How people learn (The future learning Report 2022)

According to the Future Learning Report 2022, education has developed at a rapid pace in the past few years. While people will still study just to satisfy a thirst for knowledge, many are becoming much more intentional in their learning choices.

Learners understand that there is no career for life anymore. With regular job switching here to stay and the gig economy still growing, there’s an urgent demand for the UK’s workforce to have a broader range of skills. Learners want and need, to keep gaining qualifications throughout the lifespan of their careers.

As a result, respondents are turning to online learning. 81% who have changed careers since the start of the pandemic state that an online course helped them make their move. But they’re also asking employers for lifelong learning opportunities. Amid these trends, new teaching models and technologies are giving learners greater flexibility over how, where and when they choose to complete courses, from traditional face-to-face classes to new online-only or blended approaches.

David Coyne, Senior Policy Advisor, Skills Development Scotland, believes learners also have a keen eye trained on how new skills align with career options. “It would be interesting if you could get to a point whereby there’s a catalogue of things you must demonstrate or do to achieve a qualification in a chosen field,” he says. “‘I’m going to be on a merchant ship for three weeks, that will get me 25 points; I’ll do something online and that will get me more points; then I’m going to attend a series of expert lectures.’ You’ll assemble your own degree.”

The experts observed new preferences for online and blended courses that flexibly fit around learners’ lives. In the future, the focus will be on models that encompass emerging ways to learn, from MOOCs to free learning on YouTube, creating a more inclusive offering that tears down barriers such as cost and location.

Nick Worthington, Director, King’s Online, explains: “COVID-19 propelled the pace of change in the sector, and learning as a concept more generally. For many players in the market – universities but also other organisations – it has highlighted a big opportunity.” While these trends mark a major opportunity for both learners and educators, they’re also highlighting the ‘digital divides’ in society. It’s clear that people’s socioeconomic backgrounds still determine whether they succeed or struggle to embrace these new ways to learn.

Top marks for Online Learning

Experts aren’t surprised by the popularity of online learning, whether through short courses or blended learning because its flexibility suits so many situations (for example, fitting study around a busy work life or parenthood).

They point out that short online courses can also serve many purposes for the learner from a simple thirst for knowledge to specific vocational needs.

Online platforms are rated the top provider by most age groups surveyed, apart from those aged 55-plus, who prefer to learn via a college (32%). There are also some interesting differences in learning preference by ethnic background. Asian* (43%) and White* (33%) people name online learning platforms as their top choice when it comes to gaining new skills. When it comes to learning directly with a brand or technology company such as TikTok and YouTube, however, this is most popular among Black* respondents (38%) and least popular among White respondents (11%). In terms of how people learn, 31% of respondents say they would take an online short course if they needed to learn new skills to further their career, making this the top answer.

Learners prefer online courses to other ways of learning for several reasons. Chief among these is the freedom of learning at a pace that suits them (23%), but the ability to learn from home (22%) and overall flexibility (20%) are also highly rated.

Women are generally more positive than men about all of these factors. More than a quarter (26%) of women enjoy learning at their own pace, compared to a fifth (20%) of men. Moreover, 24% of women compared to 20% of men enjoy learning in the comfort of their own home.

Black respondents (25%) state that taking a course alongside others around the world is behind their preference for online learning. This type of ‘cosmopolitan course’, bringing together learners from different backgrounds, cultures and locations, is also a much bigger draw for 16- to 24-year-old respondents (16%) than the oldest group surveyed – those aged 55 and over (4%).

When we asked people to tell us their least favourite things about an online course they have taken, a fifth (20%) of respondents overall stated there are no disadvantages to taking an online course. However, the research shows that some providers and platforms can still make improvements to create even better online learning environments. For example, some respondents say losing motivation quickly and missing the physical classroom setting is their least favourite things about online learning.

Experts point out that learners generally have similar likes and dislikes for all educational settings. To bolster motivation and support for online learners during a course, they believe dedicated counsellors/tutors for advice and support, and online chat boards for students to share experiences will help. These measures are already in place, in many cases.

Educational psychologist Dr Kairen Cullen agrees: “If we don’t enable people and help them to feel supported it can feel quite an anonymous, hostile world.”

Flexibility is key

 People have different preferences when it comes to how they like to learn. More than a quarter (26%) want to do so in a way that fits into their own schedule.

Professor Kiran Trehan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Partnerships and Engagement and Director of the Centre for Women’s Enterprise, Leadership, Economy and Diversity, University of York, expands on this point: “A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t fit with our aspirations anymore. We like the idea of being able to learn when we want, how we want, in different spaces – reflecting the changing nature of work.”

Men are most likely to seek out in-person learning (28%) but the top choice among women is the approach that best suits their schedule (29%). Meanwhile, over a fifth (21%) of those aged 25 to 34 – and almost as many (20%) who are 35 to 44 – want fully online courses.

With 19% wishing to take short, frequent online courses, and a further 19% keen on a blend of face-to-face and web-based learning, it’s clear that flexibility and personalisation are, and will continue to be, hugely important for learners.

Experts feel that blended learning – sometimes termed ‘active learning’ or ‘hybrid learning – is a key future approach. It combines the best aspects of in-person teaching, including learner support and informal networking, with the flexibility of online learning – much like the recent trend towards hybrid working.

There are already many examples of course providers incorporating online delivery into traditional programmes, with virtual laboratories or gamification, for instance. This may trigger a need to re-evaluate existing teaching skills among educators so they’re fit to face this brave new world.

It’s also interesting to note that many people want flexible fees. When respondents were asked how they prefer to pay to access online learning, 17% would like

a free trial of a course before committing and around one in six (16%) think pay-as-you-go modules are a good option. In addition, 15% of respondents say their employer must cover learning costs for them.

Why do people want to learn?

Passion propels learning more than any other factor: more than half (51%) of the respondents said being passionate about a subject would be their main motivation in choosing to take a course on a certain topic.

The second strongest motivation among respondents (32%) is learning something so they can get a well-paid job, a promotion or a pay rise. This increases to 37% of 35- to 44-year-olds. Altruism is also a factor. Almost a quarter (24%) want to learn to help them make a difference in the world, and more than a fifth (21%) want to benefit their local community.

As Mike Zealley, MD, KPMG Learning Services, points out:

“You have to understand why the individual is learning. Is it to get promoted? Because they want a different role? That connects to what form of recognition and reward is appropriate.”

Educational experts are intrigued that respondents name mental health education as the subject they’d most like to learn online (16%). Those aged 55 and over are the least likely to prefer mental health education online (11%) but this method is most popular among 35- to 44-year-olds (22%).

Experts feel this is explained by a greater focus on mental health during the pandemic. They also point to growing mental health awareness in educational institutions and working environments. It’s becoming less of an unmentionable subject than it might have been in the past, say the experts, which is likely piquing learners’ interests – along with their personal experiences.

While there is a better understanding of the need for society as a whole to discuss mental and sexual health matters today, some learners still feel more comfortable discovering topics such as mental health (16%), sexual health (15%) and sexual relations (13%) online. 

David Coyne, Senior Policy Adviser, Skills Development Scotland, believes there are advantages to an online approach to tricky topics. “We can all giggle about dreadful memories of sex ed classes at school. The messenger is really important. If you’ve got one good teacher, they can educate 40 kids – but if it’s a good online influencer, they can reach millions of people.”

Learners from non-White ethnic groups generally feel more comfortable learning about race via online courses. Just 6% of White respondents select this subject compared to 17% of Asian respondents and around one in seven (13%) of Black respondents.

What’s standing in the way of learning?

Education clearly still has a way to go to become truly accessible. Respondents say several aspects of personal background could result in a negative impact on individuals, affecting the ways they prefer to learn. In fact, nearly four in five (79%) suggest there is at least one factor that could make the learning process more difficult.

Disability (33%) is viewed as a major factor in a negative educational experience, while the same proportion (33%) pick a socio-economic background. Professor Kiran Trehan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Partnerships and Engagement, University of York, believes:

“Digital poverty has been a real blocker. Can we create inclusive virtual learning environments? We might then be able to tackle the ongoing digital divide, and move from governance and compliance to a course-design strategy that’s embedded in action.”

Personal appearance can be an issue, say nearly a third (32%), while race can often be an obstacle, according to 29% of respondents. Against this backdrop, it’s interesting to note over a fifth (21%) of Black respondents prefer to learn fully online, compared to around one in six (16%) White respondents.

More than a quarter (26%) of respondents feel issues of gender identity could negatively impact people’s learning experience, with a similar total (25%) also referencing sexuality.

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