Virtual learning has recently come to the fore, as lockdowns and school closures exposed a massive flaw in the education system – the technology was there but the process was not sufficiently robust, and many, particularly younger students went without education for long periods.
In this article, we look at the development of virtual learning in line with the evolution of technology and consider what can be done to advance this further.
How it all began
The Open University was created in April 1969, although it was 1971 before it opened its virtual doors to students to become the world’s first distance learning university. At that time, it had to rely on the communications technology that was available, which was basically the postal service, radio and television.
But despite those limitations, the OU became the fastest growing university in the UK, and by 1980, 6,000 students were graduating each year.
As information and communication technology (ICT) advanced, the opportunities for remote teaching grew and the 1980s saw a huge increase in the number of courses being made available online. Most of these were from physical bricks and mortar educational establishments such as the University of Phoenix, which in 1989 launched the first online programme offering both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
The first accredited and fully web-based university was the Jones International University in 1996. Based in Centennial, Colorado, it awarded associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees right up until it closed in 2015.
More recent developments
The driving force behind the development of remote learning has always been to provide everybody with the opportunity to advance their education even if they were unable to attend a traditional university campus. This ideology spread to all levels of education, not just at the higher level, leading to the introduction of shorter online courses suitable for all ages.
The need for continuous professional development (CPD) in many professions led to the introduction of online vocational courses, adding to the growing number of people looking to the Internet, not just to advance their career but to keep the qualification they’d gained in a traditional way.
The phrase “massive open online course” (MOOC) was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, Canada. It described an online course that was available to anyone, anywhere, and a new acronym joined the vocabulary of digital education.
In 2013, the OU began a MOOC platform called FutureLearn, which offers a diverse range of courses that can be used in career development, to gain a qualification or simply to learn something new. Where FutureLearn differs from the original OU model is that the courses are broken down into weeks, so you can enroll on a short course to gain insight into a particular topic or a year-long course leading to accredited certification.
This can be used to support professional development in teaching, improve leadership skills in management or to learn specific aspects of healthcare.
How do we provide IT support for education establishments?
All of the developments discussed so far have centred around large universities, not surprisingly as this is where much of the funding went in those early days. Now we need to focus on virtual education at all levels.
When we drill down to the individual schools and MATs, it becomes clear that assistance is required in developing processes to deal with the amount of information available. It is no use having access to the virtual learning environment (VLE) when you do not have the capability to use it.
This is where IT support for education is of vital importance. Using an IT service provider with expert knowledge of the technology and experience in setting up schools to utilise that technology will bring huge benefits in the long term.
Getting access to the curriculum mapped content of the VLE is essential if education is to be provided remotely to all students.
What of the future?
One of the huge benefits of distance learning is the reduction in carbon emissions as students do not have to travel as much, and the cost of learning can be reduced greatly as you no longer need the overheads of the physical building.
But whether this is the right model for the future is still open for debate.
Whilst children in remote locations will benefit greatly from this technology, for many learning at home is not an option. This may be something that can be fixed, such as the provision of equipment and access to the Internet, but for a child in a large or dysfunctional family, it simply will not work.
There is also the social aspect. As humans, it is in our nature to seek out others of our kind and form groups. This is how we evolved, not as individuals but as part of a larger community. Children need to mix with others in their peer group to develop naturally.
Whilst social factors drove remote learning initially, the advances in ICT gave it the momentum to move forward at pace and grow into what it is now – a major part of our education system.
The events of 2020 demonstrated that we have a lot to do to make sure that the system stands up in the face of national and international disasters, making sure that education continues no matter what.
How education will evolve in this next phase of humanity is yet to be determined. One thing is certain, though, it will not remain the same.