyams is the vice president of educational services for W.I.T.S. (www.witseducation.com) and is responsible for all educational programs, certifications, online course development and management, and accreditations. She is the commission chair for the International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET).