What are the Main Trends in Online Learning? A Helicopter Analysis of Possible Futures

By Mark Brown

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a game-changer for online learning on several levels, the field has a long and rich history. This history has not always featured in our response to the pandemic. Earlier in the year, I was asked to undertake for an external organisation a helicopter analysis of the main trends in online learning with an eye on the future, but anchored in this history. What follows in this blog post is a raw version of my analysis that has yet to find its way into a formally published paper. The intention of this post is to share some of my analysis and the related thinking arising from both the research and the more popular literature before we start another potentially memorable year in the evolution of online learning. The analysis identifies five macro-level trends: 

  • Convergence
  • Massification
  • Openness
  • Interactivity
  • Diversification 
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

The Definition Problem

Before setting out to consider major trends in Online Learning, it does help to set some parameters for the analysis or at the very least to establish from the outset that defining the field is a challenge. Online learning is far more complex than usually understood in everyday language and practice. According to Singh and Thurman (2019), the term “Online Learning” was first used in 1995 in the early development of the Learning Management System (LMS), which in Europe is better known as the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Since then, online learning has evolved and is a term whose meaning has become less clear over time (Irvine, 2020). As Irvine (2020) observes, 

“What used to be a simple binary of face-to-face or online has now become so extremely complex that our ability to understand each other is impaired” (p. 42).

The semantics have been muddied as online learning is often spoken about in the context of many overlapping terms such as e-learning, blended learning, digital learning, distance learning, flipped learning, hybrid learning, to name a few. Therefore, as mentioned above, defining online learning for this analysis was not a straightforward task, with Singh and Thurman (2019) identifying 46 definitions in their recent literature review. Notably, common features of most definitions include but are not limited to concepts of time, space, distance, interactivity and use of technology, particularly the Internet. While physical distance is not always an element for defining online learning, it is mentioned consistently. For this reason, the following discussion frames the analysis of current trends in online learning around the following definition:

“Online learning is defined as education being delivered or experienced in an online environment either synchronously or asynchronously through the use of the Internet where learners do not need to be co-present in a physical space” (adapted from Singh & Thurman, 2019). 

A wealth of literature falling under this broad definition has been published over the past 25-years. Importantly, a great deal is already known about the effective design of synchronous and asynchronous online learning environments, as reported in several major literature reviews (e.g. Means, et al., 2010; Siemens, Gasevic & Dawson, 2015; Martin, Sun & Westine, 2020). There is a body of scholarly literature exploring major trends and patterns in online learning in a similar vein. For example, the annual Horizon Report (EDUCAUSE, 2021) and Innovating Pedagogy Report (Kukulska-Hulme, et al., 2021) help to identify past, present, and future trends. There are also efforts to retrospectively analyse trends such as Bozkurt and Zawacki-Richter’s (2021) interesting visual representation of the online (distance) learning landscape. More popular opinion pieces on future trends and speculative scholarly works looking into the future also make up the literature, which collectively informs this analysis. 

Photo by Diego Jimenez on Unsplash

The remainder of this paper outlines five macro-level trends in the evolution and potential future development of online learning. Set against the background of these trends, how we choose to shape, reshape and reimagine the future ways that online learning can be deployed in the service of education, lifelong learning and the type of [digital] societies we want to create is a very different matter. This is a much bigger question that needs to frame any discussion of our possible, probable and preferred futures.

Go to Mark’s LinkedIn page to read the full text of this future trends analysis.

From “Anxious” to “Confident”: Week 1 of Digital Edge ends with Optimism

A Digital Edge: Essentials for the Online Learner went live on Monday 21st September and so far more than 3300 people have registered for the course. Importantly, given the current Covid-19 pandemic and the challenges facing college and university students around the world, this free 2-week course on the FutureLearn platform aims to support people to learn how to be an effective online learner.

Week 1 kicked off with a welcome poll asking participants how they’re feeling at the beginning of the course. Here are the poll results from earlier in the week:

While some learners felt “anxious” and “overwhelmed”, others felt “excited”, “comfortable” and “happy”. The mix of emotions was expected and is a quite normal response for many first-time online learners. However, a related course aim is to help participants feel less anxious and more enthusiastic about their online learning experience by equipping them with the necessary tools, resources and positive mindset to become successful lifelong learners in a digital world.

Jessica Q, one of the participants, said:

“It’s somewhat reassuring to see other people are feeling anxious – glad I’m not the only one!  It’s daunting as I’ve been out of education for over a decade, but seeing how much support and guidance there is available really helps! Excited to start on the road to finally getting my degree in my 30s.”

The first week is structured in four parts: (i) a welcome section including the above poll, (ii) Ways of Thinking, (iii) Ways of Working, and (iv) a roundup to reflect on the week. Ways of thinking included a 3-step guide to cultivating a growth mindset and lessons from FutureLearn’s Crowdsourced Guide to Learning. Some of the questions asked were:

  • How do you manage your own thinking?
  • How can you grow your mindset for learning?
  • What are you hoping to achieve from your studies?

These questions led to an interesting discussion where participants shared their tips and set out their objectives for others to follow. The most common tips to managing thinking coming from the course participants included writing thoughts down and creating ‘mind maps’.

On Thursday, DCU students taking the course were invited to participate in a webinar designed to support A Digital Edge. Notably, 300 students joined this live session, which was entirely organised, hosted and facilitated by Vish Gain, a NIDL intern, and the DCU Student Ambassadors who are contributing to the course as co-facilitators.

Ways of Working started with a quick poll based on a scenario on how different learners approach managing their time. The results were promising as most learners reported they like to be prepared with reading up long before an online lecture, while some like to do readings on the morning of the lecture. Either way, the poll helped learners to keep in mind they have decisions about how they go about their work and this knowledge informed the subsequent discussions.

Michael M, one of the participants, said…

“I do most of my best work in the morning as I am more fresh and generally feel more satisfied with having accomplished even a small task early in the day… I would always be concerned that in the evening time comes fatigue and I would be less disciplined or retain less. It is nice to be reminded from the poll, the variety of how people operate.”

When responding to a poll on support systems, most participants reported that they were most likely to rely on friends, classmates and family members for support, followed by partners and lecturers, as depicted in the results shown below.

Week 1 concluded with a summary of all the points learnt under Ways of Thinking and Ways of Working, followed by a round up and discussion by participants reflecting on what they’ve learnt so far. This is what some of them had to say:

Ranganai G…

“I have gained a bit of confidence just by attending the first part of the Digital Edge course, I feel I can start on my degree now.”

Adam C…

“Really good to be able to read the comments and see what other students feel and think about certain topics, especially if you’re an incoming student transitioning from secondary school like me.”

The feedback on the course so far has been very encouraging and is marked by a significant shift in vocabulary from being “anxious” and “overwhelmed” to “excited” and “confident” as reflected by the following two comments posted in the end of week round up:

 “This course has been so helpful as I’ve been really stressed about doing all my learning and studying online this year.” 

The course has really helped ease my worries about online learning. It has helped me think about the ways in which I learn and how I can adapt them to become a successful online learner.

The course now moves towards Week 2’s themes which focus on Tools for Working and Tools for Thriving. Having said that, it’s not too late to start the course if you haven’t yet registered as the discussion posts and resources from Week 1 will be available for a few more weeks. Notably, some participants have already completed the entire course in the first week and on last count around 100 DCU students have their Certificates of Achievement as evidence of their completion.

For those yet to complete, next week we will continue to support people throughout Ireland, and beyond, to Explore, Develop, Gather, and Embrace their online learning experience as they navigate their way through the remainder of the course alongside fellow learners, our student ambassadors and NIDL team of experienced online educators.