Dr Deborah Talbot is Employment and Education Editor at MWS Technology Ltd

Everyone has become more familiar with online learning during the pandemic, but will there be a rush to go back to the old normal if we don’t fully understand its benefits?

The pandemic has brought to the fore ongoing trends of remote learning. Yet institutions and government have expressed a reluctance to fully embrace its possibilities both for the pandemic and the expected post-pandemic scenario, where people are more likely to work and learn (either wholly or partially) remotely.

Online learning has always seemed the lesser partner in the education and training sector. Institutions like the Open University set the gold standard for distance learning and achieved this pre-technology, but it was always plagued by unfavourable comparisons to ‘real’ university education – going to a place of learning with its combination of lectures and seminars.

Since then, universities have had a fairly well-established adoption of new technology. BlackBoard and Moodle are the most popular VLE platform and Tribal - SITS the most-used LMS platform. Each provides an adjunct to conventional pedagogic delivery, for small distance learning offerings or for MOOCs (massive open online courses). These technological investments enabled them to quickly pivot to remote delivery during the pandemic.

In contrast, in the college sector underfunding has meant that, with some exceptions, investment in IT has been limited. As such, the pandemic put the sector on the back foot, with staff and infrastructure having to quickly acquire skills and capacity to keep students engaged.

There is a lot we are discovering about online learning, as user experiences accelerate – with known and unknown benefits. 

Here, we look at five advantages of online and blended learning over traditional classroom delivery:

Top five reasons why online and blended learning could be a game-changer for education and training

1. Flexibility

Face-to-face learning needs a timetable. When you have to coordinate a lecturer or facilitator to sit in front of a class, it can only be offered at specific times. While some colleges and universities hold evening classes, (and indeed these are an incredible resource for working students) working in the evenings can become difficult to coordinate alongside family commitments or the need to manage episodes of ill health.

With remote, online learning, lectures and exercises are asynchronous and can be completed at any time. This offers flexibility for those with other responsibilities, such as parents, people with daytime jobs and carers.

Online delivery also potentially resolves the problem of different styles and paces of learning. Students can choose visual, audio or written documents, depending on their learning style, and go at their own required pace. Only with digital learning can personalisation become a reality.

2. Accessibility

Disability is an important and often neglected factor in education and training participation. The sheer effort of getting dressed, catching public transport and then attending a day at college is under-recognised.

An ONS report in 2019 said that, while the number of people with disabilities with qualifications had increased over a five-year period, they were overall less likely to have qualifications. Access is a critical issue.

A report by the Learning & Work Institute (L&W) examined the impact of the pandemic on lone parents. According to the report, lone parents were more likely to have been furloughed or to have lost their jobs. Lone parents simply have less flexibility than other people. L&W advocated a package of support, including flexible access to skills training. So lone parents may benefit from online learning in significant ways.

Online courses also tend to be cheaper, meaning more people can participate. This can range from cheap certification courses from platforms like Udemy to lower university fees.

3. Efficiency

Online LMS platforms can offer enormous administrative efficiencies, from registration (imagine if students could register without having to come to college and stand in a queue) to course management.

Aptem, for example, started life as an apprenticeship management platform. Apprenticeships have particular complications when it comes to funding and compliance. Aptem can onboard, manage the learning plan, generate data for monthly returns, produce progress reports and more – an end-to-end journey managed entirely online.

4. Breadth of learning

The global eLearning market exceeded $200 billion in 2019 and has been predicted to grow by 8% over the following six years. Virtual classroom technology is expected to grow by 11% over the same period. The growth of online learning options has liberated the breadth of possible study. Learners can draw on courses around the globe and potentially study any subject.

Not only this, but institutions have greater possibilities for expansion. Colleges with quality distance learning courses, for example, would not be confined to marketing course to their local area.

According to a review of the online learning and artificial intelligence education market by the Department for Education (DfE):

“FE and HE providers do not generally regard online learning as a priority and few planned to expand their online learning offer to reach a wider geographical area.”

Vikki Liogier Feb19 100x100However, as Vikki Liogier of the Education and Training Foundation pointed out:

“The lockdown triggered change… Covid-19 has precipitated the use of virtual communication opportunities through webinars, discussion forums, chat rooms, social media and online applications offering synchronous and asynchronous collaboration opportunities.”

5. Quality of learning

The DfE review showed that institutions believed online learning delivered equivalent, if not better-quality education than traditional delivery but only if there was an effective means of teacher and learner engagement. Online learning is often thought of as a replacement for face-to-face learning, but can digital technologies enhance tutor to learner contact?

The key is delivering blended learning, a flexible and stimulation diversity of ways students can learn, from online lectures to group sessions to one-to-one tutoring.

How does this potentially transform how learning is delivered?

Traditionally, tutors and lecturers spend much of their teaching time developing and delivering content. As participation in HE and FE grew, tutorials became larger and less productive.

Imagine if lectures and classes were delivered virtually by global experts? Could local in-person teaching staff refocus their time to deliver smaller class sizes and one-to-one sessions? It is entirely possible, if institutions maintain a concern with quality, not just efficiency and cost-savings.

Blended learning, with its mix of online, digital delivery, collaborative group learning and one-to-one tutorials, allows learners to build essential hard (digital) and soft (relational) skills.

It is evident that either full remote delivery and blended learning requires a fundamental rethink of first principles – how and why we deliver education in the way we do. The benefits are too good to simply return to the way we’ve always done it.

Dr Deborah Talbot, Employment and Education Editor, MWS Technology Ltd

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