Toxic? Online learning can be better than the classroom

Effective teaching need not be confined to the classroom or the physical presence of a teacher, argues Mark Bremner, no matter what online learning critics say

Effective teaching need not be confined to the classroom or the physical presence of a teacher, argues Mark Bremner, no matter what online learning critics say

5 Oct 2023, 17:00

This year’s Annual Apprenticeship Conference in Birmingham saw Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman take to the stage to declare that online learning and self-study can be a “toxic combination” if overused or used too soon in an apprenticeship. Spending too much time studying at home or alone could “can damage apprentices’ motivation and enthusiasm” and unsurprisingly lead some to drop out.

In reality, when executed properly online learning offers a formidable platform that can prove even more effective than in-person teaching in some instances.  

We have not conducted an in-person session for two years. And having successfully transitioned from in-person to online teaching, we have consistently maintained our Ofsted ‘outstanding’ status.  

Online vs online 

Key to understanding our success – and much of the derision directed towards online provision – is the distinction between virtual classroom-based learning on one hand, and the loathed (but sadly much embraced) pre-recorded ‘lessons’ on the other.  

Crafting effective engagement strategies is crucial to maintaining high-quality learning experiences online. Platforms like Moodle and pre-recorded content have serious limitations in advancing student learning. Their inflexible content lacks interactivity and real-time feedback, limiting engagement. They may be suitable for basic level two courses, but advanced apprenticeships demand a deeper understanding and require more innovative techniques. 

Instead, a hybrid model that combines virtual face-to-face sessions with small interactive cohorts and personalised one-to-one monthly sessions maintain vital flexibility. It offers a learning experience that is engaging and tailored to individual needs, providing apprentices with the chance to choose content according to their needs. They can focus on areas where they require assistance or skip to coaching sessions where they feel more confident. 

Furthermore, well-structured webinars with focused content can effectively replicate in-person interactions offered in traditional classroom settings. They aren’t without limitations; students are easily distracted and studies show that keeping webinar durations to around two to three hours enhances engagement and overall productivity. Regular breaks also play a crucial role in sustaining focus and optimising cognitive performance.

We have not conducted an in-person session for two years

Follow-up one-on-one coaching sessions further reinforce learning by bridging the gap between theory and practical application. As apprentices develop, transitioning from tutoring to coaching model shifts the focus onto real-world application.  

Elevating Education with Advantages 

Online learning also fosters a unique ecosystem of peer support and cross-sectoral conversations among apprentices from diverse backgrounds that in-person provision can’t consistently deliver.  

The logistics of arranging eight to ten students from different sectors to sign up to the same programme at the same time and in the same location is immensely challenging. Roll-on, roll-off recruitment allows apprentices to be seamlessly recruited across various sectors and locations.  

Apprentices can engage with colleagues in open cohorts at any time. This virtual format breaks down geographical barriers, enabling cross-sector interactions that enrich experiential learning.  

Meanwhile, virtual breakout rooms facilitate collaborative learning and enable apprentices to gain insights into challenges across various sectors. This promotes a holistic perspective that transcends the limitations of physical classrooms. Virtual classrooms can, in some cases, be more effective than physical ones.  

The benefits of online learning also extend to educators. An online setup reduces stress for tutors who no longer have to worry about timekeeping. No one is disadvantaged by traffic making students late in the morning or tiredness affecting focus on late afternoons. Tutors also cite reduced stress and improved teaching focus in an online environment, which can only benefit learners. 

Online learning benefits everyone else too, as it reduces our carbon footprint. Not only does that bring us closer to our net-zero commitments, it reduces costs for learners and educators at a time when the cost-of-living crisis poses a real risk to finances. 

Our corporate responsibility to deliver good outcomes for our students is a commitment we are devoted to. We would not deliver learning online if we could not provide high-quality education effectively.

Expertly implemented, online learning is far from toxic. Rather than damaging motivation and enthusiasm, it can deliver learning more effectively than traditional classroom-based provision for many learners. 

Inspectors recognise that in our practices. We hope a new chief inspector will too for the benefit of all apprentices.

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