Published date: July 27th 2021 at 12:22am

Caroline Evans, Arden University’s Corporate Strategy Director, reflects back on an unprecedented year and recalls how an eerily-quiet, lone cycle ride through the deserted streets of London during the height of the UK lockdown helped remind her of how online learning can help change Britain’s learning landscape for the better.

“During the peak of lockdown I headed out west from my home in east London for a bike ride that got me reflecting on the nature of learning.

It’s a ride I know well, as this used to be how I commuted to work. Like most of us, my commute is now mostly done in my slippers. I planned a 20k round trip, 90 minutes of gentle riding. Before long I had instinctively completed my old commuting route into the City…and the enormity of where I was, and how it was, slowed me down and took my breath away. Bishopsgate, St Pauls, London Bridge…on, past Waterloo Bridge, through Covent Garden to Charing Cross, Piccadilly Circus. All were, of course, deserted, silent and still. On further, up Regents’ Street, through Oxford Circus then back through Marylebone, Fitzrovia, Bloomsbury and Holborn. I knew it would be quiet, I knew there would be almost no cars and few people, but I had entirely underestimated how powerful and, honestly, magical it was to experience. It was also a much quieter and socially distancing-compatible place to be exercising than my local park or running route!

The thing that was genuinely mind-blowing for me, though, was the way it felt; the air was crisp and clean, like breathing in at the seaside. At one point I was alarmed by a strange noise, then I realised it was the sound of my own wheels turning, being bounced back off the buildings around me, something I have never heard in the usual noise of the City. The people who were out, largely on bikes or running and always distanced from one another, had ownership, had priority, had safety in a way the normal traffic-filled roads never allow.

I’m not naïve to the fact this is because our economy has been slowed to perilous levels, and no-one wants this to continue for more than is entirely necessary, but, for a moment, I stopped thinking about that, and I let my mind go to a different place, powered by my turning pedals.

I have been working online (or virtual, remote, digitally enabled…whatever you choose to call it!) learning, in various forms, for nearly a decade.

I have always known that, as a tool to support learning and further opportunity it is powerful, important and so much more than “second best” to face to face learning. Things happen sometimes to crystalise this and really bring it home to me.

Things like a young woman who had grown up, and still lived, in a strongly observant Muslim household. For her, university in the ‘traditional’ sense was never going to be an option. She was not permitted (and did not want, it is important to stress) to move away from home to attend university in the conventional format. Studying from home, achieving a degree whilst maintaining observance of her faith and family expectations, was a life-changing opportunity for her.

She now works for KPMG.

Similarly, the 19-year-old who was the sole carer for his mother and who burst into tears when I explained how he could study online to become a solicitor.

I had, in that moment, been given the power to re-open a door to his dream that he had considered locked shut. It is as powerful when I meet people who have given up on learning because they are too busy, their lives already full of a successful career and established routine. Flexibility of solutions and ownership of when and how they learn, how they become better, more responsible leaders, is just as transformative.

That lockdown cycle ride was another of those moments, but in a different way. It brought home to me the power that the virtual world and a new way of thinking and being in society and the economy, have to change the physical world.

I was reminded of a more global impact that those of us who work to deliver online and virtual solutions can have. We have the power, through building and delivering online solutions and virtual spaces that are as good as, and often better, than the face-to-face alternative, to reduce reliance on a location-driven economy and society.

We can lift a fraction of the burden off the urban infrastructure. We let people access high quality learning, interaction and opportunities without traveling and we contribute to a dispersed economy where the world is more local to their neighbourhood, their community and the world they can walk to.

The unique power of truly impactful online learning is increased by the skills that it inherently gives learners. We train them to operate, to thrive, in fact, in an online environment. We teach them how to benefit from what it can offer and how to be well, happy and productive whilst doing so. We are building the next generation of workers and leaders, and we are creating them as virtual-first pioneers, ambassadors for a positive approach to a virtual world.

Now, it’s clear that what we lived through was “an unprecedented time” (I’m sure there will be many books written about the with just that title!), but there’s a curious thing about unprecedented times; they are the precedent.

Our future world will be more volatile, there will be more uncertainty and the challenges we face now will come again in some form or another. And then they will not be unprecedented, for we are living in the precedent. The lessons we learn now about what works, what helps us to survive and cope and, actually, what we realise is better than “the norm” will be crucial.

In the meantime, we can use this year’s events to reflect on our part in, little by little, transforming the world through what we do. Not just through each and every person that we give opportunity to change their own life through learning and development, but through the knowledge that an online society and economy, a reduced reliance on physical resources, travel, and on-the-ground teams to support it all may just be the breakthrough that can power the world to a better future.

Online learning, working and living are not just a sticking plaster to get us through the current pain, they may just be the Penicillin with the power to transform our world.”

December 2020

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