The future of online learning
Online learning is being transformed by the challenges of the pandemic. Eray Dilaver of ICAS partner BPP tells Anna Melville-James how it is delivering online CPD – and why, for many, this might become the new normal
With the challenges of separation presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning has surged forwards to fill the gap, including in professional development. But as we all adjust to new ways of learning in an upended landscape, keeping connected and current remains essential. That has presented a clear remit for ICAS’ professional development partner BPP, whose training portfolio moved from 10% to 100% online in a matter of weeks at the beginning of lockdown. Since 23 March, it has run online 368 previously face-to-face courses for more than 3,700 delegates, many of them new to this type of learning format. And with all BPP courses for ICAS now online until at least the end of September, the near-future for CAs and finance professionals looking to upskill is screen-based.
The benefits of online professional development are not new, even if they’re only now in laser focus. Flexible, convenient, cost-effective and offering a wide geographic reach, it has long been touted as learning for an agile and fast-paced business age – ideal for a heavily regulated industry such as financial services. However, for many, it has never quite cut through over training in person.
“The challenge has always been around people thinking, ‘Yes, online learning is useful, but it can never be as good as face-to-face learning,’” says Eray Dilaver, BPP’s Head of Online Programmes, Professional Development. “That has changed, particularly with improvements in technology. In the past, connection speeds and the capability of the tools available meant rich media experiences with audio and video would be lacking. The other driver for change has been the younger age of the typical student, most of whom are now accustomed to doing things online – and actually expect it.
But the spread of the virus, combined with technological and demographic developments, means plans that may have long languished in the business to-do pile are gathering a near revolutionary pace. Lockdown limitations have freed up the potential of e-learning, presenting it to a wider audience that might not have fully realised how useful it could be.
Platforms such as Online Live, used by BPP, are a world away from stereotypes of static “one-hour webinars” or uploaded click-through modules, recasting online learning as a more dynamic, interactive experience. Mimicking the face-to-face learning environment, the platform offers live training and tools that allow delegates to experience interaction points akin to a traditional face-to-face setting.
From virtual breakout rooms, where people work together in smaller groups on exercises, to chat pods for instant responses, polls, quizzes and optional video participation, trainers have plenty of choice as to how they convert offline material to online. All of which has dovetailed with online learning’s flexibility in delivery – the addition of more frequent break schedules and offline learning sections has further helped to tailor sessions to the needs of delegates.
BPP has also seen an increase in the use of mobile devices for online learning recently, a trend that could well move it to pole position in a connected world. “Having the freedom to learn from your phone at your own pace whenever you want is really appealing,” says Dilaver.
But technology is only as creative as those who use it – and upskilling 200 presenters of 97 different subjects has been crucial for BPP’s pandemic pivot. As such, online training, support and “drop-in clinics” have been employed to get those with a variety of technological competencies up to speed and comfortable delivering on the platform. These skills include being able to signpost information effectively and amplify their energy and personality to engage learners fully. Even with a screen between you, the key learning relationship still lies between presenter and delegate.
For Dilaver, the chief factor for engagement is relevance: “Making a course relevant is what makes it stand out and people want to do more of it – and that’s true whether face to face or online. With Online Live though, you have flexibility because, as a delegate, you can use the mic or webcam to let the presenter know what you’re looking for and they can then adapt.”
Feedback from ICAS members and trainers to the expansion of the online CPD offering has been positive: “A lot of people have been surprised at how good it was and how effective. There was an initial feeling that anything is better than having to put your life on hold, but as people joined the online sessions and actually saw the material a lot of them found they enjoyed it – and they realised it wasn’t too different from a real-life session.
“There will always be a place for face-to-face learning – human beings are social and the recent situation has shown how much we need to interact physically – but I think we’ll see the ratio of preference change. People may still be reluctant to go into face-to-face environments for a while – but when things return back to ‘normal’, I suspect we’ll also have those who have experienced it saying, ‘Actually, I’d rather do that training with Online Live from the comfort of my home or office.’ It will be interesting to see what the future holds – and whether this will be a key moment where more people will start looking at online learning as their first choice.”
This article first appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of CA magazine.