CubedThinks: Online learning – a crisis response or a sustainable option?

CubedThinks: Online learning – a crisis response or a sustainable option?


I’m currently working with people who are dealing with the challenge of delivering education online, some for the first time, spanning early years to postgraduate education. While I see the struggle, I’m also incredibly impressed by the innovation and the mammoth effort to respond. With some countries now faced with the task of gradually returning children to schools, others have declared already that there will be no face-to-face teaching until the new academic year.

Cambridge University have announced publicly that they will not hold face-to-face lectures until summer 2021, while others are still planning for both scenarios.

There is no doubt that this is a critical time for evaluating the effectiveness of distance learning on such a large scale, and as far as change planning goes, it’s as big as it can get.

Looking back, it’s incredible to see how far we’ve come. In my very early days in education marketing, I helped launch and market a language learning course on CD-Rom (CD what?) It was a European funded project to get SME employers to learn French, Spanish, Italian or German. At that time, it wasn’t so much the method which they objected to, it was more the case of, as one CEO put it: “they all speak such good English we don’t think we need to bother…” It was an incredibly new approach for us, and for the learner, and attrition rates through the course were high.

We of course have far more access to learning in more flexible ways today, with examples of whole universities online, such as The University of the People.  These offer, of course, a different experience to the in-person model, but while we hope we can return to that as soon as we can, the reality is we are faced with attracting, recruiting and educating students at a distance for the time being.

A recent presentation for the IC Global Café, by Mathew Durnin, the Global Head of Insights and Consultancy at the British Council, showed that Chinese applicants to the UK are still undecided about their study plans. Should face-to-face teaching not resume by the autumn term, then many would choose to defer for a year rather than commence with an online option.

What I found most interesting from Matthew’s presentation was that, when asked about how they thought the majority of university education would be delivered in 10 years, students regularly suggested it would be predominantly online. But when faced with the option of experiencing their education online in 2020, they were still not keen.

The problem is that online education at the moment is being viewed as a crisis response, rather than as a viable and sustainable delivery mode for education. In some cases, what we are providing at the moment isn’t online learning at its best – there just hasn’t been the time needed to develop it appropriately, whether that be putting the ideal IT systems in place, or most importantly, supporting those who are new to delivering learning in this way.

What I know from my experience of working with global educators is that there are experts in how to deliver an effective learning experience at a distance – which does not involve simply replicating face-to-face online.

This shift isn’t easy. There are of course lots of factors to consider, not least the fact that we don’t all have access to laptops and reliable internet, as well as how to effectively facilitate the networking and collaboration that in person education offers.

But if we can explore the support that quality online delivery requires, we could provide an accessible and meaningful education experience in the immediate future, for those who aren’t able to travel, nor have the financial means for attending in person, while we consider what that longer term, 10 year picture could look like for us all.

Suzy Giles is Managing Director of Giles Global Communications, a consultancy working with clients in Education, NGOs and the Not-For-Profit sectors. Suzy is the current Chair of the CIPR Education and Skills Sector Group and is a trained Mirror Mirror practitioner, working with organisations on team alignment and effectiveness.