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What impacts has the global pandemic made on the long-term future for online learning

There is absolutely no question that the last two years have evidenced the biggest transformation of education of any time in recent history. The interesting question to consider now is what long-term megatrends are underpinning the shorter-term transitions that we have seen? I recently read an article written by Mark Brown, the Chair of Digital Learning at Dublin City University, based on the initial finding of a research study that sought to identify the key trends. I would like to share a high-level summary with my additional insights. You can access the full article here.

The five megatrends that were identified through the research were as follows:

  • Convergence
  • Massification
  • Openness
  • Interactivity
  • Diversification

Pedagogical boundaries are blurring. Whereas we used to refer to online and face-to-face learning, we are now more likely to reference hybrid or virtual learning models to articulate a more complex and sophisticated mix of learning modalities. A hybrid learning model may combine elements such as eLearning courses, virtual classrooms, and a peer learning community. The important matter to recognise is that we are maturing away from a binary distinction (face-to-face versus online) to more nuanced use-cases for the use of an increasing array of digital technologies including emerging technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality.


The scaling up of education some time back resulted in the emergence of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). The pandemic has accelerated the proliferation and adoption of MOOCs and similar models designed to massively scale up online learning. In November 2020, the number of MOOC learners was over 180 million worldwide, with one third having joined in 2020 (Shah, 2020).

Openness is about freedom of reuse, free cost, open access, digital/networked content. There is an ever-increasing library of freely available learning materials in the public domain, especially in digital media. This has fuelled the development and demand for automated curation solutions such as Anders Pink and I am sure these will evolve further with the use of AI technologies to personalise the curation process.

It is already well accepted that interactivity is a necessary element for active and meaningful online learning. What is now emerging is a better understanding of the forms of interactivity that need to be present to deliver a successful learning outcome. Researchers (Moore 1989; Anderson 2003) in the field describe three types of online learner interaction:

  • Learner – Learner
  • Learner – Teacher
  • Learner – Content

A key assumption underpinning the theory is that “Deep and meaningful formal learning is supported as long as one of the three forms of interactions is at a high level. The other two may be offered at minimal levels or even eliminated, without degrading the educational experience”.

Other researchers (e.g. Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000) have proposed three interdependent structural elements of the interaction framework

  • Cognitive presence – progressive phases of practical enquiry leading to resolution of the problem or dilemma.
  • Social presence – the ability for a learner to project themselves as a real person in the online environment.
  • Teacher presence – the design, facilitation and/or direction of the cognitive and social processes for the purpose of achieving the desired learning outcomes.

The education experience occurs at the intersection of these three presences, and whilst the relative degree of each may vary, all three need to be present to achieve a meaningful learning experience.

Recognition of the importance of a social and teacher presence will lead to organisations considering more carefully where they encourage people to undertake their study activities, such that they increase the opportunity for peer-to-peer and/or teacher connections and interactions.

The concept of interactivity is now recognised as a relevant factor in terms of the design of video and other digital media (Mayer, Fiorella and Stull 2020). For example, recent research is now evidencing that people learn better from an instructional video when the onscreen instructor draws graphics on the board while lecturing (dynamic drawing principle); and shifts their eye gaze between the audience and the whiteboard (gaze guidance principle), and where the lesson contains prompts to engage in summarising or explaining the materials (generative activity principle), and a demonstration is filmed from a first-person perspective (perspective principle), or subtitles are added to a narrated video that contains speech in the learners’ second language (subtitle principle).

The high demand for online learning has spawned a new range of new digital learning tools and this trend is likely to continue. The Ed Tech market is currently forecast to grow at 19% per annum over the next five years (Grand View Research) and much of this investment will underpin the development of new and innovative technologies. Such is the growth in the types of learning tools available that the concept of a learning ecosystem is already common parlance. As in other technology markets, the likely trend will be for the larger players to squeeze out the smaller innovators, although from an educational perspective there is benefit in maintaining a more fragmented, less managed, and more diverse ecosystem.

A recognition and understanding of these megatrends offer us some quick-win opportunities to improve both the instructional design and the implementation of our hybrid learning models to deliver better learning outcomes for our people and our organisations.

If this has offered you food for thought in terms of how you want to direct your digital learning strategy for the coming year, why not research our comprehensive multi-publisher catalogue offering a huge range of eLearning courses designed around workplace learning needs here to find the courses you need to support your organisation in 2021 and beyond?