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Online learning & Coronavirus: An exploration of virtual education

Universities around the world are increasingly offering courses online. We know there is some trepidation about learning online and have put together a quick guide on what to expect in the virtual world.

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The world has grown exponentially more connected with the advance of technology. We now spend a large proportion of our time online and during times such as those we now face it allows us to remain connected. Whether it’s watching films, chatting to friends or browsing websites there are a huge variety of choices available to you.

This is also true for education. With the ability to use technology to share knowledge and skills, it’s no surprise that online learning has developed appreciably within higher education over the last few years. With many universities turning to online course offerings, due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, we delve deeper and explore what you can expect from online learning, including the style of teaching, the systems used and what future trends in the area may be.


What's the online learning landscape like?


One of the major concerns that is often raised when discussing online learning is that it doesn't incorporate the face-to-face interaction of a traditional learning environment. There is an anxiety that this decreases the effectiveness of the learning process and the acquisition of knowledge. Students worry that they will not have the opportunity to interact or communicate with their lecturers or instructors.

It’s important to remember that much will depend on the way that the course is structured and the mode of delivery, which are usually optimised to maximise interaction and collaboration. Given the significant advances in streaming technology, which has facilitated seamless online video, online chats and real-time interactivity, many of the anxieties around interaction can be addressed. 


Online learning via live streaming 

Live streaming is one of the most common technologies that is used to simulate the real-world lecture and instructional environment. You have the opportunity to interact with both the lecturer and fellow students, as well as provide instant feedback via several real-time tools. These can be used for both assessments and for the lecturer to gauge if the class has understood a concept, before moving on to another topic. This has made taking a course online fairly seamless.


What if I can't attend a class?

In some cases, lectures will be recorded and uploaded for ease of access, so if you happen to miss attending a few or want to recap, you can catch up on all the information. Many institutions have also adopted webinar formats for the delivery of content, which encourage active participation and allow you to ask questions.


Streaming also allows for more personal interaction between students and lecturers, with one-to-one video chats and discussions providing the ideal opportunity to seek clarification on a topic and discuss the specific subject matter.  These consultations usually have a very clear structure and are predominantly used for feedback, academic discussion, resource sharing and guidance.

You may find that if you are studying at a postgraduate level and are attending fewer classes these type of meetings will suit your schedule and allow for greater flexibility. They are used to great effect by thesis supervisors at master's degree and doctoral level.


Do institutions have expertise in online learning?

Although physical attendance at a class or lecture has often been thought of as a necessity, this perception has begun to shift. With the technology available it is now significantly easier to deliver courses and learn online, with instant access to curated resources and tools.

This has also extended to the assessment process, with online submissions and formative assessments, like essays and papers,  becoming the norm.  Added to this is the increased connectivity offered by email and social media, and a large number of online academic resources. This means you have great access to a wealth of expertise.

What do universities do to ensure that courses are delivered professionally online?

Online education has developed considerably in the last decade and universities have dedicated experts working on offering you the best possible experience if they are learning online. This expertise includes: 


  • Online learning and teaching professionals 
  • Online learning designers 
  • Software developers 
  • Instructional designers 
  • Content developers 
  • User experience designers
  • Information technology professionals 


Much time is devoted to ensuring that the pedagogy of the online experience maximises and enhances learning. You may find elements of gamification and the inclusion of social media in courses.  The online offerings of institutions also have the added benefit of opening up opportunities for students who may otherwise have not had the chance to study at an institution, including a reduction in tuition fee costs.


Online Learning



Having the option to learn online is also helpful for universities and students in the face of an interruption to teaching. Teaching and learning online means that universities can continue their instruction and provision of courses, with students able to carry on learning.

Take coronavirus as an example. Institutions moved quickly to adapt their teaching and courses online due to unexpected closures. In situations like this, online learning is critical in enabling students to continue with their studies and obtain their qualifications.


What can I expect from online learning at a university?


So how will you access your lectures, resources, assessments and timetables online? An institution will likely make use of a learning management system, that allows you to access a suite of tools for online learning.

You’ll have your own profile and portal, where you can do everything from attending online lectures and submit assignments to joining discussion forums and get hold of learning resources. Some of the more popular systems used by universities include:


  • Blackboard Collaborate – Virtual classroom platform and learning environment
  • Moodle – Personalized online learning environment
  • Sakai – Online learning platform for teaching, research and collaboration


Certain institutions may also use their own online systems. Some are easier to use than others, but most institutions have dedicated departments to guide and advise you with any queries you may have. There are also a lot of guides and documentation online that you can get hold of should you need to grips with a system.

For the most part, systems are designed to be intuitive and user friendly, allowing you to get on with learning rather than worrying about how to use a tool. Doing some online research into what's on offer and how universities are making use of online learning is a useful way in getting more familiar with it. 

How do I communicate effectively online?

Remember to always inform your course coordinator or lecturer if you’re experiencing issues with access and connectivity. This is essential to do to stay on track and continue to study effectively.  You can’t afford to miss out on updates and course materials.

Don’t forget that your experience of an online learning environment will also depend on the type of device you are using and certain aspects of the process such as submissions, assessments and interactive webinars are often best on a laptop or desktop while accessing content is often device agnostic. Developing your online communication skills is an important tool in these circumstances. 

What are the main challenges of learning online?

There are some common challenges with online learning, but the majority are fairly easy to resolve. For example, to improve your concentration, you should try to take notes and create a productive work environment around you. Maybe an open window and a hot drink to feel relaxed and alert or perhaps you work best when speaking with a tutor privately, outside of lectures.


Overall, there are many positives to online learning such as working from your own space, flexibility, self-motivation, learning on the go and of course, not having to venture to university which means more time for a power nap.


Why not take some time to explore some of the online courses available at top institutions around the world. 


Online Learning


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