We cannot overlook the obvious advantages of virtual or online learning. Gone is the need to leave work, and to travel or commute to a learning venue; the flexibility virtual learning affords on time and place is a huge advantage. The cost of online learning is generally lower than formal classroom learning as overheads are lower. Once an instructor has designed and published a course for instance, he is not required to stand in front of his students day after day to repeat the learning process. This frees the instructor’s time for the situations where face-to-face interaction and mentorship are actually required. There is no need to hire a learning venue or acquire classrooms as assets. Efficient learning management systems provide improved knowledge retention with the unlimited ability to play back videos or webinars.

The Realities and Opportunities of 2020

Understanding these advantages, higher institutions have been deploying sophisticated learning platforms, training content developers and delivering education that is at par with classroom learning. The ability to translate academic classroom content into online modules became more of a requirement than a ‘good to have’ skill for academicians. So also is today, the ability to teach and mentor from home. With the ability of students and their teacher to interact better (even when they are in different time zones), the issue of isolation is reduced and education is made more available to students who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to attend classes. Chat rooms provide additional forums for out-of-classroom discussions and bouncing of ideas. The risk of plagiarism is removed with sophisticated tools that instantly cross-check the originality of student’s work.

Today, the scourge of Covid-19 has fast-tracked virtual learning as professionals are suddenly required to work from home and remote teaching becomes the only option for sustaining student and employee engagement and running the scheduled curriculum. The traditional brick and mortar classrooms no longer hold pride of place in organisational and personal learning and development. The disruption has happened and even post Covid-19, organisations and institutions who do not play catch-up will be at a disadvantage as social distancing may linger into the foreseeable future.

Several online learning platforms like SkillShare offer bite-sized video lessons for skills development on a monthly or annual subscription basis (for premium content). Although tutors here are not vetted, it is a cheap, great way to develop skills in arts and craft, personal development, management and IT.

Fortunately, virtual learning does not end there. In 2019, Harvard Business School renamed its platform for online learning, previously called HBX to Harvard Business School Online (HBSO), a branding move that gave more credence to online learning, which had previously been looked down on by top business schools. At the beginning of April 2020, HBSO, in response to the present stay-at-home directives worldwide, launched a 10-hour free business lesson package to address the needs of professionals – a great marketing tool for their regular online offerings. City Square Associates reveals that 80% of close to 1,000 students previously surveyed indicated that the online HBSO courses improved their professional lives for the better, and 25% revealed they earned a promotion or title change after taking a course. (Business Insider, August 2019) No longer are professionals exempted from learning by distance or time. Within a few days, this free online course was completely overbooked and international registration had to be closed ‘due to overwhelming demand’. This is unarguably the ‘big moment’ for virtual learning.

Issues around Virtual Learning

As the Coronavirus disease forces more institutions and organisations to move their learning to servers and the cloud, issues will be around the availability of quality content, bandwidth and other IT problems, user-friendly platforms and experiences, the motivation levels of students and employees for unsupervised learning and the availability of relevant courses and packages for the professional or student who just wants to self develop. Are organizations and institutions able to seamlessly integrate their learning management systems with other software and apps like Zoom? What new form of examination needs to be in place for students to take remotely taking into consideration the fact that their textbooks and the Internet are right beside them? Is the student’s home a good, non-distracting, learning environment? Electricity supply is not a constant in most developing countries. How many existing students have access to an internet-enabled computer? Responses to these concerns, and actions taken to address them, will facilitate the transition to virtual learning in a very rapidly changing environment.