Distance Learning Lessons from the COVID-19 Crisis


The Possibilities of Distance Learning: Lessons from the COVID-19 Crisis

The terms e-learning, online learning, and distance learning are often used synonymously in media and political discourse. However, there are important differences between these expressions:

Online learning (often called e-learning ) is the use of digital tools to deliver learning. It doesn’t necessarily happen remotely. These tools used in the classroom, in addition to more traditional teaching methods.

Distance learning is learning that takes place outside of a classroom or workplace. It has traditionally included correspondence courses where pupils correspond with the school by post. Today, it mainly corresponds to online education, delivered by a trainer who gives lessons and homework through digital tools. Most of the available statistical sources (including those used for this synthesis) collect data on distance learning – as opposed to e-learning – which potentially includes individuals who take correspondence training although this type of distance education is rapidly disappearing in favor of digital methods.

In this document, the term e-learning primarily refers to training activities deliver through digital resources and follow remotely, especially when it comes to examining the measures taken in the context of the COVID-19 crisis during which most of the face-to-face training interrupted to ensure social distancing. However, some of the lessons that need to be learned to develop e-learning also apply to mix-training.

Online learning for adults

The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a significant increase in online learning for adults. Most of the training that started face-to-face, in a classroom, continued remotely. Also, workers benefiting from partial unemployment are encourage  to make the most of their free time by following new training courses. Thus, the crisis provides an ideal opportunity to assess how much e-learning can bring.

It also makes it possible to update its main limitations: the need to first have suitable digital skills, a digital tool, and an internet connection to follow an online training, the complexity of offering traditional practical learning online, and the challenges faced by teachers accustomed to classroom training. This synthesis examines how e-learning provides new learning opportunities for adults and identifies some major issues highlighted by the crisis. Addressing these difficulties can help further develop e-learning once the crisis is overcome and make access more equal.

Introduction and main messages

The COVID-19 crisis has led to a significant increase in online learning for adults (Box 1). Much of the training that was suppose to take place in the classroom is now taken online. Also, workers who benefit from short-time work are encourage to follow online training from home. They acquire new skills deemed useful once the health emergency has passed.

Although it is too early to conduct a full assessment, early data and one-off observations point to a significant rise in e-learning. In the Flemish Region, the number of participants in online training courses offered by the public employment service (VDAB) during the second half of March 2020 has quadrupled compared to the same period last year.

According to internet research, interest in online training has increased. In Canada, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, “online training” and “online courses open to all”. MOOCs, have quadrupled between the end of the March and the beginning of April 2020. At the end of April 2020, this research was still twice as important as normal.

Thus, the crisis provides an ideal opportunity to assess all the possibilities offered by e-learning. It also makes it possible to underline its main limits. First to have adapted digital skills, a digital tool, and an internet connection.The difficulty of offering learning online, and the problems that meet teachers accustomed to classroom training.

This synthesis examines how e-learning broadens the training offer offered to adults and identifies some major issues highlighted by the crisis. Addressing these difficulties could help further develop e-learning after the crisis has passed and made access more equal.

Increase the number of participants training, thanks to online courses

Continuing to learn throughout one’s working life is essential to keep up with developments in the labor market. This makes it possible to cultivate already existing skills and acquire those that are in demand (OECD, 2019 [1]). In the post-COVID-19 period, it will be important to train the unemployed to find work in growing occupations and sectors. However, currently, each year in OECD countries only 40% of adults participate in formal or informal training  and highly qualified adults are over-represent.

Among low-skilled workers, only 20% on average take training (OECD, 2019 [2]). Time, schedule, and distance constraints as well as financial constraints are among the main obstacles mention by those who do not take any training. Almost 28% of adults say they do not participate in any training. Because they lack time because of their professional commitments.15% claim a lack of time because of their family responsibilities. Finally, 16% mention a lack of financial means and 12% of adults report that the training took place at an inconvenient time and place.

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