Ah, the Web, and its wonderful ways of bringing the world together. Want to buy a gift at 3 a.m.? Shop online. Want to get your master's degree, but the best program is 2,000 miles away? Sign up for Internet-based classes. Procrastinated until the last minute to renew your certification and realize you're three CEUs short of the requirement? You guessed it — hop on that computer.

In the last year or so, online courses have increased in popularity and availability. Check out one of the plethora of Web sites offering CEUs, and you'll find everything from emergency response preparation to specialization in nutrition to courses on knee injuries. However, while online education is a diverse and growing market, some people in the fitness industry aren't entirely sold on the idea. In fact, many are asking: How does online training stack up to live training and educational seminars?

Online CEUs have two key benefits: they're convenient and relatively cheap. This is important considering that many fitness professionals don't have the time or money to attend large trade shows or educational events. Many personal trainers and group exercise instructors must cover their travel, food and lodging costs on their own, which is hard for some to afford.

Joel Paavola has been a fitness professional for more than a decade and has plenty of experience getting CEUs. As the head coach of Delta coaching for Delta Fitness in Nashville, TN, both he and more than 20 coaching staff members get many of their CEUs online. Many times seminars just don't grab his attention, he says.

“I rarely see a seminar that I can attend without missing work — a loss of pay — with relative convenience and that I would place value in attending,” he says.

In addition, major conferences are rarely offered in smaller cities across the country, so online courses can be a good option for people in those locations, says Annette Lang, owner of Annette Lang Education Systems and a certified trainer in New York City.

However, she cautions that technology rarely replaces face-to-face contact. This became evident during the dot-com boom when people predicted business travel would decrease, but the opposite came true, she says. Lack of supervision and interaction with online and other do-it-yourself education courses can allow for mistakes and even cheating, she says.

“If you only learn by reading or doing work by yourself, you run the risk of misinterpreting something, and you don't get the human interaction that makes learning so special,” she says. “Or you could get someone else to do the work for you and get the credit.”

Whether a student gets the information online or in a classroom setting, he or she must spend time reviewing the information to be proficient, says Bob Esquerre, a fitness consultant and owner of Esquerre Fitness Group, who teaches about 60 live seminars a year. The advantage for students who get CEUs online is that they can read about a topic and then take the online quiz without supervision, allowing them to go back and find the correct answer, similar to an open-book test, he says. He does not approve of online certification exams though where “five people could be around helping you out.”

While cheating is a higher possibility for online CEU tests, the more important difference between online and in-person CEU courses may depend on the topic. Reading about the benefits of carbs may be better suited to individual study, but learning proper body alignment or how to train clients with back problems is more beneficial as a live course.

“Some of the trainers may not make enough money to go to a conference, but at some point in time they should be able to get in front of people,” Esquerre says.

Hands-on training and CEU courses are becoming even more important as the personal training client base changes from young, healthy people to older, higher risk Baby Boomers. More personal trainers are also focusing on in-home training, meaning they are often only accountable to themselves, Esquerre says.

“I'm seeing more and more online [CEU courses], and it scares me because I don't see a lot of corresponding checks and balances so that they really know what they claim to know,” he says. “As accreditation standardization gets into place, that will be addressed.”

So, what do CEUs of the future look like? More than likely, instead of going away, the online courses may improve as new technology allows for more “live” characteristics such as streaming video and virtual classroom discussions via chat rooms and discussion boards, further blending the distinction between online and live education.

Regardless, getting information to the fitness professional masses is important. And although some certifying agencies already require a mix of live seminars, online quizzes and reading, ultimately it comes down to the professionals' choice (and pocketbook) as to whether they should obtain their CEUs inside or outside of the classroom.