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The business of education: Essence and metamorphosis of online learning

The business of education: Essence and metamorphosis of online learning

The last twelve months have posed many challenges, which have been acutely felt in how we learn and do business. Zoom is no longer about enlarging the text, and hanging out is no longer something young people do with their friends.

We have had to learn the new lingo and how to use new apps and features on our desktops and tablets. Without realising it, many of us have acquired new skills, and a new world has opened up.

School on TV

In the 1970s, the BBC used to broadcast programmes, usually in the early morning and on Saturdays, on behalf of the Open University – that great bastion of distance learning education. Anyone could watch these programmes, no password, or log in was needed.

Happy days I hear you say! Fast forward almost 50 years, and the BBC, RTE in Ireland, and other broadcasters around the world have dedicated their part of their weekday morning schedules to programming supporting children learning at home during the lockdown. Parents and guardians no doubt have been very happy.

Returning to the basics is no bad thing. TV programmes that aid learning are surely a positive dimension in life. Families and friends can sit down, learn together, and discuss what they have learnt.

Business focussed programmes were a common feature on the BBC once upon a time. Their second channel, BBC2, had a dedicated programme called “The Money Programme”. It was on screen for over 40 years and looked at the everyday issues of business and finance as well as dedicating programmes to specific topics.

Such dedicated programmes are largely no more and have been replaced by programme segments, and one-off documentaries, that no longer reach a larger or indeed unsuspecting audience Consumer type programmes are regular features of TV schedules but these programmes can often lack the in-depth analysis of certain topics due to time restraint or indeed production guidelines.

The power of radio

Radio continues to transmit business-related programmes but how many of us have the patience to sit down and listen?

There are some excellent programmes across the different networks that cover the basics as well as the more complicated matters of the day, and credit must be given to the noble band of journalists, reporters, researchers, and producers who work on these programmes. But sitting down to listen to the radio for some people is not a good use of time.

Isn’t radio a medium we use while doing something else? (As I write and rewrite this article, the radio is on in the background!) Perhaps it is. When I work at the desk, the radio is on –but usually, it’s speech radio. I am, as they say, half-listening, but if something does prick my ears, I might stop what I am doing to listen or through the use of playback features, listen again later. Listening is a very powerful learning tool.

However, online learning can be very individual and isolating. It is very visual, and depending on the resources being used, might be exclusively so. Perhaps this is a reason why so many people have found online learning difficult.

The use of our senses for learning has been changed. The interaction that we are used to through traditional forms of learning have been replaced by online group chats and dodgy connections but we persevere. Why? Simply because it is here to stay. It is the new normal.

There can be no doubt that online learning opens up new avenues of access to education and learning and it is becoming more affordable.

Traditional learning has become, and will continue to become, more expensive and out of the reach of most low-income and middle-income families. Scholarships and bursaries are not the answer, investment is!

Investment should not be purely about financial injections through government funds or donations from big businesses – important though they are. Investment is needed in terms of access to learning, methods of teaching, in-service training for teachers and lecturers, opportunities for representatives of companies to share their knowledge in the classroom, affordable equipment including adapted equipment for users with additional needs, and most of all investment in new programmes of learning.

Who provides the investment?

It has to come from multiple sources. If education is for everyone, then the investment cannot be the responsibility of just one provider. If the business sector wants an educated workforce, it has to play its part, and online learning provides more opportunities for businesses big and small to be involved.

Media companies are a key player but do they realise their true potential and the responsibility they have? The vast majority of media companies are profit-driven and shareholder-led. Costs have been cut to the bone, and corners cut. Creativity has often been diminished.

Owners need to invest in their readership, viewing, and listenership base, and encourage and develop new talent, and the starting point has to be in learning partnerships with education providers.

Education providers including government departments, need to listen attentively to what the business sector has to say about the standard of education, the gaps in the skill sets of young people, and how more opportunities can be created.

Those same providers also need to listen carefully to what those tasked with teaching and providing the learning experience have to say. All too often, reviews and the so-called listening exercises are nothing more than cosmetic exercises or conducted under narrow guidelines and by people who are not necessarily well suited to lead the review.

Covid-19 has forced schools and universities to resort to an almost inclusive online delivery of learning programmes. However, many teachers and lecturers did not have the sufficient skillset to adapt quickly and easily to this very different approach and did not always have access to suitable equipment or decent internet speeds.

Many schools and universities were caught out by their failure in the past to provide training to staff and to maintain and upgrade systems. As we enter a post-Covid phase or a living with Covid phase, the question has to be asked if those same schools and universities have the ability and capability to upgrade their systems and provide training to their staff.

This is where the business sector can show its worth. Companies need to be given the incentive to “share” an employee or a service with a school or university, to check and test the equipment and resources already on hand, provide training and support, and to create and develop effective partnerships that enhance the quality of education being delivered and how it is delivered.

Existing online education providers have been able to lead the way and develop their offerings even more. Matt Jenner, the Director of Future Learn, writes in the 2021 report, “The Future of Learning Report”,

“Since we started FutureLearn with The Open University eight years ago, we were pioneers in social learning. Thanks to our global network of almost 250 partners, we’re committed to producing a rich selection of courses offering learners the skills and knowledge needed to unlock their potential in rapidly-growing industries. At FutureLearn, we continue to pursue our mobile-first strategy, making offline learning a top priority and ensuring our user experience is universally accessible”.

Time for self-development

Online learning offers employees of any company and at any level the opportunities to develop existing skills and to acquire new ones at a pace that is suitable and convenient to them. Access is key.

Education is and always must be a shared experience and responsibility, and that access must never be obstructed. Bosses could consider giving a couple of hours each week to an employee for online learning or making a contribution towards any expenses or fees, or providing access to equipment to make the learning process easier and more accessible.

An educated workforce is an informed workforce, which can only lead to a stronger company fulfilling its corporate social responsibility charter.

Learning never ends – the skills we learn, stay with us forever.

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