By Jeroen Kraaijenbrink | Forbes
Over a very short period of time, Covid-19 has helped business and education to replace and complement physical face-to-face channels by digital and online ones. This radical change also opened the way for more and better lifelong learning – via e-learning platforms.
Lifelong learning: Meaning and importance
Literally, lifelong learning refers to all learning that takes place throughout one's life. In practise, it mostly stands for the voluntary, self-motivated and continuous learning that takes place after one has completed formal education. It typically refers to the learning that takes place throughout and as part of one's career – from first to last occupation.
Lifelong learning is important at three levels:
- For the individuals who learn, it increases their knowledge and skills and thereby increases their employability for future jobs and satisfies their desire to learn and develop.
- For organisations it is an important source of innovation and helps making sure that they can keep up with the changes in their environment and be an attractive employer.
- And for society, lifelong learning increases the likelihood that key challenges such as poverty, inequality and climate change can be resolved.
Professional reskilling and lifelong learning have been important for many years. But Covid-19 is a strong catalyst with the potential to substantially accelerate and enlarge its adoption. Specifically, it is a catalyst for lifelong e-learning – learning online rather than through traditional face-to-face channels.
The Covid-19 crisis has two catalysing effects that, in combination, are a substantial impulse for lifelong e-learning. The first effect is rather obvious and is directly related to the specific nature of this crisis. Due to the social distancing following Covid-19, businesses and education have replaced and complemented their physical channels by digital and online ones in a blink of the eye. As a study by McKinsey shows, in three months Covid-19 caused an increase of e-commerce penetration that would normally take ten years. This also applies to e-learning. According to Panos Siozos, the cofounder and CEO of e-learning platform LearnWorlds, “E-learning was already growing at a 100% growth rate per year. We hated that Covid-19 was the catalyst, but it has made us achieve in four months what would normally have taken ten years.”
E-learning was already growing at a 100% growth rate per year. We hated that Covid-19 was the catalyst, but it has made us achieve in four months what would normally have taken ten years.
The second way in which Covid-19 has a catalysing effect is more generic and indirect. As argued in an earlier article, any crisis is a key driver of change. It creates momentum, it shows change is possible and in the face of crisis you have to change anyway. As such, and as David Hurst argues in his book "Crisis & Renewal," a crisis shakes up and transforms organisations from a stable and rather rigid “performance mode” into a more dynamic and flexible “learning mode.” Or as the Oxford Handbook of Lifelong Learning formulates it “Learning is all about change, and change drives learning.”
So, Covid-19 is a key catalyst for learning and for going online. This doesn't automatically imply that it also catalyses lifelong e-learning. But there are good reasons why we can expect this. When we compare traditional learning with e-learning, we see that both have their role, advantages and disadvantages. Siozos: “There always will remain a place for schools and universities, especially because they are strong at creating a social environment that supports learning by likeminded people and valuable networking.” But what we also see, is that especially for lifelong e-learning the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages.
Here are some of the key advantages of traditional, face-to-face learning:
- Interaction is easier, better and smoother, especially informal interaction
- More possibilities to motivate students and give them a heads up
- Easier to watch weaker students and help them out
- More explicit peer pressure to participate and perform
- Easier to get to know each other and develop relationships
And here are some of the key advantages of e-learning:
- Materials are available when students want to access them
- More flexibility for students for when and how to learn
- Mostly more affordable than traditional education
- No commute and classroom needed, can be done from home
- More choice and easier to access with just a few clicks
What we can conclude from this brief comparison is that e-learning is especially suitable for motivated, capable learners who want to continuously become better and take the lead in their own learning journey. This is exactly the kind of learner that engages in lifelong learning.
Online learning platforms
To make lifelong e-learning a reality, the right technology is needed. While creating an appropriate online environment used to be hard and laborious until recently, there are various platforms available that include everything needed. While they differ substantially, all of them offer integrative solutions enabling lifelong e-learning.
Additionally, there are five key specific lessons to learn when it comes to developing an e-learning platform:
- Focus on an area of expertise around which you create a continuous and dynamic world of learning. Siozos: “People deserve a great digital learning experience, not just throwing a simple video or PDF at them. You want to interact with them and really help them learn for as long as they can and need.”
- Facilitate the emergence of a coherent and active community of equals and unequals. People learn not only from professional educators but also from their peers. Therefore, having a diverse community of like-minded people is essential for a strong lifelong e-learning platform.
- Assume directed need-driven learning and undirected curiosity-driven learning. Some learners know exactly what they are looking for. They will seek specific courses that address their needs. Others, though, don't really know. They want to learn more, but rely on the platform to feed them with new and relevant knowledge.
- Offer a continuous learning journey, from low-entry accessible learning to advanced deep learning. Siozos: “Learning is more than getting answers or following a quick course. Real learning is an ongoing journey on which you cumulate knowledge and experience at increasingly advanced levels.”
- Facilitate one-time learning and continuous application as well as venturing into spin-outs. The real value of lifelong learning lies in the ability to apply what is learned at a moment when it is needed and exploit it when there is an opportunity. This requires access to useful tools, materials and a community that learners can use at the time they need it.
To sum up: both the need and the means are there for lifelong e-learning. As Siozos concludes “Remote learning is there to stay, increasingly becoming the dominant paradigm. And it is a necessity for throughout our lives as part of everyday life.”