Fira de Barcelona Gran Via
1-4 June 2021

RISE CultureThe all-round benefits of digital learning

Nessa McEniff

Nessa McEniff is Centre Director at Learnovate Centre, Trinity College Dublin.

Solutions for digital learning form a key part of the ISE show, with one of the show floor Technology Zones being dedicated to Education Technology. What are the benefits of digital learning and how has it changed the way we learn?

Covid-19 accelerated the transformation of education and workplace learning as well as the adoption of digital learning and has changed the way we learn forever. It forced industry transformation, with seismic changes required to meet the unprecedented demand for online learning tools.

One of the most important benefits of digital learning is learning at your own pace. We can journey through parts of a course or subject quickly or slowly depending on our ability and our prior knowledge – or just depending on our concentration and energy on a particular day. We can easily revisit topics we found difficult or confusing.

With face-to-face learning, we are obliged to match the pace of the instructor or the group even if the pace leaves us feeling overwhelmed, at one extreme, or bored, at the other. With digital learning, the responsibility for progress lies with us as individual learners allowing us, and requiring us, to direct our own learning. Learning how to learn is a critical competency in a world where technical skills rapidly become obsolete. Digital learning really boosts our capacity to become independent learners.

Can digital learning help with inclusivity?

Companies have become keenly aware of the positive economic and social impacts of increasing equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. A key benefit of digital learning is the ability to personalise content and features facilitating a learning experience designed to suit individual needs. Providing the customisation or accessibility required by employees with different learning abilities or specialised learning requirements doesn’t just provide equitable access to those learners, it benefits all employees.

Artificial intelligence algorithms can scan learning analytics data from management systems to identify any learners who need extra support – perhaps recognising the student who risks facing difficulty before the student does from a granular analysis of historical data of student progress.

Companies are increasingly focused on achieving diversity in recruitment – they also need to ensure that employees have equal access and opportunities in training and development and consequent promotion. Learning management systems can help identify individual skills gaps and develop customised programmes to help each individual develop their potential.

Global organisations and higher education institutions are increasingly employing digital learning programmes to increase awareness of unconscious bias and discriminatory attitudes.

However, it is important to note that while digital learning does help with inclusivity, it can also create exclusivity. Lack of access to devices and connectivity can be driven by socioeconomic divisions – an issue that became heightened during the pandemic.

Can technology improve student engagement – both inside the lecture hall and away from it?

Absolutely – but only if used in the right way. Technology allows multi-modal content, interactivity and collaboration to help learners stay engaged. Game-based learning and gamification are often integrated into learning programmes to provide learning and assessment that’s fun and engaging. Real-time feedback enhances engagement for learners who can track their progress as they move through the course.

Immersive learning, perhaps employing augmented or virtual reality, can make scenarios feel real to a learner. This works well in situations where the learning outcome mitigates risks with serious negative impacts. Safety-critical environments such as nuclear power plants or offshore oil platforms can achieve high learner engagement in workplace safety programmes using immersive, scenario-based learning.

For those looking to introduce digital learning, what key technologies would you recommend educational institutions start with?

The first step is to check whether your organisation already has a learning management system (LMS). Explore any existing applications and tools available to find out if they provide features that support learning and look for ways to optimise existing technologies before you start looking for new ones.

There are many communication and discussion tools on the market and some examples include: Zoom and MS Teams (including breakout rooms), discussion boards and forums, Slack and Chanty, WhatsApp and Viber as well as social media groups, such as Facebook. Some collaboration tools include Wiki, ePortfolio or online blogs such as WordPress or Weebly and document sharing such as Microsoft 365 or Google Suite (Google Docs, Sheets, Slides). Workshopping tools include Miro and Mural.

Are we doing enough to encourage the use of tech for educational purposes?

The catastrophic arrival of Covid-19 obliterated many of the barriers that held back progress for decades in adopting technology-enhanced learning in the K-12 and higher-education sectors. Uncertainties, such as how to cover the cost of ownership and how to provide technical support for EdTech initiatives, were swept aside by the immediate need to connect to students safely at home.

Many teachers and lecturers were forced overnight to overcome a lack of support, expertise and confidence and work out ways to continue learning remotely by trial and error. Learning and development professionals and trainers were similarly forced to rapidly transform face-to-face classes to remote learning.

Digital learning provides too many advantages to turn back the clock. What organisations need now is research to guide content providers on the most effective ways to use technology-enhanced learning. At Learnovate we provide pedagogical approaches to deliver impactful online learning experiences. Learnovate delivers best practice advice to organisations on digital, remote and technology-enhanced learning to ensure that all outcomes are achieved and that learners are highly engaged and accurately assessed for learning outcomes.