Top of the class: the pandemic-powered rise of distance learning

Research has found that online learning increases information retention and takes less time to reach qualification or graduation. The recent lockdown presented an ideal opportunity for all kinds of remote training courses, particularly for frontline healthcare professionals. What types of training courses have found a role and delivered benefits during COVID-19?

Massive online open courses (MOOCs) have increased in popularity and use during COVID-19. Enrollments at Coursera, an online platform that offers MOOCs, were up 640% in April 2020 compared to April 2019; another MOOC provider, Udemy, experienced a 400% increase between February and March.

Examples proving valuable at this time include the “COVID-19 and critical care” MOOC, established by MOOC EIVASION in France, together with teams from Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris. This course teaches healthcare professionals how to treat potential confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Enabling training for healthcare professionals

Other online training courses are available to healthcare professionals to help upskill their COVID-19 response capabilities. The World Health Organization (WHO) offers free online training for health workers, incident managers, supervisors and administrators in healthcare facilities. The courses are designed to give them greater knowledge about how best to manage biological, physical or psychosocial factors to help safeguard physical and mental health, safety and well-being of health workers.

Furthermore, St George’s University of London created an online course, “Managing COVID-19 in General Practice,” to help frontline clinicians, healthcare workers and professionals care for large volumes of patients during and after COVID-19.

UNESCO in India is doing similar, with training courses to upskill nursing and healthcare professionals treating COVID-19 patients. The course is free and aims to reach over 100,000 nurses and healthcare workers throughout India.

In Africa, Kenya-based Amref Health Africa introduced the Jibu app, a training platform that delivers COVID-19 care information to healthcare workers. Over 2,700 healthcare workers across 15 African countries have already enrolled on 41 courses, with Amref Health Africa aiming to sign up over a million healthcare workers throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Enterprises should embrace online learning

Remote working presents an opportunity for enterprises to evolve online learning practices. With so many workers around the world working from home, enterprises have been increasingly looking at remote learning platforms to keep staff improving their skills while not able to physically attend training courses.

That said, it isn’t enough to just drop a PowerPoint deck in front of employees via an online learning platform and expect them to just get on with it. That would be akin to employees being given a handout in a physical training session and told to read it without any actual training: this type of “static” e-learning has been shown to have drawbacks, including learner fatigue and disengagement. It also risks workers retaining very little new knowledge and, consequently, creating poor return on investment.

Enterprises have in recent years spent over $300 billion annually on corporate training, but a lot of that has been seen as wasted money: one report found only 8% of CEOs saw a positive business impact from learning and development (L&D) spend. According to McKinsey, “Learning doesn’t occur only in one-off, discrete events; it should be thought of as part of broader learning journeys that last 12 to 18 months and tie clearly to business outcomes.”

What online training has been in highest demand?

According to Udemy, online training courses in skills like neural networks have seen a 61% increase, while communication skills training has grown 131%. There have been geographical variances too: workers in the U.S. signed up for creative online training courses like Adobe Illustrator, which saw a 326% increase; workers in India enrolled in courses for business fundamentals, which saw a 281% growth and communication skills, which increased by 606%.

Enterprises were forced into massive working-from-home initiatives, and other corporate online training courses have reflected that. There was a huge surge in sign-ups for courses related to telecommuting, with an increase of 21,598%, while courses about virtual teams grew 1,523%. Perhaps also reflecting the new nature of working from home and being locked down, online courses in stress management grew by 235%.

The role of AR and VR

Immersive training using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) simulations is an important aide in the current socially-distanced climate. They can offer multiple scenario simulation exercises, which help course attendees learn and improve their soft skills, something that can be of value at times of heightened tension, such as dealing with patients during a pandemic. The simulations get trainees to interact with a virtual human created using AI, voice recognition and natural language processing (NLP).

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has been using VR and AR technology during COVID-19 to deliver remote training programs to NHS employees at scale. This has involved rolling out COVID-19 modules to staff via VR headsets, desktops and smart devices. Another example of VR and AR is the French Red Cross using VR for immersive scenario simulations in its training SimForHealth platform. The solution is available in 34 nursing care training facilities and a further 33 nursing aide training institutes, reaching some 145,000 healthcare professionals with continuous training per year.

According to Derek Belch, CEO and co-founder of Strivr, an immersive learning solutions provider, VR equipment has enabled Walmart to reduce the time spent training associates from eight hours to 15 minutes. Additionally, when Walmart rolls out new equipment, the training can take place even before the machinery arrives.

Online training here to stay

Even before COVID-19, online learning and training technology was on the rise: global edtech investments reached US$18 billion in 2019, according to Metaari market research. According to the American Safety Council, “Online courses have numerous benefits over classroom-based learning, from improved safety to greater convenience and affordability.” COVID-19 lockdowns have only increased their usage. Online training is likely to remain an important solution and bring major benefits as the world faces up to the prospect of more lockdowns until a successful vaccine is widely available.

The $4.7 trillion global education value chain has been profoundly impacted by social distancing and lockdowns. Schools, colleges and universities had to rapidly adopt distance learning. Find out what technologies are most important, how business models in education will evolve and how the future workforce will adopt digital tools in this Orange Silicon Valley on-demand webinar about the new normal in education.

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.