Online learning & Coronavirus: An exploration of virtual education

The COVID-19 pandemic may have eased, but the effects on universities and education in general are here to stay. We take a look at what online learning and virtual education has to offer.



Advanced technology allows us to share knowledge and skills in ways never experienced before. With the coronavirus outbreak in 2020-2022, universities around the world had to speed up the development of their online learning platforms and adapt their courses accordingly.


What impact has Coronavirus had on university education?


The UNESCO IESALC report ‘Resuming or Reforming? Tracking the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education after two years of disruption’, found that ‘the rapid return to in-person teaching and learning and the stabilization of enrolment patterns suggest that the changes of 2020 and 2021 will not lead to a fundamental transformation in the core understanding of higher education as a face-to-face endeavour.’ In other words, face-to-face teaching is not a thing of the past. However, the report also found that online teaching is here to stay.


A ‘UNESCO IESALC study of 73 higher education institutions from 38 countries found that the student-centered learning space within the participating institutions provided learners an opportunity to participate in virtual student mobility in the midst of the pandemic (UNESCO IESALC, 2022a).’ 


According to the study, 75% of learners said they would repeat the virtual intercultural experience if they were given the chance as they were able to “learn and meet people from all over the world”.


Let’s now take a closer look at the different aspects of online learning.


What’s online learning like?


One of the major problems that is often talked about is that online learning doesn’t have the face-to-face interaction of a traditional learning environment. There is a worry that this decreases the effectiveness of the learning process. Students worry that they will not have the opportunity to interact or communicate with their lecturers or instructors.


It’s important to remember that much will depend on the way that the course is structured and the way it’s delivered. The significant advances in streaming technology has meant that seamless online video, online chats and real-time interactivity, help answer the problem of interaction and communication.


Online learning via live streaming 


Live streaming is one of the most common technologies that is used to simulate the real-world lecture and instructional environment. You have the opportunity to interact with both the lecturer and other students, as well as give instant feedback using real-time tools. These can be used for both assessments and exams and for the lecturer to check if the class has understood a concept, before moving on to another topic. This has made taking a course online quite easy.


What if I can’t attend a class?


In some cases, lectures will be recorded and uploaded, so if you miss attending a few classes or want to recap, you can catch up on all the information. Many institutions have also adopted webinar formats for the delivery of content, which encourage active participation and allow you to ask questions.


Streaming also allows for more personal interaction between students and lecturers, with one-to-one video chats and discussions providing the ideal opportunity to seek clarification on a topic and discuss the specific subject matter.  These consultations usually have a very clear structure and are mainly used for feedback, academic discussion, resource sharing and guidance.


You may find that if you are studying at a postgraduate level and are attending fewer classes these types of meetings will suit your schedule and allow for greater flexibility. They are used to great effect by thesis supervisors at master’s degree and doctoral level.


Do institutions have expertise in online learning?


Although physical attendance at a class or lecture has often been thought of as a necessity, this perception has begun to shift. With the technology available it is now much easier to deliver courses and learn online, with instant access to resources and tools.


This has also extended to the assessment process, with online submissions and assessments, like essays and papers,  becoming the norm.  Added to this is the increased connectivity offered by email and social media, and a large number of online academic resources. This means you have great access to a wealth of expertise.


What do universities do to ensure that courses are delivered professionally online?


Online education has developed considerably in the last decade and universities have dedicated experts working on offering you the best possible experience if they are learning online. This expertise includes: 


  • Online learning and teaching professionals 

  • Online learning designers 

  • Software developers 

  • Instructional designers 

  • Content developers 

  • User experience designers

  • Information technology professionals 


Much time is given to making sure that the educational methodology of the online experience maximises and improves learning. You may find elements of gamification and the inclusion of social media in courses.  


The online offerings of institutions also have the added benefit of opening up opportunities for students who may otherwise have not had the chance to study at an institution, including a reduction in tuition fee costs.


Having the option to learn online is also helpful for universities and students in the face of an interruption to teaching. Teaching and learning online means that universities can continue their instruction and provision of courses, with students able to carry on learning as was the case with the pandemic. 


What can I expect from online learning at a university?


So how will you access your lectures, resources, assessments and timetables online? An institution will likely make use of a learning management system that allows you to access tools for online learning.


You’ll have your own profile and portal, where you can do everything from attending online lectures and submit assignments to joining discussion forums and getting  hold of learning resources. Some of the more popular systems used by universities include:


  • Blackboard Collaborate – Virtual classroom platform and learning environment

  • Moodle – Personalized online learning environment

  • Sakai – Online learning platform for teaching, research and collaboration


Certain institutions may also use their own online systems. Some are easier to use than others, but most institutions have dedicated departments to guide and advise you with any questions or problems you may have. 


For the most part, systems are designed to be easy to use, allowing you to get on with learning rather than worrying about how to use a tool. Doing some online research into what’s on offer and how universities are making use of online learning is a useful way in getting more familiar with it. 


How do I communicate effectively online?


Remember to always inform your course coordinator or lecturer if you’re experiencing issues with access and connectivity. This is essential to stay on track and continue to study effectively.  You can’t afford to miss out on updates and course materials.


Don’t forget that your experience of an online learning environment will also depend on the type of device you are using and certain aspects of the process such as submissions, assessments and interactive webinars are often best on a laptop or desktop while accessing content is often easy to do on all devices. Developing your online communication skills is an important tool in these circumstances.

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