What we’ve learned from online learning
The education sector was among the most hard-hit industries during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. With exams cancelled and students and teachers in limbo, a nationwide closing of school doors took place for the first time.
The official lockdown brought about physical distancing measures that meant educators had to find a way to migrate the bricks-and-mortar classroom into an easily accessible, collaborative online environment.
The rise of the virtual classroom
Early on, the eLearning industry predicted that predominant use of virtual classrooms would increase by a 16.2% compounded annual growth rate by 2023. With many schools having embraced the technologies to enable virtual learning, that number is likely to increase.
While school closures initially caused much controversy among parents, educators, and industry leaders, teachers and guardians had to form a united front to continue the education process from pupils’ homes. Teachers and school IT managers looked to video meeting technologies to help them pivot their teaching strategy and continue with the syllabus until the end of the school year.
The pitfalls and roadblocks of online learning
In April 2020 the United Nations Education Agency (UNESCO) estimated that 91% of the world’s students had been affected by school closures.
Historically, roadblocks included security concerns and fears that the socioeconomic gap may be widened, with some families unable to provide the necessary devices for their children to learn online.
Pupil engagement was also a key factor that teachers had to work around during the initial stages of the lockdown. Home-schooling proved difficult for many parents as they juggled family life, working from home, and their children’s learning schedules. As a result, expectations had to be lowered in terms of the hours of online learning feasible in the space of a day.
The advantages of online learning
The experience has demonstrated how virtual classrooms offer an alternative platform for teaching that can both supplement and complement traditional classroom learning. Those with the best results have taken advantage of the interactive elements of virtual classroom tools, creating an immersive experience as opposed to the passive reception of a prerecorded lesson.
Physical restrictions meant learning resources had to be made easily accessible for pupils in an online format, with teachers and educators learning from well-established distance learning institutions such as the Open University.
Headteacher Mark Johns from St. Bartholomew’s Church of England Primary School in Bolton instantly became an ambassador, embracing online learning not just for pupils, but for the entire school community.
“We wanted to have our teachers make regular check-in calls from home to students and their families,” says Mark. “We also wanted to have virtual staff meetings—not only strictly for work but also to keep each other’s morale up.”
The morale-boosting activities included a virtual quiz night for staff over the school’s cloud communications system. The staff quiz night proved such a success that it was also rolled out to pupils’ families as well, helping to bring the entire school community closer as a result.
St. Bartholomew’s key focus was on the mental health and well-being of their pupils during lockdown, and Mark found that online learning gave his teachers the tools to monitor their pupils. With features such as instant messaging, file sharing, and phone functionality as well as video technology for delivering live and recorded classrooms, pupils and teachers were able to continue to connect and collaborate throughout lockdown.
A higher level of syllabus delivery
The virtual learning environment has played a growing role in higher education programmes and offers a viable alternative to in-person education. The primary benefits of adopting digital learning platforms revolve around flexibility and connectivity.
The lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic force institutions to adapt accordingly. Campuses need reliable tools, with a low adoption threshold, that facilitate flexible curriculum delivery while keeping students connected and engaged. That’s an ideal use case for cloud-based communications platforms.
The adoption of video tools could prove invaluable to higher education institutions offering tuition to overseas students, allowing curricula to be delivered beyond borders.
Fears of overseas students deferring entry were relieved somewhat by a Times Higher Education article. The article points out, however, that “applicants from outside the European Union did appear to be more likely to defer, with the cohort of international deferrers increasing from 940 to 1,140 (21.3 per cent).”
Video conferencing capabilities enhance the offer of higher education institutions to keep students safe, deliver a full-quality curriculum, and even save families money on potential relocation costs. The prospect of online learning is a preferable option particularly during this time of transition.
An appropriate platform
Virtual classrooms must include vital functions such as live interactive elements, learner-centred instruction, and the ability to record and review. Teachers have also found useful functions such as “mute all,” screen sharing, and calendar integrations—simple elements that provide greater control over the virtual experience.
The best virtual learning platforms include the following features:
- Enterprise-grade security to keep personal data protected
- Market-leading reliability to guarantee lessons always run on schedule
- Live video streaming to facilitate that version of face-to-face contact
- Live recording to make lessons available on demand and to revisit for future analysis
- Collaboration and moderation tools to facilitate interactivity and enable students to reach out for support and to work together on group projects
- Analytics to provide insight into engagement and performance figures
More info: RingCentral for classrooms
Though many institutions rushed out to install the first freemium platform available, they’ve found they got what they paid for. To make online learning a viable component of an institution’s syllabus, it’s critical to base delivery on a secure, reliable, and multi-functional platform.
The future of distance learning in education
Regardless of the industry’s initial reservations, schools, colleges, and higher education institutions across the nation are embracing online learning and, with an awareness that virtual classrooms are set to become mainstream, are establishing the infrastructure for an ongoing cloud-first learning environment.
As infection rates continue to pose a serious threat, schools and education centres are becoming more mindful of the risks. In a recent National Union of Students survey, university students flagged fears for their own health and well-being, with a third of student respondents saying that they would feel “not at all safe” if conventional classroom structures were to return in September.
Last May, Scotland announced measures to move towards a “blended learning” model, ready for when the school term resumed in August. Pupils were to split their time between the classroom and their homes and with the government injecting £30M in order to provide laptops for disadvantaged children.
Scotland’s plan for education among many others suggests online learning is certainly set to play a major role in the future of education in the UK.
Originally published Feb 11, 2021, updated Mar 12, 2021