The Reality of Virtual Learning

28 July 2021Written by Emma Woodward
Explore the surprising benefits of virtual learning and how it has revolutionised education. Learn about the challenges students face during the transition and how Coder Academy is addressing them. Gain valuable insights from experts on the future of virtual learning.

With COVID-19 disrupting so many aspects of our lives suddenly and dramatically, everyone has had to find ways to adapt. Largely this has meant restricting our movements, and shifting many of our daily activities into the virtual world.

One surprising result of the shift to virtual learning is that it has actually had a range of positive outcomes for many students.

Research firm Brandon Hall found that students could actually learn faster when engaged in online (as opposed to face-to-face) learning. The study looked at employees undertaking further training, finding a reduction of 40 to 60 per cent of the time it took students to learn new material.

Another benefit of virtual learning was in the retention of information. The Research Institute of America looked at this and found that virtual learning could actually increase retention rates by 25 to 60 per cent.

In a way, Australia has been in a unique position to make the move to virtual learning. Due to geographic challenges, we have actually been doing it for decades. The School of the Air was providing education for students in the Outback and other remote communities long before the advent of the internet. Many tertiary programs have also traditionally included online options that allow regional students to participate.

But what does virtual learning look like in 2021? And how will educators and students continue to meet the challenges, adapting and adopting the best methods for virtual learning in the years to come?

To find out more about the plans put in place by Coder Academy and its parent company NextEd Group, we sat down (virtually) with Academic Manager, Dr. Bianca Power, and Head of Instructional Design, Alex Gilbey to get their insights.

Coder: The pandemic has forced experimentation in a lot of industries – how have you seen this play out in the education industry?

Bianca: At the beginning of the pandemic there was an obvious need to shift education online, and to do so at breakneck pace. I’ve seen this done well by some education providers and poorly by others. While some providers have tried things such as providing recordings of classes from previous years instead of running the classes live, we knew from the start that that approach wouldn’t work for us. What we teach at Coder Academy is dynamic, it’s always changing as the industry changes. So even when teaching remotely we make sure that what we’re delivering is live, up to date, dynamic and student-centred learning experiences. Over the past 16 months we’ve had plenty of experience using our online conferencing tool as a platform for connecting, engaging, and delivering a quality bootcamp experience.

Coder: Although the switch to moving classes to virtual learning was crisis-driven, do you think the digitisation of education would have been inevitable anyway?

Alex: Yes. This has been coming for 20-odd years. While the impact of instructor-led teaching cannot be underestimated, so much learning is possible via a digital medium nowadays. And education has always needed to adapt.

Bianca: Absolutely. This is where education was already heading – the pandemic just accelerated it. Remote learning opens up so many opportunities for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access the same kinds of education. Take Coder Academy for example. We have campuses in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. Before March 2020, to join one of our bootcamps someone would need to be in a position to attend campus in the CBD of the eastern states, three to five days per week. Now that we’re supporting remote and hybrid learning, we have people who join us from Perth, Adelaide, rural areas – digitisation has removed geographical limitations on access to high-quality educational experiences. This access to education is fundamental to the future.

Coder: What do you see as the main challenges for students when it comes to switching to virtual learning?

Alex: Some significant challenges faced by students when switching to online learning are:

  • Having access to enough quality resources and activities
  • Receiving enough clear, specific, detailed instructions or information
  • Overcoming bandwidth, connectivity, and storage issues
  • Being able to receive timely feedback or instructor support
  • Feeling disconnected from peers, and learning communities
  • Understanding how to use an online learning management system (like Canvas) properly
  • A reduction in learning by osmosis (absorbing information from classroom discussions, watercooler chat, social interactions)
Coder: What has Coder Academy done to address these issues?

Bianca: Coder Academy recognised this from the start, and put in place structures within the online learning environment to help learners adjust to virtual learning. For example, regular breaks are important – “Zoom fatigue” is real!

We also know the importance of giving people a reason to engage, so our educators make sure they’re not just talking to their screen, they’re actively involving learners in the learning process, asking for contributions in the chat or over audio – just like IRL, only with more options for engagement!

Coder: What do you think are some of the benefits of virtual learning?

Bianca: Access to education, for sure. Being able to join online from anywhere, breaking down the geographical boundaries. Individuals with disabilities that may have made it difficult for them to come to campus can also really benefit in this regard.

Another benefit is that a natural extension of taking classes online is that the sessions are all recorded – meaning students can go back and rewatch certain topics, and easily refer back to classes from previous days or weeks.

Alex: There really are a number of benefits to virtual learning.

  • Increased flexibility
  • Learning is more self-paced and autonomous
  • Students develop intrinsic 21st-century skills (using technology, adapting to tech issues, communicating virtually, preparing work digitally using adaptive technology and software)
  • Students engage with resources from broader, global networks
  • Students are not disadvantaged by their geographical location
  • When lectures are recorded, or provided in video form, students can go back through key points, instead of having to rely on live delivery. This increases information retention.
Coder: It has been said that online education can amplify the digital divide – what resources or services does Coder Academy have in place to address this?

Bianca: We make sure that no paid software is needed. With the exception of a home internet connection, nothing additional is needed to learn online with Coder Academy compared to learning with us on campus. If anything, removing travel costs and the need for a laptop for those who already have suitable desktop computers at home can actually be financially beneficial.

Alex: While students at other schools may suffer when they lose access to a library or labs with physical resources, Coder Academy has always seen the benefit in allowing for learning and access to resources no matter where students are located.

Coder: One of the criticisms of virtual education is the feeling of isolation and lack of connection that can lead to or amplify mental health issues. What services does NextEd Group/Coder Academy have in place for their students to address this?

Bianca: We’re very aware of this and work closely with the team to give a real community feel within the bootcamps, even when we’re coming together online rather than face-to-face. NextEd also has a student wellbeing program called Uprise, which gives students access to professional mental health advice at no cost, and confidentially through the Uprise online platform. 

Coder: How have the staff and educators reacted to the change in delivery?

Bianca: No denying it was a steep learning curve at first, but now we’ve settled into the groove of online delivery, we can all really see the benefits it provides. The opportunity to jump in and teach in areas we’re passionate about, regardless of geographical location, is a huge plus. That means bootcamp students are getting to hear from people with industry expertise from across the country, not just their local city.

Coder: What technologies has Coder Academy implemented in the classroom to assist with the student experience?

Bianca: On campus we have a fantastic setup that our educators use to teach from – dual monitors to help with workflow and allow educators to easily view the online chat while they teach; a drawing tablet is used instead of a whiteboard, which makes sure that people joining us online can see everything that is drawn right there on their own screens. 

Coder: Talk us through a typical day for a Coder virtual bootcamp student?

Bianca: The typical day will start at 9am when the educator starts the online conference.

First up is usually a Kahoot, which is a fun interactive quiz that helps review the previous day’s concepts.

Then there will be a code along, where the educator will be taking everyone through how to use concepts they have been learning and apply them to building something with code. Students are encouraged to code along with the educator, and this is an interactive session where students jump in and contribute – we don’t do boring lectures! This will continue until lunch time, with plenty of breaks in between to make sure everyone has a chance to get up and away from their screens regularly.

There will then be an hour break for lunch, and after lunch educators will be around in the conference to support students working through challenges that have been set or working on their own coding projects.

We finish out the day by 5pm, and then it’s time to relax and let all that new learning sink in!

Coder: What would you say to anyone who has concerns about the virtual experience not being the same as a face-to-face experience?

Bianca: In 2021 and beyond, working online is the new norm. As a society, and an industry, we’ve figured out how to “do” remote work. We have systems and ways of working in place to take advantage of the virtual learning/work experience, and if anything, bring you a better and more industry-relevant bootcamp than ever before.

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