Your current and future earnings are your greatest asset, and online learning, which provides easy, low-cost access to education wherever you may be, is a surefire way to boost earning power and improve your standard of living.

Online learning has been around for almost as long as the internet, but its potential to open up education to those who have not been able to afford or access traditional forms of learning, has been slow in being realised. 

But things are starting to move quickly, as they are in other fields of disruption. Companies and governments are waking up to the power of online learning, which takes myriad forms, from watching a TED lecture to mastering a new set of skills by means of a structured course, to completing a university degree online.

In the workplace, online learning is becoming an essential tool, not only for upskilling workers, but for improving their general life skills, such as fostering financial literacy. In South Africa, companies are incentivised to upskill employees as part of their black economic empowerment programmes.

Richard Rayne, the chief executive of corporate learning solutions provider iLearn, says South Africa is “absolutely” ready for digital transformation in learning. “It’s a reality the world over and we need to get on board. If we delay, we will get left behind.”

There are no barriers to entry when it comes to digital learning, and learning platforms can be accessed easily at the office and at home. “It’s on-the-go type of learning and there are no limits to geographical location, which means people from diverse communities can participate. All you need is a laptop or smartphone with internet to plug into the learning platform and you’re on your way,” he says. It is amazingly flexible, he adds, and because it allows employees to study in their own time, there is no impact on productivity. 

Rayne, who recently attended the Learning Technologies Conference 2018 in London, says research shows that 71% of global organisations are implementing digital transformation in learning while 20% are planning to implement it. Only 4% of organisations said it was not applicable to their business.

Most of South Africa’s larger organisations, such as the big financial institutions, have embraced digital learning, Rayne says, but small- and medium-sized enterprises need to come on board too. “We need to position South African employers as world-class employers, and world-class employers provide employees with the necessary skills to grow and develop on a personal and professional level,” he says.

Rayne says the government has been slow to adopt online learning in its higher education programmes, but iLearn has had recent success with the Media, Information and Communication Technologies SETA, with which it has partnered in a programme that blends online learning with classroom learning. Success in this programme may be the first step in convincing other SETAs to come on board, he says.

One possible reason the SETAs have been resistant to online learning, Rayne says, is that it was difficult in the past to prove who actually did the work, such as completing assignments. However, technological advances have largely overcome this problem.


Self-directed learning

Dr Karina de Bruin, a counselling psychologist and managing director of the JvR Academy, a training and skills development provider, says the workplace mirrors the world we live in. “People need to adapt and learn faster to accommodate change. They must be self-directed and learning-agile to survive,” she says.

“Many jobs change dramatically over relatively short periods. Workers need to constantly update their existing skills and knowledge and acquire new skills and knowledge to ensure career success,” said De Bruin.

To do this, new ways of learning besides formal training must be explored. “Organisations can no longer completely depend on traditional training and development. The promotion of self-directed learning may well be the best approach to keep learning aligned with a rapidly changing environment.

“The self-directed learner can identify a specific need that will help him or her overcome obstacles in the workplace. They can ‘dip into’ learning that will propel them forward,” De Bruin says.

In an article for the CHRO community of human resources practitioners (https://chro.co.za), Ryan Knipe, the managing executive of Alexander Forbes Empower, says that employees and employers want roughly the same thing, which is to make sure they are ready for the next opportunity or threat, and to continue growing.

“But that’s not as easy as it used to be. The business landscape isn’t as stable as it was, so careers aren’t as stable as they used to be. Lifelong learning, continuous upskilling and reskilling has become an economic imperative.”

Knipe says that studies in the US, by learning platform Degreed, show that up to 85% of employees do not feel that the training they get at work is preparing them for their next position. 

For this reason, Empower partnered with Degreed to offer an online learning service to participating employers and employees in the pension funds Alexander Forbes administers. The service provides access to a range of educational and skills development content that can be tracked, providing a record of learning that can enhance one’s resumé.

Degreed’s research reveals that self-directed learning, largely through informal means, is considered more effective in professional success, with nearly 78% of people relying on self-directed learning rather than that provided through an employer.

Knipe says: “Our higher education is mainly formal. Then we go into the workforce and develop for 40-plus years, mainly through informal and self-directed methods, such as reading and gaining experience. Most of that doesn’t get tracked or quantified anywhere, which makes it harder for businesses to make informed, objective decisions about who to hire, develop and manage.

“We believe there should be a better, more up-to-date way to build, measure and communicate skills.”


Online vs traditional teaching

In a TED talk dating from 2012, “What we’re learning from online education”, educationist Daphne Koller, co-founder of online education platform Coursera, outlined advantages online education offers but also challenges it faces:

  • You can break up the material into short, modular units, which “allows us to break away from the one-size-fits-all model of education, and allows students to follow a much more personalised curriculum”.
  • There is value in the data generated, because it can be used accurately to pinpoint where students have problems and where coursework can be improved.
  • A big challenge is that students need practice with the material in order to really understand it. “A range of studies have demonstrated the importance of this. Even simple retrieval practice, where students are just supposed to repeat what they learned, gives considerably improved results. One needs to build in much more meaningful practice questions, and one also needs to provide the students with feedback on those questions. Fortunately, technology has come a long way, and we can now grade a range of types of homework,” Koller says.

Koller says that if everyone around the world could access top-quality education for free, it would establish education as a fundamental human right, enable lifelong learning, and enable a wave of innovation, because “maybe the next Albert Einstein or the next Steve Jobs is living somewhere in a remote village in Africa”.


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