In fact, many experts believe online learning is here to stay. Its most optimistic supporters believe online learning will usher in an educational revolution, providing millions of people with affordable access to life-changing educational opportunities.
However, there are still some important questions to answer. For example, can online learning compete with learning in a traditional classroom? And do employers value online qualifications?
So here's a look at the quality of online education, and at the proposition of one organisation, which has been leading the way in providing internationally recognised online courses long before the arrival of COVID-19.
Schools and colleges switched to online learning during lockdown
Education didn't stop during lockdown. Instead, it moved online. Schools and colleges adopted a wide range of virtual learning tools and software, including virtual tutoring platforms and learning management systems.
Google Classroom turned out to be a popular choice for many schools. It's a free app which works as an all-in-one online learning platform. Features include video conferencing for one-to-one tutoring, virtual classrooms, and shared drives for learning resources or work assignments. It surpassed 50 million downloads during the lockdown, making it the number one learning app on Play Store.
Rising to the challenge of online learning
Many educational institutions were unprepared for the switch to online learning. Also, many struggled to provide the same quality of teaching, especially during the first weeks of lockdown.
Moreover, students from disadvantaged backgrounds found it hard to keep up with their virtual classmates. Some did not have regular access to a laptop or tablet, while many others had limited (or non-existent) WiFi connections.
Thankfully, administrators responded effectively to these new challenges. In New Orleans, USA, School Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr oversaw the purchase of 8,000 WIFI hotspots, with another 6,000 on the way over the next few months. Public subsidiaries are also helping students get their own laptops and internet-enabled devices.
Online access is now an essential service
The lockdown showed how unequal access to the internet could exacerbate socio-economic inequalities. Now many people are reassessing the very idea of online access. Some are calling it an essential service, and maybe even a fundamental human right.
This has led to a renewed interest in the Connecting for Inclusion initiative. Funded by the World Bank, it's already allocated more than $1 billion to building better digital infrastructures in developing African countries like Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, and Liberia. Current projects include helping 35 landlocked and island nations build affordable broadband services for all their citizens by the end of this year.
More options are still needed
While online learning has been on the rise for some time, the range of study options is still relatively limited. In France, only around 10% of higher education courses were accessible online before the pandemic. The number has risen since, although most courses tend to focus on skills for white-collar jobs. As a result, students interested in more practical professions, such as carpentry or mechanical repair, have fewer options. So, they have to put their career plans on hold for the next period of time.
Also some students compromise by selecting less suitable programmes, fearing that if they postpone their studies, they will be left behind in a highly competitive job market.
In other words, there's still lots of work to be done before online learning becomes genuinely inclusive. Broadening the range of online courses on offer is essential, if online learning is to fulfill its potential.
There are reasons for optimism, though. Advances in robotics, virtual reality, and augmented reality could soon help students learn hands-on skills without stepping foot inside a workshop or laboratory. Companies such as Diverse Interactive have already developed VR training simulators for medical students and trainee surgeons.
The European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) recently released a report on e-learning. It looks at how universities are maintaining e-learning standards, as well as possible areas of improvement in the future. Key challenges include integrating parts of the curriculum that don't match the online model, including laboratory work and other practical training.
However, the report gives a big vote of confidence to distance learning and is very encouraging for those who are still unsure about enrolling in an online programme. The report clearly states that there is no reason to distrust the quality of online education. Moreover, it highlights several of the extra benefits enjoyed by online students, including flexibility and affordability.
The time has come to truly embrace e-learning
Leaders in education are calling on students to embrace online learning. Professor Kuthemba Mwale, until recently the Vice-Chancellor of Unicaf University in Malawi, said recently online learning can offer affordable quality education to thousands of Malawians, even in the midst of the current pandemic. "Online teaching is the way to go because thousands of learners can be accommodated in one lesson or programme," stated Professor Mwale. "As long as a student has a computer, or tablet with an Internet connection and access to our system, they can access all the information they need."
Unicaf is one organisation which understands the power of online learning. The global educational organisation uses online delivery to make quality higher education accessible to African professionals and young school leavers. It has campuses and learning centers in 12 African countries -- Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, and Rwanda.
As a leading online learning platform, Unicaf offers online and blended undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes, including MBAs. Online programmes are delivered through Unicaf's state-of-the-art Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), which is available on all electronic devices down to mobile phones. It provides 24/7 access to study materials and an extensive e-library. The VLE also connects students with tutors and fellow students from 156 countries across the world.
Unicaf partners with reputable British universities to offer top-quality UK degrees to students all around the globe. Unicaf is a worldwide delivery partner of the University of Suffolk, Liverpool John Moores University and the University of East London, and is responsible for the recruitment, enrolment, and support of online learners.
The awards that Unicaf scholars receive from UK partner universities are exactly the same as the awards obtained by on-campus students in the UK. Unicaf scholars can even graduate on the partner university campus together with on campus students, subject to any visa restrictions that may apply.
Online learning is about flexibility, and Unicaf operates monthly intakes throughout the year. This means that students don't have to wait until the start of the academic year to enroll.
Affordability is another major benefit. Online courses are generally less expensive than campus-based programmes, but to make sure everybody has a chance to pursue their ambitions, Unicaf offers generous scholarships to eligible students. So far, it has awarded over $100 million in scholarships to over 30,000 applicants in 156 countries of the planet.
Nwamaka Onwubuya was one of the students to benefit from a Unicaf scholarship. The recent MBA graduate said, "I always wanted to study at a top university, and I needed the financial support. Unicaf provided that." Macmillan Zingoni is another MBA graduate who couldn't have followed her dreams without the support of a Unicaf scholarship. "This scholarship was a great doorway to better opportunities in the future," she stated.
Unicaf's flexible learning options are helping professionals advance their careers. Kennedy Mwashi is a banker from Ghana, who, thanks to Unicaf, was able to study for an MBA while working and taking care of his young family. After graduating, Mwashi was promoted to a managerial position.
So if you're looking for a flexible and affordable way to boost your future career opportunities, Unicaf may be the ideal choice for you!
Article written in association with Unicaf.