Katharina Hone and Marco Lotti   27 Apr 2020   Diplomacy, E-Learning, Webinars

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Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the majority of higher education institutions in affected countries moved some or all of their teaching online. The crisis has also given new urgency for organisations to establish or re-think their use of online learning. With experts from the private and public sectors, and building on more than 20 years of online learning experience at DiploFoundation, we explored some key questions around effective online learning in this webinar

We were joined by Amb. Kishan Rana (an Indian Diplomat, Professor Emeritus, Senior Fellow at Diplo), Amb. Petru Dumitriu (a Romanian Diplomat who joined the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) of the UN system in 2016 as Inspector), and Ms Bodil Neuenschwander (a Business Developer at Coorpacademy). The discussion with our experts took place in smaller break-out groups. 

Break-out group 1: Is e-learning more effective than traditional learning? (with Amb. Kishan Rana)

Based on the recognition that e-learning is a crucial part of future learning, the discussion clearly established the need for e-learning to become more effective. Participants also acknowledged that measuring effectiveness and gauge student engagement are no easy tasks and that one cannot rely solely on post-course surveys. 

The discussion also highlighted the challenge of the digital divide and barriers to access for learners from the Global South. A number of suggestions were mentioned: appropriate infrastructure needs to be in place, the content needs to be mobile-friendly, and challenges related to the cost of (mobile) data need to be addressed. 

In terms of e-learning methodology, two suggestions were particularly important: (a) to flip class discussions and have learners ask questions and provide their perspectives, instead of the facilitators and lecturers, and (b) to provide in-depth tutorials in small groups. 

An overarching theme was that on the one hand, e-learning takes discipline on the part of the learners, and on the other hand, facilitators and lecturers need to continuously update their skills. 

Watch the break-out session with Amb. Kishan Rana:

Break-out group 2: Why is e-learning useful in the UN system? (with Amb. Petru Dumitriu)

Focusing on the UN, the discussion started from the observation that it is crucial to create an institutional environment where learning is encouraged and common principles to learning are established. The UN is a complex system and a report by the Joint Inspection Unit stresses the importance of compatibility between different platforms and certificates. Ideally, a system-wide learning organisational framework, including principles of learning, should be developed. Joint curriculums for courses could be created across the UN system. 

As in any other e-learning context, the flexibility and engagement of students are important to ensure good completion rates. At the same time, the e-learning content offered should be based on needs assessments.

The discussion in this break-out group also stressed the importance of evaluating learning and in particular, the impact of learning, which poses a real challenge. One suggestion was to ask learners to share their experiences and the impact that e-learning had on them two years after the completion of the course.

Watch the break-out session with Amb. Petru Dumitriu:

Break-out group 3: What are some of the new approaches in personalised corporate learning? (with Ms Bodil Neuenschwander)

Given that many jobs will change or no longer exist due to automation and digitalisation, we need new methods to make sure people acquire new skills. The online learning tools need to meet the specific needs of each learner.

One of the key challenges identified in the discussion was that learners are exposed to too many, poor quality e-learning opportunities, combined with a lack of direction on how to choose the right content and structure their learning. Another challenge is the lack of willingness of organisations to invest in proper e-learning for their employees.

This break-out group suggested that the success of personalised digital learning can be measured by looking at the extent to which a person would recommend the course to others. In addition, user progress can be tracked throughout different online learning modules. 

The discussion also emphasised that it is important to keep a focus on balance. New approaches should not replace the role of coaches and mentors. It is important to maintain a balance between technology-driven approaches and traditional human ‘touch’ approaches.

Watch the break-out session with Ms Bodil Neuenschwander:

Final observations and the future of online learning

Neuenschwander highlighted that, from her perspective, greater personalisation will be the future of online learning, while face-to-face training will remain an important part of how we learn. Blended learning formats will likely be the best future solution. Further, she argued that a culture of learning needs to be build 

Dumitriu argued that the future of online learning lies in finding a balance between offering hard and soft skills training. While he agreed that face-to-face training and standard university education will not be replaced by e-learning, he stressed that e-learning will play a role in one form or another for most people in the future, in order for them to keep their knowledge and skills up-to-date. E-learning will be part of everyone’s lifestyle. 

Finally, Rana reminded us that measuring outcomes is crucial and more thought should be put into finding ways of assessing learning outcomes and the longer-term impacts of online learning. He also stressed that facilitators and lecturers need to stay up-to-date and commit to common standards and ideals to inform their practice. 

Watch the final reflections and closing remarks:


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