Chief People Officer FutureLearn
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Flexible learning: how online and social learning boost diversity and inclusion

As we emerge from this period of enforced remote working, we take with us the lessons learned in lockdown – namely that online and social learning can deliver positive results and provide more inclusive upskilling opportunities.

5th Aug 2020
Chief People Officer FutureLearn
In association with
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man wearing headphones watching webinar training making notes study online learning language on computer
iStock/fizkes

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced companies around the world to shift to remote working. Teams are communicating on Slack, meetings are happening on Zoom or Teams, and even multi-day conferences with hundreds of participants are taking place fully online. Whilst this has caused a great deal of disruption, for some working professionals this shift was a relief.

For those living with disabilities, or juggling parenting or caring commitments, lengthy commutes and the need to be physically present in an office setting, 9am – 5pm Monday to Friday, can be a significant barrier. For these types of workers, it has been a small silver lining that companies have been forced to rapidly adopt technology to enable effective remote working.

The need to fit personal development around busy schedules has never been so important and online learning provides a solution to this.  

It is interesting to see that many companies are discovering that remote working is not as difficult as anticipated, with some companies reporting that productivity is at an all time high.

The same lesson can be applied to learning and development. Professional training and CPD is often carried out face-to-face, which is not only time-consuming and costly, but often excludes diverse audiences. As companies across the world are rethinking the way they work, it is undoubtedly also time to rethink the way we learn and upskill.

The online advantage

During the pandemic, much of traditional learning and professional development has been put on hold, but as employers look ahead to the new normal they will need to set in place robust plans for L&D that don’t depend on travel and convening in large groups face-to-face.

This is where online learning comes in. Online courses are sometimes seen as a less effective alternative to in-person training programmes, but this is an outdated misconception. In fact, in a 2018 survey commissioned by FutureLearn, 92% of employers said online courses were a valuable learning and development tool and 73% agreed that evidence of online learning was a valuable asset when considering the promotion of an existing employee. Additionally, a study from Behavioral Tech Research found that online learning can result in superior knowledge acquisition to face-to-face training, especially when it’s supported by application of the newly acquired skills in practice.

Online tools have disrupted and democratised learning and reskilling in a way that is probably only close to what mobile payments did for banking. At FutureLearn, seven of the top ten countries for learner enrolments in the past year are emerging markets. Covid-19 has only accelerated this trend, with a fivefold increase in enrolments from India in 2020 so far compared to the same period in 2019, for example. The popularity of online learning in developing countries is significant and it is this global demand for affordable credentials and upskilling that is continuing to drive education online.

flexible learning hub link

Almost half of our learners at FutureLearn are working professionals and a significant proportion of these are part-time workers. Often, those working part-time are juggling other commitments such as parenting and/or providing care to elderly or sick relatives. Lockdown and the closure of schools has drawn particular attention to the challenging reality of being a working parent who needs to upskill, particularly in an era of economic uncertainty where job roles are evolving rapidly. The need to fit personal development around busy schedules has never been so important and online learning provides a solution to this.  

Furthermore, the accessibility of online courses facilitates global communities of learners. Accessibility not only means a geographically diverse pool of learners, but also allows for learners of all ages and abilities. Research has shown that diversity in the workplace actually makes companies more effective. A study from Boston Consulting Group found that companies that are diverse produce 19% more revenue per annum due to innovation. We can apply similar thinking to learning environments – bringing together a diverse group of learners means participants can benefit from differing world views and insights.

Quality online courses can also incorporate multimodal learning, using a mixture of videos, articles, podcasts and assessments to create a dynamic learning experience. The use of closed captioning and subtitles can also make online learning more accessible to those in the deaf and hard of hearing communities, whilst audio descriptions and large-type text can aid the visually impaired. Ultimately, online courses have the potential to be much more tailored to the individual needs of each learner, facilitating a much more inclusive learning experience.

A new kind of learning

While online short courses can provide a great springboard, some workers and organisations are looking for more formalised, accredited training. The ability to demonstrate one’s knowledge and applied skills with a certification by a reputable source is critical to maintaining employability. Stagnating in skill and knowledge level is equal to regressing especially in the digital context.

In recent years there has been an uptick of credit-bearing, modular learning, where industry experts and companies work alongside online learning platforms to create accredited, stackable, skills-based programmes. For example, the Common Microcredential Framework (CMF) launched by The European MOOC Consortium (EMC) lays out set requirements for a new type of credential that sits somewhere between a short course and an online degree. In addition, in late June, the Australian government announced it will spend AU$4.3 million to build and run a one-stop shop online marketplace for microcredentials.

This type of credential is typically relevant to rapidly growing industries and designed to help professionals advance in their careers. Crucially, many of them are endorsed by top companies and they provide credit that can be used towards further study. The subject matter is often work-focused but can vary from technical and digital skills, such as data analytics and cyber security to soft, workplace skills such as resilience or negotiation.  

A new era

Before the pandemic, there were significant skills gaps emerging across industries. A 2019 study from Wiley Education Services found that 64% of employers believe there is a skills gap in their company, up from 52% in 2018. This put the need for quality upskilling and CPD into sharp focus, and the pandemic, and the ensuing economic disruption, has only heightened the need for workforces to gain the skills they need to adapt and thrive in ‘the new normal’. Whatever this new normality ends up looking like, online learning will be a big part of it, as the last couple of months have demonstrated.

Interested in this topic? Read Virtual training: three lessons from the lockdown experience.

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