Margien Matthews

Digital learning trends positively influenced by Covid

Digital learning trends

Digital learning trends move instantly into full swing.

The world changed overnight and so did our approach to learning and development.

Future of learning


When the future of learning arrives ten years early and how we coped with it!

Whilst conducting research about trends in online learning I came across a gem of a report which needs much more exposure. This wasn’t an incremental migration. The world of global digital learning underwent a fundamental shift overnight. 

The full report on Skills Development in the time of Covid, commissioned by the International Labour Organization in conjunction with the World Bank, can be accessed here.

It gives penetrating insight into the impact of the pandemic on education and training in the vocational and technical domain and how it accelerated the future of distance learning.  Lessons learnt in the TVET sector have relevance to all educational sectors. 

During April and May 2020 no less than 126 countries were researched to find out how they shifted educational policies and practices to adapt to a world in lock-down. During this time it was estimated that 14% of working hours were lost globally in the second quarter of 2020. That’s equivalent to 480 million full-time jobs!  A third of the world’s workers lived in countries where workplaces were closed and another 42% of workers faced partial closure. 

The impact on how skills development was delivered and what trends developed (or not, as it were) was dramatic.

How Covid-19 disrupted global digital learning

Mask covering world

Now here's where things get really interesting! This is what happened to skills development during the pandemic.

 1. Infrastructure gaps 

Clearly, no-one was prepared for the abrupt transition that was required towards remote learning. Many countries faced large challenges regarding general infrastructure (electricity) and technological infrastructure (internet, connectivity, relevant devices). Clear inequalities emerged amongst those who receive training and education in less affluent countries with poor infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. Those least able to afford it had to bear the costs of increased data usage. 

2. Learning platforms missing in action

Countries and institutions that had not invested in user-friendly distance learning platforms, particularly on a national level, were caught unprepared and ill-equipped. You can just hear the refrain of “we should have…”

Even countries that had learning platforms in place faced headaches in speeding up new methods of delivery. Both educators and learners showed reluctance and resistance at times to the pace of technological change.

In a different context, Josh Bersin has highlighted the role of creator platforms for the corporate learning market. Using these platforms means that it becomes quick and easy to create content, publish it and interact with the intended audience. These creator platforms are equally suitable for other educational environments. 

3. Staff expertise and capacity not where it should be

Digital skills amongst educators were generally found to be low. They weren’t prepared for a rapid online conversion and in many countries general support was lacking.  There were very few co-ordinated responses. Educational ministries struggled with adequate responses (which ranged from complete suspension of learning activities to stop/start efforts). They were generally poor at developing and communicating policy at a time when clear leadership was needed.

Educators struggled with simultaneously having to learn many new skills around teaching online, learner engagement and motivation, and how to manage classes remotely.

4. Pain of transition

  • At the initiation of the research, more than one third of TVET institutions had not used distance learning for any part of their curriculum before the start of the pandemic. That’s 35 out of 92 countries with no prior distance learning exposure. Around 18% did so regularly and a mere 12% did so very often. 

    If we look at this from a country perspective, only 13 out of 92 countries were regularly using some form of distance learning before the Covid-19 outbreak. Africa in particular lagged far behind.

5. Financial disparity

During the pandemic, countries that were regarded as high-income by the researchers reported that an average of 75% of respondents moved to fully remote distance learning. For low-income countries this dropped to under 20%. This disparity in access to remote educational opportunities significantly increases the digital divide.

6. Learning by doing

Very few countries or institutions were ready to meet the challenges that Covid-19 presented. Experimentation with different approaches was widespread and lessons had to be learnt fast. Even countries or institutions with excellent resources found themselves having to learn to adapt quickly to new methods of learning delivery.

7. Getting creative

TVET providers had to get creative to continue to deliver practical skills training. Online and offline platforms and tools were used which included massive online open courses (MOOCs), MOODLE, video tutorials, live video conference, simulators, national television channels (here’s looking at you, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Pakistan), provision of self-paced learner guides and notes.

Alternative methods for skills assessments included doing practical tasks at home and uploading them onto learning platforms or sending videos of completed work to educators, using portfolios of past work, simulations, and online discussions.

Offline distance learning tools such as television and written resources were more frequently used in lower income countries. High-income countries made more use of video conferencing and virtual learning platforms.

8. New partnerships

Previously untested partnerships developed as a response to tough times in the education and training sector. Players here included government, educational bodies, industry training organizations, technology providers and private educational institutions.

What emerged was a view that the following are critical: learner-centric practices, adaptability and the willingness to use flexible, hybrid and blended approaches.

9. Skills shortages

At a time when much of the world had to stay at home, ICT-related occupations experienced large-scale shortages as everything shifted online. The process of digitalization speed up. This magnified pre-existing shortages in the areas of development of online platforms and learning materials, networking and cybersecurity to name a few.

So, what trends developed and what lessons were learnt?

1. Accelerate remote learning

The pandemic forced all countries to accelerate their remote digital learning strategies.

This implies greatly increased investment in digital technologies and related skills. Equipment, internet access and weak digital skills were the key constraints identified during the pandemic period. Less wealthy countries were significantly disadvantaged in this regard. 25 out of 126 countries identified not only a lack of access to computers and tablets, but also to smartphones as a tool to enable learning. Couple this with a lack of access to reliable internet networks and even reliable electricity sources for many of these countries. This creates a significant gap in opportunities to learn.

Wealthier countries who accelerated their digital learning environment are likely to continue to harness the benefits of a blended approach to learning. They’ll also require increased technological sophistication amongst educators and learners alike.

In the workplace, the learning agenda is no longer about some quick-fixes to tide things over. McKinsey identified six best practice actions to build a foundation for results-oriented virtual learning. These were: establishing a learning-response team, protecting employees in in-person programs, adapting delivery, promoting digital learning, exploring alternative digital strategies and preparing for multiple outcomes.

A recent study by Deloitte captured a paradigm shift in the learning landscape. Here are some key extracts that are relevant to the acceleration of remote learning:

Virtual learning is here to stay, with around 40% of learning expected to be online permanently. Some companies are predicting it could be as high as 90%. There’s a clear shift from conventional modes of learning (pre-recorded e-learning, classroom) to experiential learning (simulations, gamification, podcasts, MOOCs).

L&D skills for the future include learner-centered design thinking, audience-focused content creation, personalizing and contextualizing learning, and enhancing knowledge-sharing and collaboration.

At a time of budget cuts, most organisations are looking at developing internal capacity and using what they have to better effect.

The message is clear. Digital learning is here to stay. If you don’t have a digital learning strategy in place, now’s the time to give this serious attention and treat it as a strategic imperative.

2. Build socio-emotional skills

In times of crisis, certain skills oil the wheels of progress. In this research survey respondents identified the following socio-emotional skills as particularly useful during the pandemic: teamwork, flexibility, openness to change, self-motivation to learn, mutual respect and honesty.

Awareness of emotional and mental health challenges to both educators and learners in the schooling system during this time of pandemic are well documented. See here, here and here for articles that examine this aspect more closely and emphasize the importance of ongoing support, empathy and connection.

Recent research conducted in the workplace indicated that professionals with high levels of emotional intelligence and low Covid stress showed much higher performance and lower counter-productive work behaviours compared to professionals who had less emotional capacity and higher stress.

Covid-19 brought about rapid changes in the way businesses organized and structured themselves. Business leaders had to adjust and modify established methods of working and at the same time provide reassurance and direction to their staff. Emotional intelligence became much more important to help leaders navigate a disrupted work environment and respond to an increase in the stress levels of staff.

The Deloitte study quoted above also identified the following top-rated human capabilities amongst corporate respondents: resilience, emotional intelligence, empathy, adaptive thinking, social intelligence, critical thinking and creativity.  The emotional and mental health of our future workspaces is dependent upon these and related skills.

Now these are skills that artificial intelligence can’t replace. It’s clear that our learning agenda needs to embrace an ongoing commitment to personal development, emotional intelligence and resilience. And that it needs to take place where-ever people connect and congregate – both formally and informally.  Here’s a call to business leaders, HR leaders and L&D leaders to spearhead the changes we need and to drive a learning transformation agenda.

3. The time to prepare is now

A global survey conducted in 2021 by CEDEFOP supports the findings of the ILO report. They report that after the pandemic three in four enterprises are planning changes to the following:

a) Increase investment in distance platforms and tools

b) Introduce or increase blended learning approaches

c) Build staff capacity to design and deliver online training

We’ve had our wake-up call. We need to become better prepared for future crises and develop contingency plans. This includes putting resources in place to support educators and learners and to continue with investment in distance learning infrastructures.

COVID-19 dramatically disrupted global digital learning. What’s the top action that you need to take to make sure your business leads instead of lags when it comes to the digital learning revolution?

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