The way we learn, much like the subject matter which makes up that learning, is an ever-evolving field.
Nothing has showcased this fact in recent times quite like the fallout from COVID-19.
The early days of the pandemic last year forced learning institutions around the world to adapt to fully remote learning – and to do it quickly.
While the method of delivery would not have been new to many educational bodies, reckoning with the requirement for a swift uptick in the scale and pace of delivering courses online and grappling with the implementation of pedagogies to effectively teach topics previously delivered face-to-face presented a significant challenge across the board.
This rapid upscaling of online teaching undoubtedly equated to a significant leap forward in the understanding of best practice when it came to the delivery method.
But have the benefits of remote learning, so well publicised against the backdrop of the pandemic, eclipsed those of face-to-face education?
AIM WA Chief Operating Officer Shaun Ridley FAIM said it was less a question of which method was better overall, but one of which was best suited to each specific learning situation.
“Predictably, there is no single ‘right’ answer to the question ‘is online or face-to-face learning better?’,” he said. “The answer depends on the audience and the purpose of the learning.”
“If the purpose is complex skill acquisition, then face-to-face is better.”
This, for Dr Ridley, is the crux of what makes face-to-face learning as integral as ever, even as technology improves and develops exponentially in its attempts to challenge this.
Complex ideas required dynamic learning environments enriched by interpersonal interactions, he said, something that still didn’t quite translate fully online.
“If, for example, you wanted to develop a team of people who could counsel and support at-risk youth, then an intensive training environment that enabled you to provide live feedback across a range of interpersonal behaviours would be required,” Dr Ridley said.
“With our current technologies, such an environment would be inferior in a virtual or online setting.”
Whether this sentiment held water, Dr Ridley conceded, came down to your view of modern pedagogies.
“At a broader level, online versus face-to-face is a discussion about how we learn,” he said.
“Some would argue, and I’m one of them, that learning is a social process – a complex process that goes well beyond jamming facts into someone’s head and extends to ‘sense-making’, relationship building and applying learning in real-world situations.
“Others take a counter-view that learning is a more structured process; in essence, the transfer of information, knowledge and even skills from one location to another.
“Where you are on this debate will be highly influential in your preferred mode of delivery for learning.”
A November 2020 report released by the Federal Government’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) revealed many student respondents to surveys conducted by their higher education institutions had found online learning challenging throughout the pandemic.
Issues around a lack of interpersonal interaction ranked highly.
Of the 118 providers which voluntarily shared summaries of their student experience surveys with TEQSA, 34 mentioned a lack of engagement in their summaries, 40 mentioned inadequate interaction and 34 insufficient peer interaction.
The only issues to outrank these were those around assessment types and arrangements (35 mentions) and IT problems (48).
“The most common area of complaint about online teaching and learning was that there was insufficient engagement with teaching and tutoring staff and that much more interaction with individual students was expected than had occurred,” the report’s author Dr Linley Martin AO noted.
“Many students commented that they missed the informal interaction with lecturers before or after lectures and tutorials that often occurred when they were studying face-to-face.
“Although there was opportunity for students to interact with their peers through classes and in the smaller tutorial or practical groups run through the learning management systems or the collaborative software, they generally did not regard this type of contact as equivalent to meeting informally on campus with friends and colleagues.”
On the other side of the coin, the report also revealed many students found flexible access to materials, including early availability of lecture and tutorial questions, and good access to academic help and advice online were among the benefits highlighted, with both points attracting 29 mentions.
There were also 24 reports of technology making it easier for students to learn.
For Dr Ridley, online methods of delivery have proved extremely useful in the dissemination of information en masse.
“If the purpose is knowledge acquisition, at scale, then online learning is better,” he said.
“Consider a hypothetical situation where the Federal Department of Health wants to alert all health professionals in Australia to the latest guidelines for administering a COVID-19 vaccination.
"Reaching an audience numbering tens of thousands with face-to-face delivery of knowledge-based learning modules would be prohibitively expensive and would take months (or years) to roll out.
“Yet a well-designed series of modules available through an online portal could be equally effective, easily accessed and be implemented in a few weeks.”
Where to next?
If the pandemic has illustrated anything, it’s that the rate of technological advancement knows no bounds, especially in the face of crisis.
Dr Ridley said he was excited to see what technologies such as virtual reality could offer the world of learning going forward.
“Virtual reality and augmented reality are well established in the gaming world, but they are yet to reach the point of being commercially viable in the average organisation’s training budget,” he said.
“Perhaps even more exciting are the worlds of artificial intelligence, machine learning and even nano technologies.
“The acceleration of internet speeds, data storage and processing and the Internet of Things has opened up a new range of possibilities for everything from mass knowledge transfer to the DNA of human behaviour.”
Whether these promising avenues of development would tip the scales against face-to-face learning, Dr Ridley said, ultimately came down to the student.
“As with all advances in our thinking on this topic, we do need to remind ourselves that the ultimate customer is the learner and, for now at least, this learner is a person with a complex array of talents, emotions and behaviours,” he said.
“Let’s hope we can continue to blend our advances in learning technologies with the unique needs of the learner in front of us.”