By Ron Maxwell - CEO

Online learning was already a growing trend in Australia before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now, with so many restrictions on face-to-face contact, that growth has only accelerated. We saw many training organisations expand online offerings in response, VERTO among them.

This quick shift has many questioning whether there is a future for face-to-face learning in an increasingly digital landscape. For me, it's about the balance, and a blended approach is the way forward.

New technologies emerging

Online learning used to be about access to course materials via the internet, but today it is about so much more. Most platforms enable students to interact with each other in a social, real-time environment and can provide virtual experiences that closely mirror the real thing. And we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the use of artificial intelligence, gamification and workplace simulations in the Vocational Education and Training Sector (VET).

I've seen some fantastic workplace simulations used to great effect, particularly during COVID-19, when work placements were impossible. It won't work for all industries, particularly those that are about human contact, such as community services and aged care, but it can work really well in industries like retail, tourism, hospitality and manufacturing where it's possible to simulate customer and workplace interaction.

As these technologies become a more widely accepted part of the learning experience, we will no doubt see more innovation and the possibilities are endless.

Online delivery increases access for some…

In a population as geographically dispersed as Australia's, online training can provide a critical access point for those living in regional and remote areas, who would otherwise miss out on training opportunities or need to relocate for them.

We are already experiencing population decline in many regional areas and to alleviate this, it's crucial to ensure school leavers have opportunities to stay in their communities and access the same educational opportunities as their city-based peers.

…but can leave others behind

However, for me, an 'online-only' model could not work for the VET sector, and the reason is clear: It would leave some people behind, and that's something we should never be prepared to accept.

For some people with learning challenges, an online environment simply doesn’t provide the right level of support for them to succeed and achieve qualifications that will set them on a pathway to a lifelong career.

It could also provide a significant barrier to access for those with lower levels of digital literacy, and we'd likely see this impact some demographics more than others, such as older people, people with disability, financially disadvantaged people and Indigenous Australians, particularly those in remote communities, who are far less likely to have access to technology or a reliable internet connection.

While many of us rely heavily on technology in our everyday lives, the digital inclusion gap is widening for some groups. If we rely too heavily on online solutions, we risk disadvantaging some of our most vulnerable communities further. These communities already face significant barriers to education and employment, and our focus should be on closing these gaps, not exacerbating them.

Human connection will always be important

At the heart of it, humans are social creatures and we still need that face-to-face contact to build relationships. While we've long known this from research, many also experienced it first-hand during COVID, with reported increases in feelings of loneliness and disconnection, and greater demand for mental health services.

Prior to COVID-19, there were already concerns that social media was impacting communication and relationships in real life, with an increasing number of people living their lives in a digital cocoon. In my opinion, a move to an 'online-only' education model would only serve to increase these challenges. Although online learning is evolving to include more interactive, social elements, it can't fully replace the experience of building meaningful human connections.

Critical workplace skills may decline

I've talked before about how younger generations aren't given the same opportunity to build the soft skills that enable them to thrive in workplaces, and face-to-face training has a role to play in filling this gap.

The face-to-face elements of education, from working with peers to work experience opportunities, are where many learn skills like communication and collaboration and how to navigate different personalities and dynamics. In a world that's increasingly automated, it's these people skills that many employers are looking for. It's also what can differentiate candidates in a competitive job market, like the one we are seeing today.

Blended learning is the future

For me, the future is about blended learning. This mode brings together innovative online experiences with classroom learning to give learners the skills they need to succeed.

Most training providers and educational institutions are already using some form of this, and, in many qualifications, it's working well to give students the best of both worlds. The key is to ensure all learners either have access to the technologies required for digital components or can access a face-to-face alternative.

At the end of the day, an inclusive education system is the foundation of an inclusive workforce. Whatever the future holds, to be truly successful, our education system must give all learners access to appropriate opportunities, regardless of ability, socio-economic status, culture or environment. We may one day get to a point where an 'online only' model can provide this, but I don’t think we are there just yet.