The coronavirus pandemic is impacting life as we know it, including how we learn. Limits to travel and social distancing have created a resurgence of interest in online learning, and many organizations are rushing to launch or expand their e-learning efforts.
But—and this “but” is critical—learner expectations are higher than in the past. Also, competition from direct competitors has increased as well as competition for people’s time and attention, especially as many are working and learning from home.
And it’s important for learning businesses to take some time to think about what this moment—the pandemic, social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and so on—might mean for the future of online learning. That’s why in this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, we reflect on the situation to discuss implications of the current moment for the future of online learning, including the related benefits, challenges, and opportunities.
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Read the Show Notes
[00:18] – A preview of what will be covered in this episode where Celisa and Jeff discuss the implications of the current moment for the future of online learning.
[01:46] – You might consider the reflection questions below on your own after listening to an episode, and/or you might pull the team together, using part or all of the podcast episode for a group discussion.
- We’ll talk about three aspects of the accelerating present. Which of the three is most salient for your learning business, and what might you do to address that need?
- Where do you have the chance to use ERT (emergency remote teaching) as an MVP (minimum viable product)?
The Defining Problem
[02:25] – We have a defining problem with defining “online learning.”
There’s a nomenclature issue that needs to be untangled but is likely to get messier before it can get untangled. The issue is that “online learning” is an extremely broad term that encompasses self-paced e-learning, synchronous instructor-led sessions, microlearning, semester-long offerings, and blended learning that mixes in-person sessions with online resources.
So the term “online learning” is broad to start with, and, because it’s broad, the term is imprecise at best and potentially confusing. But what those flavors of online learning we just mentioned, what they have in common was that they were designed for online delivery.
Now the defining problem gets hairier because in the current moment we’re seeing a glut of offerings that were planned for in-person delivery being shifted out of necessity to online learning. Now we have online learning that was not designed for online delivery. It’s being retrofitted or rethought for online delivery, often under duress, under great pressure, with a short timeline, by people who may have the best of intentions but no experience or insight into how to design and deliver effective online learning.
And this issue has led some to trot out a new term. At the end of March 2020, there was an article in EDUCAUSE Review that suggests what’s happening at most higher ed institutions now should be called “emergency remote teaching,” or ERT for short, not “online learning.”
Here’s a relevant excerpt that digs into what the authors define as “emergency remote teaching”:
In contrast to experiences that are planned from the beginning and designed to be online, emergency remote teaching (ERT) is a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances. It involves the use of fully remote teaching solutions for instruction or education that would otherwise be delivered face-to-face or as blended or hybrid courses and that will return to that format once the crisis or emergency has abated.
Let’s segue from this defining problem to a look at some of the potential benefits of the current moment for online learning.
Benefits of the Present Moment
[04:58] – We see two big benefits in this present moment.
The first has to do with overcoming barriers to trying online learning. There have been holdouts on online learning, both on the part of organizations offering lifelong learning, continuing education, or professional development, and also on the part of learners. The individual learners may not trust their own abilities with tech or think they’ll miss the networking of in-person events.
Organizations may think they don’t have adequate resources—both staff skills and finances—to pull off online learning or think their audience won’t adopt it if they build it.
For these and many other reasons, there have been holdouts on trying online learning.
But the coronavirus crisis is obviating those reasons for holding out. In many cases, in the current moment, it’s online learning or nothing. And the manner in which the barriers to trying are being overcome, the manner in which the holdouts are being converted arguably casts a positive light on online learning. Online learning is saving the day.
So that first benefit has to do with overcoming the barrier of trying.
Another benefit of the current moment is that many are for the first time experiencing firsthand the advantages of the format. Often online learning is compared, in a negative light, to in-person learning; online learning is viewed as second-rate. But it often brings inherent advantages, and folks are not just being told that now; they’re getting to experience it.
Just as the Internet has been touted as having a democratizing effect, an equalizing effect—anyone can access a wealth of information—online learning can remove barriers to participating in learning.
More people can participate once the hurdles of travel are removed. We’ve often cited the fact that an organization’s annual in-person conference often serves only a small percent of its audience—too many folks can’t afford to travel, whether in terms of hard dollars or in terms of time away from home, family, and work.
See our related episode, Virtual Conferences Now.
So in the present, we see the problem that slapdash efforts to throw up some online learning might give the format a bad name and confirm people’s suspicion that it’s a second-rate way to learn.
And we see the benefits that more people are trying it and experiencing its advantages. This is a both/and situation—both the problem and benefits exist. Whether your learners see more of the problem or more of the benefits, comes down to execution, and execution depends in large part on leadership.
Three Aspects of the Accelerating Present
[07:52] – A significant part of leadership is to help people make their way into the future successfully. As we said at the outset, we can’t predict the future of online learning, but we can see the “accelerating present,” as Rohit Bhargava puts it. And Rohit’s been a four-time guest on the podcast, but you can check out our latest interview with him here.
Let’s look at three aspects of the accelerating present that strike us—these are things that we think extend beyond the current moment and things that have implications for the future of online learning:
The need for more sustainable and accessible forms of connecting and convening.
This need has been part of the accelerating present for quite a while. The emergence of COVID-19 has just made it glaringly apparent. Irrespective of dangerous viruses (which experts have been predicting for years would emerge, and COVID-19 is unlikely to be the last), there’s long been a disconnect between the need to address climate issues and the amount of waste created by face-to-face events.
And related to climate change, weather events (floods, heavy snows, hurricanes, etc.) challenge place-based learning. And higher ed in the current moment has been looking at past weather events for lessons learned. Ray Schroeder, a past podcast guest, wrote a piece for Inside Higher Ed on what Katrina taught universities about pivoting to online delivery.
And as we already touched on, many people simply can’t and don’t attend face-to-face events. As a learning format, they are inaccessible to many, if not most, of the people we purport to serve.
But our hope is that in the shift toward virtual we also shift toward less of an emphasis on learning as an event and start realizing the full potential for learning as a process that appropriate technology platforms—like, for example, online community platforms—can make possible.
The need to meaningfully address disruption and displacement in employment.
Many businesses are shuttered or have cut back during this pandemic, and, as a result, many people have been sidelined, furloughed, or simply put out of work. But again this impact of the coronavirus is part of a growing pantheon of forces disrupting employment. Other forces changing the requirements for specific jobs and reshaping, if not eliminating, entire professions include outsourcing, offshoring, robotics, artificial intelligence, and more.
Anticipating the learning—and unlearning—needed to navigate these job and career changes is an essential part of leading learning. And clarity is arguably the greatest service we can provide our learners, which is one reason we’ve been big advocates of developing pathways for learners to follow (like, for example, NIGP has done). But pathways, by their nature, are about what is known. So, at best, they are only a partial solution.
The need to navigate “wicked” learning environments.
The concept of “wicked” learning environments comes from psychologist Robin Hogarth. As opposed to “kind” environments in which clear patterns emerge and feedback from experience reliably contributes to improved performance, wicked environments don’t provide automatic or reliable feedback, making it difficult to learn and improve.
Even in relatively straight forward jobs—say, transcription or firefighting—the pace of technological change alone often puts people into unexpectedly wicked environments. And, of course, many professions—most of the medical profession, for example—have always had major wicked aspects to them.
Traditional education and training tend to be quite limited in their ability to address wickedness. What’s needed is a different mindset, a true learning mindset, and an ability to leverage often much “messier” approaches, like social and self-directed learning, which we’ve discussed in previous episodes.
In other words, we must prepare and support our learners to become good learners and maybe even to learn effectively without us.
We’ll mention, too, that we’ve authored a metalearning resource that looks at 12 principles of metalearning—so it gets into this idea of helping your learners be better learners.
ERT vs. MVP mindset
[13:13] – These three aspects all highlight needs that have been around for some time but that are growing more urgent:
- The need for more sustainable and accessible forms of connecting and convening
- The need to meaningfully address disruption and displacement in employment
- The need to navigate “wicked” learning environments
And leadership is needed to make sure these needs are met appropriately. To go back to the point about “both/and”, this current moment both poses a problem and offers benefits for online learning.
The trick is to really understand your learners’ situation and needs and then understand how your learning business can speak to that situation and address those needs.
For some, the shift to online learning will bring a new ease of access that they won’t want to forfeit after this current crisis passes. In other cases, the online learning that’s happening in the short term will be a stop-gap measure, and some learning will—and should—revert to an in-person delivery model, when that’s possible again.
So you have to know your audience to know which benefits are truly benefits, which are truly challenges. But, to our point about mindset, there’s a lot to be said about how your learning business approaches this moment.
Yes, there may be some emergency remote teaching involved, to go back to that term suggested in that EDUCAUSE Review article we mentioned, but there’s also the possibility for that ERT to yield MVPs, minimum viable products, that point the way to fully thought-out, fully realized, nuanced, and multidimensional online learning in the future.
This moment requires us to prepare for the near future, that accelerating present, but it also offers the chance for us as learning businesses to learn from the current situation and then be able to apply and refine what we learn in the more distant future.
This is definitely not the last time we’ll have a need like this. There will be, unfortunately, other viruses, more adverse weather events, wars and other political disruptions, and continued concern about climate issues—all of which can impact how and where we learn.
So we should use this moment to help us make better choices down the road, so we can be prepared to provide the appropriate help to learners to give them what they need and want to know.
[15:45] – Wrap-Up
- We talked about three aspects of the accelerating present: the need for more sustainable and accessible forms of connecting and convening, the need to meaningfully address disruption and displacement in employment, and the need to navigate “wicked” learning environments. Which is most salient for your learning business as you think about the future of online learning, and what might you do to address that need?
- Where do you have the chance to use ERT (emergency remote teaching) as an MVP (minimum viable product)?
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[17:54] – Sign off