Online Education and Learning

See also: What is Learning?

Ten or even twenty years ago, if you wanted to learn something new, you went on a course. This might be at your local college, or from a specialist provider delivered either at their premises, at your place of work, or another venue. The course, you could almost guarantee, would be delivered to a group by a person standing up in front of you.

Now, however, there are far more choices.

You can still go on a course—but you can also attend courses online, or simply put together a course of reading for yourself based on information on the internet. Anecdotally, the use of online courses had already significantly increased before the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, however, it has grown hugely, with many traditional courses and providers moving online or to a model that blends online and face-to-face learning, 'blended learning'.

However, online learning is not quite the same as face-to-face learning.

This page covers some of the distinctions, and provides some ideas to help both providers and learners to get the most out of remote learning.

What Is Remote Learning?

The term ‘online learning’ or ‘remote learning’ covers three main areas:

  • Remote provision of an organised course of study delivered ‘live’ by a teacher or lecturer

    This might include a school, college or university course. Remote learning may be a substitute for face-to-face learning, for example, where pupils or teacher are unable to attend a physical venue because of illness. This model is used in some hospital schooling, for example, and has also been used during the coronavirus pandemic as a way to continue education at school or university during lockdowns. However, it is also a model used by some online-only schools for home-educated children.

    In this model, teachers and pupils may interact via software during the lesson, which may involve chats and discussions either via video software or through chat functions. The lesson is often available afterwards for review.

  • Access to an online course of study that can be taken at any time

    These courses generally have static content, and users do not interact with each other or the course providers. Content may include written and video content. Examples of courses like this include some of the massive open online courses (MOOCs) provided by universities. Each user’s experience will therefore be very similar, because they are exposed to exactly the same content.

    This type of content can be provided as formal courses, either with or without a charge. However, instructional videos posted on YouTube can also be seen as this type of content, especially if they are designed to be used as a series of ‘how to’ videos on a particular subject.

  • Using the internet to gather material that will educate you on a particular issue or topic

    There is now a huge amount of information published on the internet, including academic papers on almost all topics. Tools like Google Scholar enable individuals to put together their own course of reading on a particular issue, and educate themselves.

    It would be hard to argue that this is not remote learning. It is, however, qualitatively different from either of the previous two areas because the user has to gather their own material. Both the others involve some curation of resources by an expert or teacher.

Delivering Remote Learning

There are a number of aspects to consider when you are delivering online or remote learning. These mainly apply to the first category above, although some will also apply to the second.

Some of these apply to any remote presentation, such as preparing well, choosing your background, and finding a quiet space from which to present.

To find out more, you may like to read the section on remote presentations in our page on Remote Meetings and Presentations.

Any remote presentation should try to be interactive, because of the difficulties in concentrating on video presentations for long periods. This is perhaps even more important in education when you are often dealing with young people or children.

The emerging consensus from several months of lockdown and remote education around the world is that the most successful remote classrooms are the ones that do NOT try to mimic face-to-face teaching.

In other words, you cannot simply stand in front of a camera and talk at it for an hour as you might in a lecture. It is also difficult to instruct pupils and then have them do some kind of activity, because you cannot check what they are doing.

Instead, the best teaching uses the features of the software to build new ways of interaction that work in the remote environment. For example, the chat function on Zoom can be a very good way for students to check their understanding with the teacher without having to interrupt the lesson for others. They can also ask each other questions about the topic while the teacher is talking. This may sound rude, but it is a good way to ensure that they know what is going on without breaking up everyone’s lesson.

Teachers may therefore find it helpful to encourage students to use these tools to support each other and to ask questions.

You should also remember that what works will be very personal—to both you and those you are teaching. It may be helpful to reflect and keep a note of what went well and badly, so that you can remember for the future.

There is more about this approach in our page on Reflective Practice.

Software for remote classes

Your school or university may mandate the app or software that you use for teaching. However, if not, you will have to make your own choice.

There are plenty of different apps and software packages available for remote teaching. These may be either general apps, or apps that are specific to education or to teaching a particular subject.

  • General apps include Zoom and Skype, both of which are video-conferencing apps that can be used for classroom purposes.

  • Specific education apps include Google Classroom. This is designed to imitate a real classroom, giving facilities for file-sharing and setting tasks.

  • There are also apps designed for teaching particular subjects. For example, Practice Pal Teach is designed for teaching music. It allows teachers to record themselves playing sections of the music during the lesson, and send those recordings to pupils after the lesson. It also has a full lesson review function available for safeguarding purposes.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both specific and general apps. The specific apps have generally been set up with features that will help their target audience, including safeguarding features. However, learners may be less familiar with these apps, and may find it harder to set them up remotely.

General apps often have fewer safety features, which can be a problem. However, they are usually very easy to use.

If you are responsible for teaching online, you should familiarise yourself with the app you are going to use, and ensure that you know about the features, especially those designed to keep students safe.

Issues for particular learners

Some learners—of all ages—may have particular difficulties with remote learning.

For example, those who are deaf or wear hearing aids may find it difficult to hear clearly over video conferencing software. The normal advice to wear headphones or earbuds may be impossible to manage with hearing aids.

If you are providing remote teaching, it is wise to check with the students at the start of your lesson or course whether anyone has problems hearing you.

If so, you can and should take actions to help, for example, by speaking more slowly. You should also make provision to have the lesson recorded so that they can play it back later if necessary.

Learning Remotely: What You Need to Know

Many of the issues for remote learning are similar to any other remote interaction (and you may find it helpful to read our page on Remote Meetings and Presentations).

However, you may also find that your education establishment—school, college or university—has also set out specific rules that you need to follow. This may, for example, include:

  • Being fully dressed for classes;
  • Always joining with video on but audio muted; and
  • Being in a suitable location (often NOT a bedroom).

You should therefore always check beforehand, and make sure that you comply with these rules.

When you are learning remotely, you may also need to increase your self-motivation. It is easy to stop concentrating without anyone noticing. You might need to find ways of learning that work for you: for example, more frequent breaks, or working at different times of day. This will obviously be easier if you are doing a static online course than if you are attending classes, but there may also be flexibility to review classes later.

Learning Remotely is Here to Stay

Learning remotely was already a popular choice for further or continued professional education long before the coronavirus pandemic. It seems unlikely to go away any time soon, either. However, it may require some adaptations from both teachers and students to get the most from the experience—and both should be open to new ideas and suggestions about how to improve it.