How has learning and development changed during Covid-19?

During recent months, once ordinary day to day processes and activities have changed massively for many across the logistics sector. With travel restrictions, lockdown, and social distancing to adhere to, there has no doubt been an effect on how those within our sector are delivering training and employee development strategies.

For our podcast series, the Talent in Logistics team recently caught up with Simon Tindall, Head of New Business BDU, and Liz Hanway, Sector Lead for Transport and Logistics BDU, from the Open University to find out how learning and development has changed, in particular in relation to e-learning and distance learning.  

In part one of a two-part blog, we see what they had to say about distance learning trends, why it’s a good thing, what the challenges are, and how to take the first steps towards implementing online learning in your training and development.

Read on to learn more or listen to the full podcast now.

When we look at trends since Covid-19 hit and we went into lockdown has there been an increase in people enquiring and enrolling on courses at the Open University?

[Simon Tindall]: I think what we’ve seen is not necessarily a huge change as such, but a significant acceleration of demand. So, prior to Covid, we always knew that people are increasingly looking at smaller and more modular courses. They were looking to do more education on the fly if you like and continue to upskill throughout their career, and this move towards generalists, rather than specialists that employers are looking for. 

Within the first eight weeks of the lockdown, we saw something like a trebling of activity on Open Learn which is a free educational portal. We saw over a million enrolments on courses within the eight week period and, although that has plateaued a little bit as Lockdown has progressed, we’ve certainly seen this huge adaptation towards people looking at online learning and distance learning options as being very feasible. So, we expect, as we come out of recovery, for that trend, to pretty much continue. 

[Liz Hanway]: Interestingly, our PR agency has also helped do some polling to see what activity has been going on. Almost half of the people on that pulse said they felt very uncertain about their current job role, and 24% of them have taken on additional learning opportunities. That is in part to increase their employability skills, but also a sense of feeling the need to protect the value of their skills in their current workplace, so that if redundancies are being made they are showing that they’ve got the highest skills possible to keep their current job. 

The biggest rise that we have seen – 39% – is among 18 to 24-year olds. One in four of those admitted that they would like to have more direction from their employers when it comes to learning new skills. With younger team members at 38%, most keen to have a steer from their leaders on how to remain employable post coronavirus. 

So, what we’ve seen at the Open University is a change in that the age population of who we’re educating has also come down. Prior to this, we were probably more post-25, and now we are seeing more 18 to 24-year olds as well.

At the moment, there’s a logical reason as to why people might look at Open University or distance learning, because we’re in a time where it’s not as easy to get into a classroom to train. But why do you think students choose distance learning over more traditional classroom-based learning?

[LH]: – I think the world has been changing – we’ve been moving more to a digital world and Covid has just accelerated that. I think people are thinking more and more about the lifestyle they want and the costs – I know for myself, I’m actually saving quite a bit of money not commuting into the office. I’m actually having more time with my children to play Monopoly. And thinking more about what my personal drivers are in life, not just my work-life balance.

I think this is what people are now reflecting on during the Covid pandemic – what do I want to do? My future career? How can I progress maybe in that company? And protect my job? But, equally, is this a wakeup call to doing something differently? 

So why people might choose distance learning? Number one is, ultimately, we are a great university, but we are, because of our major delivery, cheaper than traditional universities. It doesn’t cost £27,000 to do a degree with us. We can give you the flexibility and lifestyle that’s around it. So, we don’t, dictate that you come on campus and have to do lectures at a certain time. 

The sort of person that comes and studies at the university is really self-driven, they are doing it because they want to do it. I know that sounds daft but when I went to university, it was the thing I had to do because my parents said, “pick a course, off, you go”. We find people at the Open University have very much decided it’s a personal journey that they are on. These are people that are very confident, self-motivated, and able to balance that online learning.

The Open University was set up to educate adult learners that probably weren’t as confident in learning, and we still have that in place, so people will come to the university who haven’t studied before and can go at a pace that suits them. The Open University were top within the UK, potentially Europe, for disabled students, with 17% within that category, so a lot of students are attracted to our accessibility.  All our courses are designed with dyslexia or colour blindness in mind

We have extra validation so course can be delivered online. Most universities will primarily face to face teach, and then whack on a PowerPoint at the end. When we say distance learning education, what we’ve actually done is research around the methodologies that actually work.

[ST]: Ultimately it just comes down to flexibility, so the way the courses are structured, and the delivery mechanism allows people to build their educational balance or education around other commitments, be that work or family commitments.

I think one of the key areas is particularly if you have ties to staying in the home environment, for example if you’re a carer or, in the current situation, when you’re isolating or shielding in some way. That flexibility and the ability to access from home becomes really important. It’s like working from home – prior to the crisis, people did it, but it was generally still seen as people should be in the office. I think some of those myths have been largely broken over the last 3 or 4 months.

What are the challenges in distance learning?

[ST]: I think the biggest challenge is that you are largely doing it on your own. The flexibility is great, but you also need a self-discipline to actually complete the work assignments, and to self-motivate, as well. There is also the obvious challenge that a lot of online learning is very much done in isolation.

The way that we try and structure our formal education, is doing far more as a social activity. So, in the same way as with a bricks and mortar university, you would be split into various tutor groups and you would have a physical tutor that supporting you. We replicate that structure online, so it’s not as if you’re just doing this course totally in isolation. 

[LH]: –You have got to be self-disciplined. There are going to be days where you think “I don’t want to do this”, and you’ve got no one else around you in a classroom environment to say “come on. The other thing you’ve got to do is be really good at managing your time.  75% of our students who are studying at the University are doing it around other personal commitments and in employment, so they have to really plan when it is time to study.

We do a lot of work with training providers within the logistics sector, and they predominantly deliver hands-on training (driver training for example), but what are the first steps they can take to deliver parts of their courses via online methods?

[LH]: – First, identify what it is that they want the learner to come away with. Even with very technical courses, there may still be some softer skills surrounding it. Not every course is going to be viable to teach online especially in transport and logistics. You’re not going to learn to drive a forklift truck by going on an online course. What you might learn is how to manage your time more efficiently, or how to lead a team, and all that’s behind it. 

What I would say to suppliers is really look at the courses you’re doing already and start to break them up into bite sized chunks. Establish what the elements are that really need to be taught face to face. What are the elements that you could migrate to an online blended learning platform? And just to clarify what we mean by online – it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be looking at a computer screen. It could still be that you’re interacting with people, but just not in a face-to-face environment. 

[ST]: – Having people in a face-to-face environment in a classroom is expensive. And for employers, it’s an expensive opportunity cost, because learners could be working instead of training. So, it’s about how do you optimise that classroom time more effectively? What elements can actually be studied prior to the training beginning and started online? Thinking about driving a forklift truck and how it operates – you could study the underlying theories online, before coming to the classroom, so you’re far better prepared. Optimising the classroom time more effectively is one of the first steps. 

In terms of how the OU can help, obviously we produce all of our own content across our whole curriculum at degree level, and also our whole online learning for education elements as well. We also produce for other parties as well, so we have a commercial division where we’re using Open University methodologies, pedagogies, and expertise to actually bring that impact of training to other parties. And if people are interested, we are more than happy to do that, either as an own brand product or to look at joint ventures in those types of areas.

I’ve seen some interesting articles that talk about the fact that employers sometimes favour those who have come through traditional education compared to someone that’s got their degree through distance learning because they don’t see it as the credible option. What would you say to that? 

[ST]: – One of the key things that what we find is to the contrary – quite often Open University degrees are actually more highly valued, because, as we talked about, you need a lot of self-discipline. Typically, most of the people to undertake an open degree, or open university degree, are working and balancing, and they tend to be a little bit older. And, so, I think employers recognise it shows a lot more about the character of that potential employee than if they have just gone through a standard route of studying at 18-19. 

There was a survey on LinkedIn of around a quarter of a million LinkedIn profiles in the UK completed about six to nine months ago and it said that the highest university, where people got qualifications for managing directors and CEOs, wasn’t Oxford or Cambridge, but it was actually the Open University 

[LH]: –I think the world’s starting to recognise that the types of people that are doing these courses are bringing with them valuable new learning skills, but also work skills with them as well. When you finish your degree, and come to do a job, you’re probably in a much better position because you have all the attributes that an employer is looking for. 

People are very shocked to hear that actually OU is in the top 100 global business schools, and that we are in the top 19 in England alone, with triple accreditation for the business school and its MBA. 

Do you think for yourselves as OU and for distance learning as a whole there’s going to be a change for the long term? And might we see more schools, colleges, and traditional universities taking a more distance-based learning approach?

[ST]: I think remote learning is always changing and continues to do so. The current situation accelerated a lot of things that we’re already beginning to change. I think one of the big, exciting areas is that we’ve already got debates going on in the UK around open schools, and how do you put more online provision in within schools and colleges. I think also for the universities, the whole sector is being challenged dramatically over the next two to three years, by their lack of preparation, or lack of online provision. 

Perhaps the most interesting things that you see within the world of work is this acceleration of linking academic education more closely to job and skill needs moving forward. I think what you are going to see is tighter integration between skills and universities and certainly the Open University doing a lot more in the area of skills training. 

Equally, this trend towards continual learning, that is going to carry on, and change from being bigger chunks of qualifications, to being picking up skills to get your next career move or your next promotion.

[LH]: I think with the move to online, what I’m also seeing is people that might not necessarily have got their GCSE Maths or English and didn’t want to go to night school or college, or had the fear of walking into an examination hall, are now realizing that they can do these qualifications online. I’m definitely seeing a lot more employers contacting me to see if they can help employees get their GCSE Maths and English qualifications.

Talent in Logistics Podcast

The second part of this blog will take a look at what Liz and Simon think about how distance learning can support the future skills agenda, and what resources are available now to employers and employees in the logistics sector, including those on furlough or facing redundancy.

Or, listen to the full podcast now to hear more.

You could also listen to our other recent podcasts, which include guidance for employers on employees returning to work post-pandemic with Woodfines Solicitors, and a thought provoking discussion around equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace with Clipper Logistics.