A woman with short dark hair smiles at the camera.
Image: Farnaz Ronaghi

‘The future of online learning requires a human-centric approach’

2 Jun 2021

NovoEd’s co-founder and CTO discusses the future of online learning and the need to move away from a ‘lift and shift’ training approach.

Over the past 15 or so months, we’ve gone from joking about ‘the new normal’ to talking seriously about never going back to the ‘old normal’.

The extended period of remote working and learning alongside the need to decentralise systems and infrastructures has forced us to look critically at what processes we want to return to post-pandemic and which ones we want to transform.

Online learning is one of the biggest areas that could see acceleration due to the pandemic. Though students were thrust into the remote world in much the same way the workforce was, under less-than-ideal circumstances, it has presented an opportunity to bring different approaches into the mainstream.

Not only could this change how the education sector works, but it could bring a new way of upskilling to the world’s workforce.

While the online learning environment might feel very new to many right now, it’s something Farnaz Ronaghi has been working on for nearly a decade.

‘Engaging online learning will enhance employee connections and a culture of togetherness’

Ronaghi holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s degree and PhD in management science and engineering, information science and technology from Stanford University.

It was during her PhD that she built the first version of NovoEd, an online collaborative learning platform, in Stanford’s Social Algorithms Lab in 2012.

Ronaghi is passionate about building the next generation of online learning experiences and said it is the only way forward when it comes to upskilling a highly distributed workforce.

“But to be successful, organisations need more human-centred approaches to create the community and social connections that drive engagement and sustain change,” she told Siliconrepublic.com.

The value of online learning

While students all over the world have had to switch their full-time education to online learning at different points over the past year, online learning could also be of critical importance within the working environment.

“Corporate learning has the power to systematically cultivate organisation-wide capabilities that employees need to innovate in an increasingly complex and distributed environment, but only if they can learn from and with each other, and only when learning is tailored to their company culture, mission, values and specific roles,” Ronaghi said.

“When done well, effective and engaging online learning will also enhance employee connections and a culture of togetherness in today’s environment, which can be very isolating and disconnected across regions and time zones.”

But leaders need to get more creative about designing and delivering learning experiences that address the needs of learners and make a real impact, she added.

“To do so, they’ll need to unlearn mindsets, assumptions and practices of the past about how learning happens online.

“One mindset to overcome is that self-paced learning is solo learning. Many in the learning community create content or traditional e-learning courses as the solution to every problem. This approach might be OK for one-way knowledge transfer on some hard skills, but it does not develop capabilities. Developing capabilities requires practice and application, peer learning, feedback and social reinforcement.”

Another mindset that can negatively impact the online learning space is the belief that, even in an online world, bricks-and-mortar institutions still hold the top spots.

A 2018 Northeastern University survey found that 58pc of US employers believe that an institution’s brand and reputation is the main driver of a credential’s value, regardless of whether or not it was earned online.

And according to a study from the Society for Human Resource Management, 92pc of employers view online degrees from brick-and-mortar schools as favourable, while only 42pc would consider a candidate with an online degree from a university that operates solely online, despite the accreditation.

While these studies are based in the US, it presents a concerning bias that may exist against fully online offerings that don’t have the legacy of an established in-person programme from a traditional institution.

Another misconception that Ronaghi highlighted was the idea that in-person training could simply ‘lift and shift’ to an online video environment – a challenge that affects employers when it comes to upskilling their workforce.

“Over the past year in particular, attempts to replicate in-person learning through Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams and other workplace collaboration tools have revealed the difficulties of maintaining learner engagement as digital fatigue kicks in,” she said.

“Adopting a human-centred iterative approach to the design, agility in the creation and delivery, and contextualising content via relatable and purposeful activities in learning, is critical to unleashing the power of online learning in organisations.”

Advice for leaders

Aside from the need to shake off misconceptions, Ronaghi offered some advice for leaders when it comes to creating better learning environments.

She said these should incorporate virtual instructor-led workshops, self-study sessions with articles and videos, practice and application-oriented projects, peer feedback, group projects, and mentoring and coaching.

“With online training, you’re not limited to lectures and PowerPoints. Think videos, articles, podcasts, infographics, games, e-books, web conferences and other creative formats. Repurpose existing content wherever possible and create your own content to supplement it so you can include messaging and a look and feel that’s on brand.”

She added that, to achieve long-term success, online learning should be stretched over time. “Retention is higher with more time to absorb and reflect with peers. Designing for application is also important to ensure that learning activities are authentic to your company culture and allow participants to connect what they’re learning to the real world and their current roles.”

Another tip Ronaghi offered was for businesses to start small when it comes to building online training from the ground up. “This will allow you to maintain quality before scaling your programs organisation-wide.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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