Student studying at a desk via their computer

Distance learning has seen significant growth in recent years. Online resources and the development of assistive technology means that students are now more able to enjoy the benefits and flexibility of distance learning. What was once an exception, distance learning is now accepted as being mainstream and something that is here to stay. From a students point of view, there is the opportunity to tailor their study programme around existing commitments including employment. This has meant that it has long been a preferred method of study for mature students.

Over the last 5 years, the online education sector has seen an increase in popularity of around 6% per year. This puts the value of the sector at £3.8 billion. Over the last year, there has been a substantial increase in people’s interest in online education and this is largely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the outbreak, businesses and educational institutions had already realised the benefits of distance learning such as cost and time savings, flexibility, and the opportunity for continuous development. The events of the recent year have forced others into also considering the benefits that are on offer.

The rise in popularity

An article by Growth Engineering highlights that since the year 2000, the online education industry has experienced significant growth. In just over 2 decades, the industry has grown by 900%, making it the quickest growing market within the field of education. Given such an explosion in the uptake of distance learning, it is easy to forget that its existence is nothing new. In fact, research suggests that distance learning can be traced back to the 1700s.

Known as ‘correspondence education’, students and teachers in the 1700s would communicate via mail. Teachers would post assignments and await the student to return them. Of course, we have come some way since! The development of assistive technology saw the first ‘virtual’ accredited university open in the US. The National Technology University was the result of sponsorship from major technology companies such as IBM. For many in the UK, the idea of distance learning brings the Open University (OU) to mind.

The OU was founded in 1969 and saw the first students enrol in 1971. The early days saw broadcasts being made via radio and television with programmes that aimed to assist with student learning. When the internet became mainstream towards the end of the 1990s, the OU shifted its focus to online learning. Fast forward to 2018, and the OU won the Teaching Excellence and Digital Innovation categories at the Guardian University Awards.

The impact of COVID-19

Although distance learning has long been the preferred method of learning for many, it is undeniable that the recent pandemic has had a significant impact. The first nationwide lockdown in March 2020 saw schools, colleges, and universities being forced to close and those who had never considered distance learning being forced to accept this as the new norm. Whilst reports from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) highlight how this was a struggle for many parents and pupils, these were also challenging times for teachers.

These teachers were used to the traditional approach to their careers and this involved face to face learning in a classroom. The advent of assistive technology meant that when homeschooling was enforced, teachers had to adapt lesson plans and teaching methods so they could deliver effectively online. The likes of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Classrooms were utilised and allowed for a degree of communication that resembled a face to face interaction. Seeing this in action has opened up the idea of distance learning to a whole new audience.

How technology has seen distance learning grow

The benefits that technology has brought to distance learning are clear. As an extreme example, let’s look back to correspondence education of the 1700s. This was a time where there would be weeks, if not months, of delays while awaiting your next assignment to be delivered. The main driving force of change, the internet, means that students and teachers can communicate in an instant.  As assistive technology has developed, and the internet can be more easily harnessed, distance learning has become more and more accessible.

Increased internet speeds, with the advent of broadband, and the variety of devices that can be used to access online learning have meant that online learning can be accessed almost anywhere. Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets allow students an even more flexible approach to their learning and remove the need to be desk-bound. The area of virtual reality is also developing at pace. The impact on learning from this technology is that students will be able to participate in fully immersive lessons.

The main challenges to online learning

Despite the development of assertive technology and how it is now more accessible than ever before, the main barrier to distance learning is that of technology. Or, more pointedly, the lack thereof. There are still students who lack the equipment needed to access learning online and this was highlighted during lockdown when children were struggling to access a laptop. Although working on mobile devices may not be an ideal solution, it does still offer one. Ensuring that online materials and websites are mobile-friendly can remove one of the biggest obstacles to online learning.

The growth in distance learning would suggest that there is no reluctance shown in signing up for courses. However, when it comes to anything that is offered online, one of the biggest challenges is found in establishing trust. Providers of education can overcome this by gaining online distance and blended learning accreditation (ODBL) by the British Accreditation Council.

The future of distance learning

To predict the future, we are often told to reflect on the past. This can be said to be true when it comes to distance learning. What allowed distance learning to become mainstream were the developments in assistive technology. In an era where technology is developing at its fastest pace ever, the online education sector will of course be looking at ways to tap into this and offer innovative learning experiences. What has been witnessed around the world over the last 12 months has forced people to reassess traditionally held thoughts. Those who may never have considered online education now see it as a viable alternative to face to face teaching and businesses have realised the potential savings to be made by using such methods to upskill their staff. This means that the online education sector is certai