Online learning has been a hot topic for the last few years. Many employees are being encouraged back into the office after the sudden need for remote/home working during the COVID pandemic era. Some companies are suggesting a 2 day at home/3 day in the office working routine. Like anything, remote work has had its advantages and disadvantages in most cases and there has been much discussion in the media about increased or decreased work productivity. In education, remote or distance learning was a huge change in 2020, especially to primary and secondary school settings. University courses were mainly taught online and schools and colleges were closed to most learners during the lockdowns, so virtual learning was vital. Now that the world is largely back to ‘normal’, is there still a place for online learning in education and training?
What are the advantages?
Flexibility must be one of the major advantages of this method of learning – you can literally be anywhere – as long as you have a good Wi-Fi connection! This will make a huge difference to some learners who would be put off a course by its location – difficulties with childcare or transport could mean that the course would have been a missed opportunity.
There is less of a financial outlay with an online course. The course itself is often cheaper and there are no transport or accommodation costs that there might have been had the learner attended in person. Learning this way can be very efficient, less time is wasted overall.
Freedom – learning in your own space can be much more relaxing and enable learners to focus. If they have a quiet, dedicated work space at home, this is positive. It may also be that learners feel more able to ask questions, certainly by using a chat function – this can be less intimidating than putting up a hand to ask the trainer in real life. Often, it is easier to control the pace of your own learning when working in this way. Some learners who are quieter in a face-to-face setting can engage more readily online.
It is easier for the trainer to share multimedia learning materials this way – learners will have a plethora of videos, apps, articles, simulations and so on at their fingertips. In a face-to-face situation, this can be quite unwieldy and often these links are given on handouts, never to be looked at again – or they have to be shared after the session. As sessions are usually recorded and resources uploaded to a shared space, there is easy access to materials to look over during and after sessions.
What are the disadvantages?
If you have not experienced an online training or meeting session in the last few years where someone has been unable to join or is having issues with their camera or microphone – you are very unusual! The huge disadvantage to online learning is, of course, the reliability of technology. If there is a power cut, a broadband issue or a frozen laptop, this can throw the entire experience for the learner.
On an in-person course, there is usually a feeling of camaraderie and there are opportunities for informal discussions over breaks. This is so much more difficult with online learning. Although ice-breakers can be done and breakout rooms can be used, this can sometimes feel quite forced and it is a challenge to build a relationship with other learners. There can be feelings of isolation and a reduced sense of community, which can be detrimental to the learner.
Where do we go from here?
Clearly there is a place for both types of learning and they can work together also, in a hybrid format. It is all about looking at the type of course and deciding which will work the best, now that we have the luxury of choice. With courses requiring much discussion and group work, perhaps in-person is the best idea. However, if the course requires different types of communication and many interactive activities, online may be the way forward. It seems that the future of learning is hybrid – taking the best parts from in-person and online learning and ensuring that they can work alongside each other.