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Why Continuing to Learn in an Online World Is Crucial

Striking a balance between the online world and the real world is a recipe for efficiency, and when we focus on learning specifically, it is a recipe for opportunity and growth to reach our potential, or to be the best version of ourselves—and that is a beautiful vision of the future.

Photo by Nick Morrison via Unsplash

As each country entered their own form of lockdown across the world from March onwards, millions of us turned our attention to trying to keep spirits up, be that singing arias from the balconies of Italy or clapping on our doorsteps every Thursday evening to show appreciation for frontline health workers. Community spirit blossomed as we stepped out to help our neighbors, sharing and delivering food and other vital supplies, or just lending a sympathetic ear to those feeling the impact most.

But draw back the curtains beyond the public displays of solidarity, and millions of us also started turning to our screens to take up the opportunity to learn something new. Those who had been furloughed, made redundant or simply had more time on their hands due to having less work or not having to commute, seized the chance to embrace this learning opportunity. One study in the U.S. found that online searches related to online learning quadrupled.

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So, it seems our yearning to learn is at an all-time high. Checking my own diary, I found that I had participated in over 90 hours of live online learning experiences during the four months since lockdown started in the UK at the end of March, a fivefold increase on my pre-lockdown live online learning activity. What was remarkable was that it was all being given away for free. There was that community spirit again—“we are all in this together, so let’s help each other get through this,” might sum this up.

But just how crucial is continuing to learn in an online world, and to what extent can technology help us do this better? And can it still be given away for free? To help answer this, and as part of The Next Normal online event series, Worth caught up with two high-tech innovators passionate about learning: the cofounders of Boston-based startup Sophya, CEO Dr. Vishal Punwani and COO Emma Giles.

Vish and Emma met teaching anatomy and biology, and a fascination in the psychology of learning led them to believe that online learning could be, and needed to be, so much better if their vision of everyone having the chance to reach their goals was to become a reality. At Sophya, the mission is that “learning should be fun, beautiful and better.”

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The best teachers, trainers and facilitators, embrace the concept of learner-centered design: the learner’s needs should always take pole position. Learning should be an experience; it should develop curiosity for the new; it should engage and excite; and I firmly believe it should also be fun.

Approaching a decade of face-to-face training myself and having delivered courses to thousands of learners, the reality of the difference between learner-centered and trainer-centered delivery is stark: only when the learners are immersed in a truly experiential delivery designed around them do they take away that sense of joy that helps them make the connections for deeper retention of their learning.

As scientists, Vish and Emma were quick to confirm the importance of building strong neural connections, helping to anchor memories more firmly; they cited the use of spaced repetition flashcards. Flashcards are small cards with the learning you are trying to remember set out in pictures and words; and spaced repetition is about making yourself perform active recall at often increasing intervals of time, or as Vish and Emma prefer, “effortful” recall.

It is true: deep learning requires effort, but all educators have a role to play in making that learning easier and as personalized as possible; we are, after all, individuals with our own set of learning style preferences and methods. At Sophya, the team is striving to make the online learning experience super-flexible when it comes to matching those preferences. So, for example, if a learner wanted to write some notes directly on a video, why shouldn’t that be possible for that individual? The range of tools needs to be wide.

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But there is something else going on when we learn. Humans are social creatures, and learning is rarely done in a vacuum. For many, the social aspect to learning is equally important. We learn with our friends, with our classmates and, yes, the classroom know-it-all too! The whole spectrum of life and humanity is played out from the moment we go to nursery school, and it continues far into adulthood. What we learn and retain depends in some part on the people around us. Years later I still vividly recall sitting in history class during high school being shouted at by the big rugby player behind me for chatting too much with my best friend. Learning is social, and it is this social angle that makes learning fun and rich. People should leave a classroom feeling good socially, as well as intellectually. So, can the online world match this? The darling of online video telephony and chat services during lockdown, Zoom, whose share price has soared nearly 300 percent during the past six months, would suggest it might.

We have flocked to online video platforms, to meet our friends and family, to work with our colleagues and to learn. When we appraise the social aspect to the most common technology platforms in use today, we might sum it up by saying, “It is not bad; I can get a lot done this way; I get some elements of the social experience, and when traded with not having to commute, yes, I am happy with it, I will buy that deal!”

But as we have said, when it comes to learning, we may need something more: it is a richer level of discussion, it is the socializing of our learning among our peers that helps us retain and nurture our new skills and knowledge. This is where innovators, such as Sophya, believe they can make a real difference.

We heard from Vish and Emma about how they are collaborating with Monash University in Australia. Universities across the globe are having to pioneer new ways of delivering their learning; they have to prove themselves to be value for money, and this will depend on the quality of the content and the quality of the experience.

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At Monash, students can, for example, enter a familiar online space. Sophya has built a world that they know: they might navigate a classroom specially designed for medical students with correctly spaced tables and a common study space with bean bag chairs, or after a lecture, ‘go’ to their favorite coffee shop. When their classmates are there too, they are visible. Simulating real life, when they approach them, the video and microphone automatically turn on. As they walk away, the video and microphone will fade out. Deans can visit and help people in small groups. When combined with scientifically-backed tools, you have a differentiating proposition. Emma explained that, “we have to [ask] what are the problems people are having today, and let’s make sure we build and focus on solutions that people really need.”

It seems that technology can indeed help us continue to learn in an online world, and it really is the space of the startups with enthusiastic innovators who are determined to realize new ways of learning. Take just one example from Europe: Lyfta, from Finland and the UK, has been winning awards for bringing students stunning interactive and immersive 360-degree story-worlds. Ideal for boosting a geography lesson far beyond classroom map-work, Lyfta aims to help young people develop empathy, resilience and critical thinking. They are particularly conscious that, in a world that needs to work better together perhaps more than ever before, so many of us are confined to our homes or to our local areas. The need to expand horizons is great.

This raises the question of accessibility and inclusivity. Worth CEO Juliet Scott-Croxford asked, “Is there an opportunity here for learning for people with intellectual disabilities?” It was a tough question, and there is clearly a considerable distance to go. Disabilities do, as in the face-to-face environment, often require adaptations. Technology, of course, can help with this, as does the philosophy of intense personalization that companies like Sophya strive for.

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Thinking about accessibility, I put it to Vish and Emma that when we think about different socio-economic situations at the national level, are there national situations that are particularly well-suited to the online learning experience? Vish concluded: “We have really good ways of educating 6,000 people a year at Harvard, but not everybody on the planet. And so, the only way forward, if we want to do things in an equitable way, is to build a scalable system…that can give every person regardless of their socio-economic status, regardless of the GDP of the country, an educational experience that is informed by students who are really, really successful. Because that’s really one of the best ways to level the playing field because it’s outcome informed…What we’re trying to do is make that experience available so that it doesn’t matter what country people are from.”

Noble ideals, but technology at this level requires significant investment. Nevertheless, once built, scaling up should, of course, be at lower marginal costs. But to what extent can this be given away for free, as we have seen so much of these past months lower down the tech scale? If we truly want to strive for a more equitable society, globally, it will doubtless fall to those more fortunate, be they philanthropic individuals or foundations, governments through their aid and development budgets, or the corporations themselves, to help provide access to such learning on a more equitable basis.

Pausing to think about Worth’s ethos, Worth Beyond Wealth, and ideals like this can really play well into the space of regular guest on The Next Normal, Kathy Entwistle, this time joined by her son, Kevin Entwistle, both private wealth advisors at Morgan Stanley. We heard from them about how helping their clients manage their personal wealth in line with values is often key. Embracing worth beyond wealth will play straight into some clients’ visions for a more equitable world based around education. It doesn’t take much thought to recognize the role global education campaigns have in some of the greatest challenges of our time—from climate change to women’s rights for control over their own fertility; from bringing communities together against perhaps even more frightening diseases than COVID-19, such as the 2013-16 Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa, to appalling levels of financial crime on a global scale. Successful individuals that want to make a positive impact in the world have a real opportunity in the education space, either as investors, or for some, as ambassadors for learning.

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Access to engaging learning is crucial for tackling our greatest challenges, as much as it might be for something far more light-hearted, such as improving our home cooking abilities or indeed understanding how to manage money from an early age.

Continuing to learn in an online world is here to stay, and it is bound to have a crucial role to play.  The hardships of 2020’s global lockdowns have proven that situations will arise where the best way forward is online. Online delivery can be scaled up fast and is highly flexible across boundaries.

But what I loved hearing from our visionary entrepreneurs was a clear acknowledgement of the fact that we are, and always will be, social animals. Vish wanted to get it on the record that he felt, “it would be a crying shame if we didn’t return to like 95 percent in-person for all the things that we should be doing in person.” Emma envisioned an ideal, “that we do [in-person] the things we should do in-person, and then we do the things we shouldn’t do in-person, not in-person.”

Striking a balance between the online world and the real world is a recipe for efficiency, and when we focus on learning specifically, it is a recipe for opportunity and growth to reach our potential, or to be the best version of ourselves—and that is a beautiful vision of the future.

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