Home » Education Series: The Digital Transformation Of Distance Learning

Education Series: The Digital Transformation Of Distance Learning

Education across all sectors has been changing for the last decade. A digital transformation has been occurring. Whether K-12, college, university, corporate training, continuous professional development (CPD), or for individual lifelong learning, the story is the same. A move from traditional learning methods to the use of digital and online tools.

The 2020 COVID-19 lockdown has supercharged this trend. With offices, schools, and campuses closed for the foreseeable future in many countries. UNESCO reports that by mid-March this year, 1.38 billion school-aged learners had been impacted by school closures. Don’t worry; this is not another COVID-19 impact article! But it has to be acknowledged that the pandemic lockdown has increased many people’s exposure to distance learning. Much like it has exposed many workers to remote working. And as with the latter, many people will find that distance learning and online education suits them. The education world when the pandemic is over is unlikely to be the same as it was at the end of 2019.

Technologies for Delivering Distance Learning

The technologies used for distance learning are a mixture of tools designed for general business use plus education-specific solutions. In the general category, there are software tools such as Microsoft 365 and Google Docs that allow online collaboration. Video conferencing and screen sharing tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, and many more are also used extensively across all education sectors to deliver distanced learning. File sharing sites like Dropbox and Microsoft OneDrive are also used to share files, in the same way as they used outside of education.

Dedicated solutions designed for the needs of education providers are also widely used. The main ones are virtual learning environments (VLE’s) that allow teachers to create online classes and tutorials, set tests, and to track student engagement and progress. VLE’s have been growing in sophistication over the last decade and are now very accomplished and functional distance learning tools. There are many VLE’s available. They range from privately developed instances used by large learning providers exclusively, to commercially available solutions that can be purchased and configured for use by any organization. Many VLE’s also provide student management functionality. These learning and management solutions are known as learning management systems (LMS). Some prominent providers of VLE’s and LMS’s are Blackboard, Moodle, EduPoint, Ellucian, and Pearson.

Assessment and exams are still an essential part of the education process. Distance learners need to take exams. Some institutions providing distance learning still have in-person exams in a controlled physical environment. But this is becoming less practical as the number of distance learners increases, and their locations spread out globally. Remote exam monitoring solutions are increasingly being used instead. These include remote monitoring tools to allow exam proctors to watch candidates, and also software tools that monitor activity on a device during an exam.

The Distance Learning Landscape

Almost all education providers now have an online component in their offerings. This includes most universities. For example, Harvard, Stanford, and MIT in the USA all provide online distance learning programs. Some programs allow full accreditation while others offer free access to courseware but without the ability to sit exams to get accreditation.

Many education providers are distance learning only. There are online universities and K-12 schools that focus exclusively on remote learning. The last decade has also seen the rise of the MOOC. This is an acronym for Massive Open Online Courses. Many providers, and universities, provide their educational materials as MOOCs for free. They are designed to allow unlimited numbers of students to learn subjects, either in semi-structured courses or at their own pace. Sites like EdX and Coursera act as hubs for many universities and businesses to provide education via MOOC’s and other course types.

As the online world has expanded, the online education landscape has also grown. In addition to the MOOC’s mention above, it’s possible to find courses on any subject you would like to study. From both free and paid for sources. At the free end, there is YouTube which has copious educational content and courses. Other providers like Udemy have built a platform that anyone with expertise can use to deliver engaging and up to date education. Many similar sites exist. These new online learning platforms provide a great way for experts to pass on their knowledge and earn an income in the process. 

These digital learning solutions are challenged to deliver the live in-person experience. The student and educator application experience [AX] depends on the availability, agility, and scalability of the digital infrastructure. The quality and value of the distance learning experience needs to equal the diversity and availability of the learning options out there today.

The Future of Distance Learning

Over the next few years, much more education delivery will be via distance learning. This will be due to changes as a result of the lockdown and ongoing social distancing. Additionally, the discovery that distance learning works and is more cost-effective for many will drive its growth. We’ll likely see a hybrid delivery model emerge with some learning done online at a distance, with periodic in-person and onsite tutorials and symposiums.

The need for distance learning provision will lead to the expansion of existing providers, and the entry of new providers into the market. This is how it should be, and the market will decide which providers succeed based on the quality of their teaching, the standard of the students they produce, and the value for money. It’ll be an exciting time for everyone involved. And also an excellent time to be a learner, whatever your age.

For additional information check out this post by Rachel Berry who is a cloud expert and technology blogger.

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