2020 has been the year of online learning in ways both good and bad. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

Few years in recent history have been as norm-breaking as 2020. Life has changed for all of us on a number of levels, and while some things are only on hold until the current pandemic subsides, the post-pandemic world will also mean finding a “new normal.” And like it or not, education is one of the things that’s likely to have changed for good.

For starters, lets acknowledge that for many people, this year’s experience with online learning has been rough. Educators have had to scramble at the last minute to migrate content that they’ve been delivering in person for years into an online format, while administrators have had to scale their existing systems at a rapid rate to accommodate them. Meanwhile, learners at the receiving end of this new format have suffered from outdated and difficult technology, and have often had to muddle through with fewer support resources to help them along. Given all this, it’s no wonder that many people are beginning to question whether online education works.

However, blaming the recent shortcomings of online education on the format would be a mistake. There were always be ways in which online education cannot replace in-person education—and this is especially true for young audiences. But it also opens a more accessible and more affordable means of receiving an education in a range of skills—including niche subjects. And when it comes to online education for adults, most of the difficulties we’ve seen so for are more directly the result of overburdened systems that haven’t been able to adjust at the breakneck speed the current pandemic requires.

This means there is a lot of hope for educators—both those working within a system, and those starting off on their own. If you want to build a better online course than the one you have now, you can. Here’s where to start.

1. Zoom exhaustion is real.

So far this year, I’ve taken two online courses that were almost entirely Zoom-based. I even moved my own Russian language group online once we could no longer continue meeting in person. So I know from experience how easy this solution is—and how tiring it can be at the same time.

While video conferencing is a quick fix for many educators, it has a lot of downsides when it’s the sole delivery format for online learning. The biggest is that, when learners are at home, surrounded by their other interests and household distractions, staying focused on learning is way harder than when they were journeying to a destination in order to take classes in an environment that was set up for learning.

So the first lesson is that while Zoom lessons ≠ in-person lessons. But more importantly, Zoom lessons ≠ online learning.

2. Preparing a high-quality online course takes time and planning.

If online learning can’t happen entirely by Zoom, then that means there’s a lot of work that needs to happen behind the scenes if an educator wants to deliver a good learning experience. Unsurprisingly, this is where many educators have struggled this past year. Those who have been left adapting material unexpectedly to an online format, with little time or budget to do it well, are probably feeling the pain of this more than others.

It also means educators who have long worked in a traditional format have a choice ahead of them: Will they plan on further online education, even after the pandemic subsides? Or are they going to scrap all the online materials that they developed this year once they return to in-person learning?

As difficult as the adjustment has been for many, those who chose to continue developing their materials will have a chance to put more thought and care into this process, now that they aren’t needing to turn a course around in a week.

3. Create learning materials that can scale without additional face time.

The greatest advantage of online education is that it can scale (almost) indefinitely. In an in-person course, only so many learners can fit around the table—or in the auditorium, as the case may be. But a single online course can cater to tens of thousands of learners, provided the underlying infrastructure can support it.

To make the most of this, educators should put the bulk of their resources behind high-quality materials that are versatile enough for many applications. These include infographics, which can serve as reference materials and study guides, or which can be broken into pieces and used on social media. They can also involve videos which can be shared online, or even presented in class when an educator needs a break from talking too long.

4. Interactive content keeps learners engaged for longer without wearing them down.

“Engagement” has been a buzzword in online education for years, but those who are new to it may find themselves struggling. Online education can be particularly unnerving on this front because educators can’t see their learners and therefore don’t know if they’re interested in the material or not just from their facial expressions.

They key is to use interactive content that lets learners test their knowledge in a more dynamic way. This include branching scenarios, mini quizzes, and even elements that include AR or VR. The more deeply learners are engaged with the material, the less their reserves of will power will be depleted, and they’ll be able to persevere without hardly trying.

5. Use one-to-one time to focus on student support.

To bring this full circle, while having an online course that is nothing but a video conferencing is likely to be wearying, there are still times when this is the most valuable way to deliver instruction. One of the most positive online learning experiences I’ve had this year came from a one-on-one session with my instructor where she gave me personal feedback on my work. If this class had focused on online lectures delivered without my specific needs in mind, I doubt my experience would have been satisfactory. Instead, talking to the instructor directly—even for only fifteen minutes—was a major source of encouragement.

One-on-one meeting time is the most labor intensive for the educator, as it’s not something that can be scaled infinitely, and frequently requires some amount of preparation time beforehand. But used in a targeted way to offer individuals direct support, it can also lead to some of the best learner outcomes.

2020 has taught us that online learning can be better. You can get there.

It’s true that online education has been difficult this year. But it’s also improved access to education for learners with disabilities who have frequently struggled to attend traditional classes. It’s expanded the repertoire of available courses, and given more learners the opportunity to explore their passions. And it’s been a financial life line for many educators who turned to it as a way to share their skills.

When the world returns to in-person learning, it will be with a new set of educational tools, from quizzes to use to help their learners test their skills and prepare for tests to rich media content they can use in their lectures. And learners who have spent this year learning to connect through online communities will still have those communities to turn to outside the classroom.

I think most of us hope we won’t have to face a learning curve like 2020 a second time. Let’s also take what we’ve learned this year and put it to use to build stronger online courses for the future.

Laura Lynch photo

About Laura Lynch

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

Comments

3 responses

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Laura thank you for the post. Good points.

What are the forecasts for 2021 in the field of online learning?
Will you write something about it?

Hi Scott! I think if there’s anything I learned from 2020, it’s that forecasting is risky business. I think it’s safe to say that online education isn’t going anywhere, though. The biggest thing I’m interested in seeing what larger school systems do with the online infrastructure they developed to handle the pandemic. I think they would be wise to continue improving those resources, and I think many do, but exactly how many remains to be seen.

Laura LynchReply

Thats great article about elearning

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