For some professions, the past year has normalized virtual interactions and digital collaboration. While many jobs and activities still require in-person interaction, others have moved online as much as possible. Conferences are virtual. Weekly meetings take place through a screen. And classrooms have gone online.
Most people who have engaged with learning this past year have had some kind of digital experience. This is true across all ages—and, we have seen, often with mixed success. Nevertheless, at our Center for Digital Acceleration, we know that, as the saying goes—“the show must go on”—and we have done our best to help DAI’s projects around the globe make their in-person courses and activities come alive in our virtual world. In this post, we offer some brief reflections on the different types of online training our projects are developing, and then ask the question: is this the new normal?
Just as classroom courses can take different formats, with different philosophies, pedagogies, and realities underpinning these learning experiences, digital courses offered online can come in different shapes and sizes. These variations require different types of technology. Online course structures can, in a simplified form, be broken down into three categories: 1) self-paced, 2) instructor-led, or 3) blended. Each of these categories requires a different team composition to ensure projects deliver thoughtful and engaging content.
Self-paced courses take place between the student and the computer, with no live instructor on the other end. The simplest alternatives to this would be that of the good-old-fashion textbook, or what used to be called correspondence courses, where you read course content on your own, digesting as much as you can. Where modern technologies help is through the addition of audio, video, and gamification, helping those with visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learning styles get the most possible out of the content.
While conceptually straightforward, building self-paced courses comes with challenges. While a program may have developed thorough PowerPoint presentations which can serve as a solid foundation for your self-paced course, modern technology, and multimedia both make it easier to add beautiful interactive experiences to your course, but also raise the bar of what students expect to see when they log on. As a result, anticipate needing to hire a creative team to build content that matches your expectations. Self-paced courses also require an incredible amount of content planning, as the more sophisticated your multimedia assets are, the more difficult it is to change your content after it has been developed.
Instructor-led courses take place live, with students logging on to interact with others in a virtual classroom. This format enables real-time discussion between participants and instructors, adding flexibility to the course content, networking between participants, and tailored courses that can meet students where they are. For many, this is the preferred method. But this has its own technical challenges.
Like in-person classes, instructor-led online courses need to be scheduled, and students need to arrive at the same time. When working across time zones on global learning efforts, this can be challenging, as for some it’s early in the morning, others are in the middle of the workday, and others are logging on after dinner. Another challenge is that of internet connectivity. Not all parts of the world have reliable or sufficient internet access, which can interrupt otherwise well-coordinated sessions. Without access to a well-designed and easily accessible content management system or learning management system, logistics can become confusing, with multiple emails being sent with meeting requests, attachments, materials, links, reminders, and other important course details. Lastly, while in-person classrooms have the benefits of physical materials—whether they be whiteboards, sticky notes, handouts, or breakout rooms, online training sessions require extra planning to re-create these experiences.
But what if you need a mix of both? Some online courses offer a combination of self-paced learning with some instructor-led sessions. These courses may begin with read-ahead materials, pre-recorded videos, or other resources, which are reinforced through live seminars with instructors or guest lecturers. This can offer a more dynamic learning environment but can run into the same complications that self-paced and instructor-led courses might on their own.
Is It Here to Stay?
Before we answer this question, we should note the level of respect we have for organizations that develop online learning courses. Many of these companies have been around for a long time and have great track records of the courses and content they’ve produced. From careful consideration of institutional needs to the development of thoughtful learning objectives to creative teams who develop video and animations to handling the stress that goes into live event production—online learning is an art form to be taken seriously.
As we reflect on the past year, we are often asked whether we think online learning is here to stay. We don’t have a crystal ball, but we do believe we have reached a turning point for engagement with virtual learning. For many, online learning used to be something to avoid. In-person was preferable in every way, and online was seen as a poor substitute. This year, it wasn’t a choice for many. This has created a new breed of students who have now experienced online education, and have strong opinions on what works well and what doesn’t. We think that this will keep pushing online learning forward. We see this as a positive development towards improving the quality and relevance of online learning. We think this will give people more options to learn what they want, when they want to, throughout their lives.
But, as with everything in international development, it’s not a simple yes-or-no answer. We don’t think that online learning is a silver bullet at this point. We have three big unknowns that we’ll be tracking as this debate evolves, and more places have more in-person options again as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes.
The first big unknown is around digital infrastructure. Many places had limited digital infrastructure at the beginning of the pandemic—both in terms of having adequate connectivity, and in terms of having enough, good enough, devices to learn on. We fully recognize that significant improvements in both of these arenas over the past 10 years have allowed online learning to seem like a more viable option, and it is, for some people. But when we hear, for example, that “everyone uses WhatsApp” in a place, that doesn’t mean specialized digital learning tools are accessible or usable. There are still huge gaps in who can access the internet, where, and for what, around the world.
Innovations in Hardware
The second big unknown is around how current hardware will continue to evolve. Will there be widely available, specialized devices available exclusively for digital learning content? Something like a Kindle for Coursera? Will the open-source development community be able to provide lower-resourced environments with the tools to build out their own devices to best fit what they need? Quite sincerely, we don’t know how these ideas will evolve, and what will catch on where.
The third big unknown is around what types of frontier technology will enable improvements to the learning process itself. We’ve seen examples of how virtual reality could provide enhanced learning environments for schools and training. Will it become so easy and affordable to put together that anyone can point and click their way to creating an immersive learning experience?
We still have many questions, and we’re learning alongside projects as everyone grapples with these ideas. We’re starting to see that, now that more people have been exposed to different types of digital and online learning, the initial fear may be gone. Learners of different ages are finding that current technology, with all its challenges, can and does work well enough for virtual engagement. What comes next is the part that we’re most excited about, to build out and test courses that will be given around the world to really understand how much of this is here to stay.