More adults leaning into online learning

From physical classroom to Zoom, online learning has become part of the pandemic reality — and acceptance — among adult learners. But there have been some challenges

While adult learners value the convenience and flexibility of online learning, the lack of social interaction between classmates and educators was seen as a major drawback. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

Adult learners are embracing the shift to online learning, having discovered its benefits as a result of last year's circuit breaker.

And though the switch has been a steep learning curve, both adult learners and educators indicated their preference for online learning because of the technology that has made it more convenient.

This was one of the key findings in a survey of 1,354 adult learners conducted between last September and February. Residents polled were aged 20 to 70.

The survey, by Institute for Adult Learning Singapore (IAL), found a preference for full online learning - from 5.6 per cent before the circuit breaker in April last year, to 26.4 per cent post-lockdown.

The IAL is an autonomous institute under the Singapore University of Social Sciences that provides training and upskilling opportunities for adult educators, and undertakes applied research for the development of practice in training and adult education (TAE).

Why the enthusiasm for online learning?

Convenience and flexibility, said the respondents.

Referring to the saving of time spent on travel, one said he used to spend three hours going to and from class. That's as long as the three-hour lesson. "So the good thing (about online learning) is I save time. Instead of travelling, I can re-look at the lecture and then do my own self-study."

Praising the online learning model for its convenience and flexibility, one adult learner said: "If I miss a certain (thing), like a chapter, or (there is) something I did not understand, I can just go back and rewatch it".

Online lectures, self-guided lessons and video conferences are the most common modes for those who participated in online learning programmes.

"Although we see a shift in learners' preferences," says IAL principal researcher Sheng Yee Zher, "it's also worth noting the importance of a positive online learning experience for the learners.

"Therefore, there is a need for training providers and adult educators to strive for quality online lessons with a high level of interactivity to encourage continuous participation."

Have there been drawbacks to the learning process?

A major concern highlighted by about half of the respondents was the lack of social interaction with other classmates and the trainer.

Mr Sheng says: "Learners spoke about the element of 'humanness' missing from the online environment, the possibility of building friendships and the value of such interaction to their learning."

The study found that adult learners valued the face-to-face experience of a traditional classroom setting, wishing for more opportunities to interact with peers without being restricted by a technological medium, added Mr Sheng.

This suggests a need for organisations to improve their learning programmes to encourage active collaboration.

The survey also found a higher level of satisfaction among respondents who attended a hybrid learning programme, which is a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Synchronous learning takes place in real-time and asynchronous learning lets adult learners work in their own time and schedule.

A blended learning approach - a mixture of online and classroom-based learning - allows adult learners to enjoy the flexibility of studying at their own pace, while being able to communicate freely with others.

Online adult learners were also somewhat uncomfortable about trainers being unfamiliar with the use of digital tools. This was one of the major concerns raised by one in four of online learners polled.

The finding is consistent with that of an online survey with adult educators conducted by IAL researchers from May to June last year. That survey revealed that digital skills were one of the top challenges adult educators faced during the transition to online learning.

Why the need to embrace digital?

To keep up with the demands of the current learning landscape, training providers should aim to provide more concrete professional development opportunities and funding support to help adult educators grow their expertise at work, says principal researcher Chen Zan.

"With digital transformation building its momentum and the influx of new teaching and learning technologies, it's crucial for organisations to offer continuous training for adult educators to stay relevant and build future-oriented capabilities that are required to address challenges of the rapidly-changing world of work," says Dr Chen.

"I think it (digital transformation) has forced us to rethink our approaches. Covid-19 has provided an opportunity for training providers to explore different modes of training. Moving forward, we have to embrace technology even more. Especially as our learners become more tech-savvy, they might prefer going for online classes if they see equal benefits to attending face-to-face, if not more."

A common concern among learners aged above 40 was adapting to new technology. This could be due to a lack of digital competency, as well as limited access to devices and internet connections, says Mr Sheng.

"Those with low digital proficiency struggle with the use of the online learning platforms, and suffer from anxiety and frustration due to technical issues experienced during online learning," he says.

"It's necessary to provide sufficient support to build up confidence in the usage of technology for this group of learners."

Mr Sheng suggested conducting a trial class before the lessons to allow adult learners time to familiarise themselves with the use of online learning platforms.

Training providers could also consider setting up dedicated learning labs at their premises to provide adult learners with proper IT equipment needed to facilitate the sessions.

"Such support will help to prevent delays during lessons so learners can focus on the objectives of the lessons instead of struggling with technical issues," he says.

The findings conclude that there's an immediate need to ensure that both adult learners and educators in Singapore possess the relevant knowledge required to navigate the rapid digitalisation in today's post-Covid-19 world.

Ride on tech to improve courses

For Singapore's TAE sector to move forward, organisations need to review their online course offerings and make use of learning technologies to create a better learning experience.

IAL has been supporting the TAE community in the transition in areas such as online resources, activities and events.

For example, IAL organised a special Covid-19 edition of their inaugural InnovJam ideathon last year as part of their InnovSeries programmes designed to drive innovation among TAE professionals.

Participants in this initiative get to showcase their digital solutions to help mitigate the pandemic-induced disruption to learning.

One of the teams presented the idea of a mobile-based platform that integrated synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Experts conclude that, clearly, online learning will be the norm even after the Covid-19 pandemic, and more has to be done to empower adult learners and professionals to take learning and teaching beyond the traditional limits of the classroom.

​​IAL hopes that its research will help training providers and institutions stay a step ahead of changes in adult learning, as Covid-19 becomes endemic. The institute will continue to deepen its research to support the TAE sector.

This is the first of a three-part series titled "Yearning for continuous learning" brought to you by the Institute for Adult Learning.

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