Is COVID-19 the final breakthrough of online learning?

Is COVID-19 the final breakthrough of online learning?

Is COVID-19 the final breakthrough of online learning? It certainly appears that way. At all levels of education for children and permanent training for adults, teachers are making extra efforts to continue reaching their pupils, students and trainees during this “light lockdown”. Higher education was quick to make a full switch to digital learning until the end of the academic year.

ven online exams seem likely to become an option. Secondary education began offering online lessons even before the Easter holiday, and after the Easter holiday, primary schools started “pre-teaching” remotely as well. VDAB, the Flemish employment service, is running a campaign on “binge learning” to put its online courses fully in the spotlight. Sector funds are also actively promoting their online offerings.

From interesting innovation to only option

The contrast with the situation in early March is remarkable. At that time, online or digital learning was primarily the domain of those concerned with “innovation” at education and training providers. It was an interesting new option, promising in terms of learning independently of time and place, personalised learning, etc. Various pioneers were already hard at work exploring the possibilities, but it nevertheless remained more likely to be included in a vision for 2030 than a priority in 2020. Particularly in early childhood education, 100% distance learning was completely unthinkable - apart from exceptional situations, such as the teaching of sick children (e.g. Bednet). There were also many barriers to a broader implementation in adult education, such as: “Are our teachers sufficiently competent in digital teaching?” “Do we or our students have the necessary hardware and software?” “Are our students sufficiently self-motivated?” “Do they have adequate digital skills?” “How can we monitor their efforts and performance remotely?” “Does this fit in with our educational vision?”, etc.

Now, however, the coronavirus has made the decision for us; online learning is our only option. There is literally no other way. From one day to the next, all teachers have been thrown into the deep end (or rather, in front of the webcam).

Pioneers share expertise

Fortunately, those pioneers had already quietly built up a great deal of expertise at the Department of Education and Training, at school associations, at universities and colleges, in companies and industries, at publishers, in the edtech sector and at the VDAB.

Our Flemish universities conduct internationally recognised top-level research into ICT applications in education. Just sharing information online cannot guarantee that learning will take place. It’s very fortunate that in the past few years, they have already mapped out the best ways to accomplish this and the required quality characteristics of online offerings.

It is exciting to see how these pioneers are currently taking action to share their knowledge with the sector. Because the issues outlined above remain, of course. Teachers and lecturers must create solutions and remove barriers through trial and error, as they go.

What will become the 'new normal' in education and training?

At IDEA Consult, we keep track of developments and advise the Flemish government on its policies on e-learning and digital education. An important guideline in these recommendations is always: make use of existing expertise and coordinate efforts across policy boundaries, for example by creating a single “expertise centre for online learning” for teachers active in all sectors and at all levels of education. All too often, the fields of education and training, work and innovation operate in parallel and are insufficiently aware of the potential for cross-pollination between their ecosystems.

Like everyone else, we are looking forward to the end of the lockdown. Finally, a return to normal life... but what will the “new normal” be for education and training? To what extent has e-learning really broken through in adult education? And who knows: will our children still attend school full-time every weekday? What changes appear to be improvements? What undesirable developments happened? At the end of 2018, we used a survey commissioned by the Department of Work to map out the characteristics of e-learning options for adults in Flanders. We intend to repeat this survey in the autumn of 2020 to document the impact of the coronavirus crisis on how we organise learning.


Some interesting sources:

  • Desmedt, E., De Coen, A. & Goffin, K. (2019). E-leren in Vlaanderen. [E-learning in Flanders]. A study commissioned by the Flemish Minister for Work in the context of the VIONA research programme. Brussels: IDEA Consult.
  • Pynoo, B., Zhu, Ch., De Wever, B. & Tondeur, J. (2018). Aan de slag met online en blended leren in het volwassenenonderwijs – Van onderzoek naar praktijk. [Working with online and blended learning in adult education - from research to practice.] Ghent: Nevelland vzw.
  • by Imec/KULeuven
  • What will you do now that classes are cancelled? The Department of Education and Training offers information and expertise at

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arrow team members
foto Miriam Van Hoed
Miriam Van Hoed
Senior Expert Innovation & Competitiveness
foto Ella Desmedt (Ph.D.)
Ella Desmedt (Ph.D.)
Senior Expert in Education, Evaluation & Governance