COVID-19 lockdowns around the world have meant traditional classroom-based learning has been put on hold in many areas.

Children worldwide have been prevented from going to school. Universities have closed their gates. Adults looking into skill development or certification suddenly needed another way to access the courses they would usually attend in person.

The consequent rise of digital learning has been meteoric. It has been encouraged by COVID-19 conditions, but it is has been adopted enthusiastically by many learners as the advantages of e-learning make themselves clear.

So, how did e-learning grow during the various COVD-19 lockdowns? And will the global spread of online and remote learning be affected by what we all hope will be the gradual transition back to traditional school environments for younger people – and the opportunity to once more get those adult courses from traditional places?

How did COVID-19 affect learning?

The e-learning industry was already seeing big, sustained growth before anyone had even heard of a little something called COVID-19. Most forward-thinking business organisations – especially international ones – already delivered their training via e-learning courses.

In early 2019, more than £13 billion was spent on “edtech”, including language learning apps, online learning software and video conferencing tools. But with COVID pushing the global adoption of e-learning tools, the online education market is expected to hit a stunning £250 billion by 2025.

This spike in uptake has mainly been driven by the closure of schools around the world. For most of 2020 and 2021, children of all ages have been learning at home via digital platforms. It’s estimated that around 1.2 billion children have not been in the classroom for most of this period.

But that’s not the only reason for the rise of people entering the world of digital learning. Many people either out of work or on the various “furlough” schemes implemented by governments around the world have taken the opportunity to up-skill.

Millions of others have simply decided to take the opportunity to expand their horizons or relax. They’ve done so by learning a new language or taking up painting or any one of a thousand new hobbies, all learned via online courses.

The rise of remote learning around the world

In the field of primary, secondary and university education, the effects of the pandemic on learning and the way e-learning has stepped into the breach have varied in different places. For example:

  • In China, the government ordered that the nation’s full-time students, numbering some quarter of a billion, begin to study online. Around 80% of students in the Chinese equivalent of Year 13 – totalling some 730 000 young people – study through the Tencent digital platform.
  • Alibaba also dramatically expanded its remote learning platform – DingTalk – to meet demand. This expansion took the form of over 100 000 new cloud servers.
  • In the US, many online education providers are partnering with local school districts. For example, PBS and the Los Angeles Unified School District.
  • In the UK, Bitesize Daily is the BBC’s digital learning platform, targeting young children and featuring known celebrities.
  • In India, BYJU’S, one of the most highly valued edtech companies in the world, is offering free live classes and has seen a 200% increase in uptake in response.

 The initial challenge of switching to online learning

Education systems in some countries have made the switch to digital learning more smoothly than others. In Estonia, remote learning platforms were already used almost universally. Finland also has excellent digital learning provision, with their national online library.

But for many others, a sudden, swift and completely unplanned switch to remote learning has been incredibly challenging because of issues such as:

1) Lack of digital technology at home

In countries like Norway, Switzerland and Austria, around 95% of students have access to their own computer. But in almost every other country there is a significant lack of digital technology in the homes of students – with provision often split within the same country along socio-economic lines.

For instance, even in a country with a massive economy like the US, well-off students almost all reported they had access to a computer. But only around 1 in 4 students from other backgrounds said they did.

In some places, such as New South Wales, Australia, and the UK, governments have promised to provide laptops and other tech to students who need it.

But in the UK, for instance, such roll-outs have been marred by delays. Even a year after the pandemic began, only 20% of school headteachers say they have been able to provide equipment to all of the pupils that need them. Devices that were provided were also said to be “the cheapest laptops you can ever buy with the lowest priority of performance.”

There were also concerns relating to richer state schools receiving better provisions than schools in more deprived areas and contracts to provide laptops being awarded to friends of government ministers who then failed to deliver them.

2) Bandwidth and connectivity problems

Another challenge in the take-up of online learning are pupils and other learners who live in out-of-the-way areas and regions where internet connections are less reliable than in major cities.

Like the absence of digital technology at home, this is not a failure of the digital learning solutions themselves. Indeed, many commented that when the infrastructure was in place, they were very happy learning this way.

But more still needs to be done to ensure that the infrastructure is in place so that all students can benefit from e-learning to the same degree.

3) Teacher training

Parents around the world were amazed by the way teachers stepped up to suddenly handle delivering online lessons – something that very few were trained or prepared for in any way.

In future though, rather than putting all of the onus on teachers to learn new digital presentation skills essentially off their own backs, the teaching of the necessary skills and methods for structuring an online class – often very different to successful methods in the physical classroom – needs to be part of more teacher training courses.

There is a much greater variety of engagement strategies, such as building games into the learning process, and collaboration tools that many teachers simply do not know exist. Nor should they be expected to without proper training provision.

The benefits of e-learning – during COVID-19 and after

The major benefit of e-learning during 2020 and 2021was initially that it allowed social distancing and other COVID-19 rules and safety regulations to be adhered to.

Yet the rise of e-learning has numerous benefits for all kinds of people – not just young students:

1) Learn faster, retain more knowledge

One of the proven advantages of e-learning is that it seems to increase knowledge retention levels and reduce the time taken to learn.

This is especially true when courses are available to learners in their own language, meaning that online education providers around the world are turning to e-learning localisation to maximise learning outcomes.

Benefits of this kind mean that the spread of e-learning might have been enhanced by COVID lockdowns. But it is also a practice that is likely here to stay.

2) Learn at your own pace, learn on the move

There is also the fact that online learning can usually be done at the learner’s convenience. This means that learners can access their course during their commute or in snippets between other activities.

For students of all ages, being able to pick and choose the times that they know they are most in the mood to learn increases learning outcomes. Learning at your own pace makes for an all-around better experience – and studies have shown that around 60% of people see it as one of the key benefits of e-learning as a whole.

3) Relax and get more peace of mind

For many people, one of the biggest challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic was to remain calm and relaxed. With combined stress from the presence or absence of work and sometimes difficult living situations – or simply the state of the world as a whole when faced with constant bombardment by negative news and social media – this often became a serious issue!

For a significant number of these people, online learning became a source of stress relief. It provided a way to both unwind and feel like they were doing something to better themselves – or simply something they always wanted to do – rather than focus on their own situation.

The range of courses offered by e-learning providers really came into its own here. Some people took up mindfulness or meditation classes while many others got creative with things like art, music, cooking or dancing.

4) Building skills and CVs

Many other people began online courses during 2020 and 2021 for professional purposes. Some wanted to improve their CVs in preparation for a now-planned future career change. Others wanted to improve their chances of finding a new job following losing their old one due to COVID.

Overall, people who took an online course to get accredited in a specific skill or qualification may have accounted for up to 35% of all adults who took up online courses over the various COVID lockdowns.

Many businesses also took the opportunity to offer their employees extra training that would be beneficial both for the company and the team member in question. For instance, the UK government’s furlough scheme allows employers to train employees even when on furlough.

5) Improving your business – or your company culture

Employers around the world have found that instituting some kind of e-learning provision for their employees has been a great idea over this period. So much so that somewhere around 31% of employers offered to cover their team for online learning they were doing.

Some of this learning was undertaken purely at the employee’s discretion, with them being free to choose their own subjects. Other employers bulk-purchased specific online courses for their team and covered the cost.

Many other business leaders and business owners took the opportunity to up-skill themselves. Still others found that e-learning courses they had previously only used internally within their team could be distributed on a wider scale. Sometimes these courses were distributed for profit, sometimes not.

E-learning as the “new normal”?

In the professional sphere, the switch from in-office to remote working has become part of the new normal for huge numbers of people.

Indeed, it’s become recognised as such a positive in many regards that surprisingly large percentages of business leaders have said they plan to incorporate at least some option for remote working into their organisations moving forward. Some have even indicated that they intend to go entirely “office free” and switch to all-remote working.

The same situation is likely to be repeated in the online education industry. Most schools and teachers will be glad to go back to learning in person. Especially for younger children, for whom personal interaction is such an important part of development.

Yet, particularly in corporate training and adult learning environments, there is a demand for the role of e-learning to continue to expand. In much the same way as remote working may become a feature of most businesses able to offer it in the future, e-learning may become a part of the way most course providers deliver their learning.

The future of remote and blended learning

Sometimes called hybrid learning, blended learning is the accepted term for what is likely to be the future for whole swathes of the education sector moving forward – a mixture of remote and in-person learning in the same course.

For many organisations, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, e-learning was fast becoming the go-to choice for delivering corporate training. With some exceptions for things like first aid courses, where physical interaction is necessary, distance learning simply offers too many advantages to ignore. Chief among them, the ability to tailor your course materials for the linguistic and cultural norms of employees in different parts of the world.

Thanks to its ability to let people learn remotely, the huge recent uptake in e-learning might be laid at the feet of COVID-19. But, with the added abilities to repeat difficult sections, learn at a faster rate and at more convenient times, it was a tool that was already becoming a staple of education for people of all ages and in every industry around the world.

Have you already started using e-learning? Need to effectively localise your content for your team members or learners around the world?

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