Like it or not, the transition to online education looks likely to be a long-term trend

As a novice salesperson I was always taught that ‘people buy from people’ and I think this adage can also be applied to education in that ‘people learn from people’. Resistance from both educators and learners alike to the adoption of online learning has always been high and has limited many an attempt to digitise workplace learning over the last two or three decades. The classic technology adoption curve (Rogers et al, 1957) for core digital learning technologies, such as eLearning and virtual classrooms, has always been challenged by these user perceptions and preferences.

That is not to say that the use of eLearning was declining in recent history and its market size surpassed $250 billion in 2020. However, it is fair to say that, for a great many businesses, eLearning was often, just one, less-liked, element of the L&D mix, rather than the primary mode of learning delivery.

Along comes a global crisis (COVID) and pretty much literally ‘overnight’ learner preferences go straight out of the window, necessity becomes the mother of invention, and digitally-enabled learning takes centre stage.

Now, of course, in such a crisis, education was not the immediate, highest priority for most businesses. Transitioning critical day-to-day operations to remote activities and retaining revenue streams were the priorities. Yet, once the immediate operational challenges were adequately addressed, organisations quickly recognised the criticality of re-skilling their people to these new ways of working and digital learning was the only possible way forward for most organisations.

What were the outcomes? Not that bad at all it seems, based on a range of sentiment surveys that have now been published. A UK L&D sentiment survey [1] concluded that 78% of people believe that online learning will give more access to quality formal education. An India based survey suggest that organisations believe that virtual learning will make up at least 40% of their future learning structure, and some respondents put this as high as 90% [2]. During the COVID pandemic a staggering 98% of organisations used some form of virtual learning and 59% of L&D teams are spending more on online learning now [2].

It also seems that this forced and rapid transition into digital learning has generated new terms to describe the differing ways that educationalists combine learning delivery modes. I am sure we are all familiar with the term ‘blended learning’ [a mix of online and classroom delivery] as well as ‘synchronous learning’ [involving immediate interaction with the educator] and ‘asynchronous learning’ [no direct connection with an educator in the moment of learning]. Who has heard of ‘bichronous learning’? This is a new term that has been formulated to describe learning models that utilise several different online delivery models. Whilst I can understand the distinction, I have to say that my use of the term ‘blended’ has never been as specific as the definition I have ascribed to it above and has assumed it applied to the use of any two or more delivery methods. The positive takeaway for me, is that the emergence of new terminology indicates a mainstreaming of the associated concepts or approaches and is further evidence that digital learning has now finally become an accepted and acceptable part of everyday workplace learning.

Personally, I think the digital transformation of workplace learning is, for the most part, a good thing in that will better support organisations to reskill and build new capability in the workplace to enable their people to transition and develop to fulfil the changing demands for knowledge and manual based workers alike. What I think will be a shame is if the face of academic study in the further and higher education sector takes the same path. I believe that such studies are more than a purely academic endeavour for the student and offer a range of character-building experiences that are unparalleled in a purely digital environment.

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[1] The Global Learner Survey
[2] Future of learning in the wake of COVID-19 Consulting | India Perspective