Virtual learning and education: learner expectations have changed, are you ready?

With students and employees confined to their homes, the need to provide alternative online learning solutions has become an urgent and undeniable priority for both education institutions and businesses. 

The world’s overnight transition to social distancing, remote work, and online communication has resulted in a wakeup call for both public and private organisations, as nationwide closures are now estimated to have impacted over 91% of the world’s student population1 and all but essential office based roles. 

With students and employees confined to their homes, the need to provide alternative online learning solutions has become an urgent and undeniable priority for both education institutions and businesses. 

As hundreds of thousands of employees and students venture into the virtual world of learning for the first time, the future landscape of online education is set to shift dramatically. A method of learning which many have long been resisting is being delivered at an unprecedented scale and speed; an approach which brings with it the increasing risk of online learning becoming a temporary band aid rather than a desirable long term solution. 

Whether this forced immersion will increase or decrease students' confidence in technology enabled learning is up for debate, as moving learning from classrooms to homes at scale and in a hurry presents enormous challenges, both human and technical. In the UK, the scramble to embrace online technology presents the risk of tarnishing the reputation of online education. For many, the COVID-19 response has only made existing problems worse, as organisations lack the investment to produce high quality online content at pace and scale and struggle to build new relationships with both internal IT operations and external tech vendors that are already stretched to capacity. For others, victory during the pandemic does not include the development of high-quality online education and learner experience, with providers focusing largely on bare-bone guidance and just in time training.  

Whilst it is important to be setting realistic expectations for all learning departments during this time, there are steps that organisations can take to ensure a learner’s online experience is not a sub standard one. Regardless of whether organsations see online learning as a temporary fix or a long term investment, a new set of organisational and employee drivers to preserve it will have been established. 

Opportunities for cost efficiencies and flexible delivery for dispersed workforces will result in organisations being expected to continue investing in online learning. An organisation’s approach to online teaching therefore requires careful thinking about how students and teachers are equipped for the shift and serious consideration about whether the teaching style is still effective when taken from the classroom and transported to the academic cyberspace.

How can online learning support organisations to build both short term and long term resilience? 

The shift towards learning remotely, and collectively 

The sudden lack of face-to-face learning has highlighted the need for organisations to build a technological backbone in order to keep participants engaged and energised at home, and there’s no shortage of platforms to choose from. Rather than instructors simply uploading a recording of their lessons, technology enables organisations to be more innovative by not only teaching remotely, but collectively. Wherever possible, active learning experiences should be created for students by injecting social learning components - ones in which there is synchronous communication, required class sessions, frequent opportunities for students to answer questions and defend answers, debate their peers and provide feedback. Zoom, Shindig and Thinktank are all options that simulate this in-person experience as much as possible. 

A platform for retaining and attracting future talent 

A key success factor for leveraging this technology will be ensuring that the experience is facilitated by confident, knowledgeable and prepared teachers. For many organisations the digital learning curve will be steep, presenting the opportunity to prioritise the upskilling of existing talent via online learning. Teachers and facilitators can use Social Media platforms to share experiences with other teachers in similar contexts and share success stories and useful strategies, promoting a proactive and collaborative professional development pathway. Refining this approach as a long-term learning development solution will help organisations differentiate themselves as an employer of choice in a competitive market post Covid. It will be important for employers to leverage their new found digital competencies within their talent acquisition strategies in order to attract and retain future talent. To design a relevant and effective Talent Strategy, organisations will need to step outside their comfort zone in order to reimagine employee development pathways, ways of working and work environments and engage with existing staff to fully understand where technology can be deployed at different stages to optimise it. 

Optimising the learner experience  

Providing online learning experiences can enable organisations to deliver a diverse range of learning resources to meet the needs of a similarly diverse audience. For employees and students, remote learning offers the opportunity to work more flexibly and at their own pace, allowing them to better balance work and personal priorities. Part time students, working mothers and those considering retirement will be able to continue teaching and learning with a reduced working pattern, enabling organisations to fully deliver on their Diversity and Inclusion strategy. With studies revealing that those who work remotely at least once a month are 24% more likely to be productive and 86% of people believing that working remotely reduces stress2, implementing a new hybrid approach to learning will benefit both organisations and their employees. 

Aligning technology with your vision and values

In the short term, technology adoption will contain the COVID-19 disruption and help to ensure business continuity, safety and engagement simultaneously. In the long term, aligning technology with the organisations vision could be a significant driver of engagement, ownership and contribution. Different organisational cultures will demand different tools and platforms which reflect the true behaviours of their intended user. For organisations where security is paramount, providing employees with secure social apps will ensure that behaviours enforced in the physical workplace are continued remotely. Where collaboration is key, platforms such as Zoom and Teams should be considered for group calls and team breakout sessions. When deciding on technology requirements, organisations should determine whether the technology ultimately reflects the values of their culture and the employee experience they want to deliver. In doing so, what began as a short-term response to a crisis will likely become an enduring transformation of the organisations’s culture. 

Conclusion 

This is not the time for organisations to simply resort to online learning — it’s time to reimagine it. More than ever, students and employees have an increased hunger for community, and a desire to feel supported by their organisation and leadership team. Online learning is uniquely positioned to deliver on all of these needs. A successful transformation now and beyond Covid19 will require a proactive and long term approach, a willingness to act on feedback, and a desire to embed the principles of online learning within the organisations culture so that it becomes the desirable future method of learning, rather than the default.  

References: 

1. https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse

2. https://www.statista.com/statistics/882117/online-learning-in-the-uk-by-demographic/ 

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