Online learning


In 2020, Covid-19 was the driving force behind a shift that played out in businesses, institutions, organisations and communities all over the globe.

Almost overnight, lockdowns and stay-at-home measures saw almost all human activity move online. And that included education.

For schools and universities everywhere, the shift to virtual and online learning posited a conundrum: how to deliver quality education without recourse to classrooms and campuses? And for learners the situation was also far from ideal. In the last 12 to 18 months, executives and organisations looking to upskill or reskill during this period of acute need have faced a dilemma: postpone or pursue their programmes online. Pushback has, inevitably, been strong. For many, higher education – executive education in particular – is all about face-to-face; it’s about the social and psychological interplay, the human contact and the networking that not only enriches the learning experience, but hugely accelerates the critical transition from concept to practice to skill.

Yet despite their reservations, executives and business leaders have continued to take programmes online and in virtual formats during the pandemic. And as we start to emerge into the post-Covid economy, we’re discovering a number of key – and sometimes surprising—benefits that accrue to e-learning.

We’re beginning to see advantages to online learning that not only offset the loss of face-to-face contact, but proactively deliver new and unexpected efficiencies – gains in time management, in focus and in quality that are driving learning forward exponentially.

As we move on into 2021 and continue to document these benefits, one thing seems certain. The shift in education, the changes accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic look set to stay.

And here’s why. 

Six (surprising) benefits to online learning:

1. Flexibility: online learning gives participants the anytime, anywhere opportunity to address development needs while balancing other work-life commitments. Programmes and courses can be taken at the time and place that adapt best to personal needs and priorities, and at a tempo that is marked by the individual. Learners can accelerate through concepts or go back and revisit them as and when they need. This flexibility in delivery and agility in learning are unique to online.

2. No commuting: a huge benefit both for home and overseas participants. Learning is as simple as setting up a computer and logging on. And for learners, that translates into massive gains in terms of time management and quality of life. The hour, day or even week spent travelling to campus can be put to better use elsewhere – in preparing for interactive class time with faculty and peers for instance. It goes without saying that less travel is also better for the planet.

3. Focused learning: because learners can use their offline time building knowledge, reading, reflecting and preparing materials ahead of virtual class time, when they do meet with faculty and peers for interactive sessions, learning tends to be more dynamic and focused. We call this the flipped classroom approach. The preparatory legwork happens in the learner’s own time, so that the practising with new ideas, concepts and skills is simply more efficient than in the traditional classroom. In fact, some studies have found that online participants learn and retain up to five or six times more knowledge than those in traditional settings.

4. Learning (and doing) in real time: online programmes are flexible enough for participants to continue working as they learn. That means that new knowledge, new ideas and new approaches can be simultaneously applied and road tested in the workplace. This creates a virtuous cycle of applied learning, with outcomes and impact  from the real-world setting feeding back into the learning experience itself.

5. Experts Zoom (and don’t fly) in: for business schools and universities one of the great advantages of online formats is that experts, thought leaders or case study heroes can be brought in as guest speakers without the time and financial outlay of flying them in from around the world to a particular location or campus. This has opened up more possibilities to enrich learning at scale. It’s also better for the planet.

6. Diversity: again, without the need to travel or to take time away from the office, learning at top universities and business schools is more accessible to more learners. Taking an online programme at Imperial becomes a more viable option for a participant in Latin America, say, or South East Asia. Simply put, with greater ease come greater reach and greater diversity in the classroom.

Even before Covid-19, education was being reshaped globally by digital disruption with billions spent in edtech innovations such as AI or mixed-reality learning in the last two or three years.

As we come out of the pandemic, tech-enhanced learning – online, virtual, synchronous and asynchronous – is delivering a breadth of benefits that look set to keep on changing the game for the foreseeable future. Online is here to stay.


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