The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new era for learning. Schools closed for 1.3 billion children in 186 countries and instruction largely moved online, with the number of active Google Classroom users doubling to 100 million. Now, over a year into the pandemic, experts agree that both the quality and quantity of learning declined as a result of the transition to online learning. So much so that UNICEF has urged countries to develop remedial educational programmes to catch up the progress lost. This conclusion may ring as an indictment of digital learning, a revolution once hailed as the key to democratising access to education. But it need not be so.
Even prior to the pandemic, digital learning platforms have been especially popular with multinationals, who have staff around the globe. One example is NEQSOL Holding, an international group of energy, telecommunications, hi-tech, and construction companies, which built its own digital learning platform: NEQSOL Academy. The platform is available to NEQSOL’s 13,000 employees spread across 30 subsidiaries in the UK, USA, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the UAE. Thanks to a digital platform like NEQSOL Academy, employees can build connections with colleagues miles away.
Digital tools increase the accessibility of learning, not only location-wise but also in terms of languages. On NEQSOL Academy, users can access courses in six different languages – a crucial benefit for international companies.
Digital learning was never designed to be the only means of instruction; it was never meant to entirely replace face-to-face instruction. But in the crisis context of the pandemic, hastily designed and poorly understood digital tools were expected to recreate a classroom experience – an impossible feat. The attention spans of students dropped, as did their willingness to participate in class discussions. In turn, educational outcomes fell. Already before COVID, half of the world’s children were considered “learning poor,” meaning they were unlikely to reach adulthood with basic literacy and numeracy skills. Due to the pandemic, an additional 10% have joined this category.
Today, with lessons learned from the early months of the pandemic (and with the threat of future COVID waves looming large), a more balanced model is emerging. By the end of this last school year, a majority of countries were relying on a mix of in-person and online instruction, according to the Global Education Recovery Tracker.
Of course, a hybrid model guarantees flexibility in the face of constantly changing health guidelines. But it also offers new possibilities for students and teachers alike. By supplementing in-person learning with online tools, teachers can offer a wider variety of pedagogical formats and thus cater to different types of learners. Online learning tools also provide instantaneous grading, saving precious time for teachers and allowing students to get immediate feedback.
This hybrid model will prove as useful to schools as it will to the corporate world, where digital learning is also on the rise. Employees greatly value training in the workplace, with over two-thirds saying that learning and development is the most important company policy. As such, employers invest significant amounts of money in training. In a recent survey, PWC found that spending on virtual collaboration tools and manager skilling will rise by 50 to 60 % in the coming 12-18 months.
Like in schools, there are compelling grounds for a hybrid model. Corporate training enables employers to increase their employees’ skills, but it also plays an important role in building up teams and creating a unique culture. These aspects greatly benefit from in-person collaboration and contact. Still, digital tools can be useful in supplementing in-person training.
Digital learning platforms have even fewer pitfalls when applied to the working world, as adults are less likely than students to get distracted when using such tools. There is also a financial rationale, as online learning vastly reduces costs and therefore increases the number of people that can access valuable training.
Regardless of how the pandemic evolves in the coming months, we should welcome the emergence of a more hybrid learning model. Both in schools and in companies, online learning has been normalized. While it should not be the only medium for learning, it is certainly an important part of the solution.