Gardening is one of the most popular informal online learning topics in the UK. Photo: Tony Bates; his wife is the gardener.

Glover, B. et al. (2020) The Learning Curve: How the UK is Harnessing the Potential of Online Learning London UK: Demos UK

What is ‘Demos UK’?

Demos is a think tank based in the United Kingdom with a supposedly cross-party political viewpoint, although it is closely associated with Tony Blair’s New Labour. It was founded in 1993 and specialises in social policy, developing evidence-based solutions in a range of areas – from education and skills to health and housing.

It is registered as a charity but with admittedly shallow digging I was unable to find out the sources of its funding, which appear to be mainly on a project-by project basis. It has just under £1 million (C$1.72 million) in annual revenues, but its 2018 annual report and accounts does not list who funded the projects, although it is probably significant that this particular study was supported by Google.

Main findings

This recently published report (February 2020) makes some startlingly bold claims, including:

  • ‘this report is the most comprehensive of its kind on online learning in the UK to date’ (which may come as a surprise to the folks at the UK Open University)
  • 10% of the UK economy can be linked to the effects of online learning
  • 20 million people in Britain feel that online learning has contributed to them doing their job more efficiently (out of 67 million)
  • over 1 in 5 in the UK working population have used Internet-based learning to help raise their pay, equivalent to about £3,640 a year (C$6,260)
  • online learning is lifelong: even though more young people (aged 18-25) learn online (68%), more than half of people over 65 (57%) learn online once a week
  • 77% report that online learning has been beneficial to their mental health
  • online learning in the working population is mainly self-directed (58%); only 18% said that their employer requested or required it
  • most people who learn online do so through search engines and online videos, although more than one third of young people also use social media for online learning
  • only 16% used open access classes (presumably MOOCs and OER) and only 12% used ‘interactive classes’ (presumably formal online courses) ‘to learn things to help with work’
  • the most searched skill was how to cook (36%), followed by DIY (29%) and gardening (24%), although there were interesting differences reported by age-groups (for instance ‘bird-watching’ is listed as most popular by those over 65)
  • those from lower social grades are less likely to receive a pay rise or a better paid job as a result of online learning than those from higher social grades: 10% of people with no educational qualifications have got a job they like better using online learning, while people with a degree are three times more likely (30%) to get a job they like better from online learning.

Main recommendations and conclusions

The report ends with three ‘recommendations [that] primarily aim to increase the quality and impact of online learning’:

  • because ‘online learning brings significant gains to the employee, the employer and the wider economy….the government should therefore legislate for all employees to enjoy five paid days of learning leave.’
  • ‘the government should establish joint working groups with industry to set up new accreditation bodies to provide modular career progressions routes…, prioritising low paid industries’
  • universities and professional bodies should consult on introducing open access exams that would allow anyone to sit their exams.

The report concludes (my abbreviated summary):

‘learning can now happen anytime, any place and is no longer confined to the classroom. We are also learning online off our own backs; a nation of self-starting learners. This too represents a dramatic change in the nature of learning away from a paternalistic, top-down approach to a learner-controlled approach…..

‘Grappling with flat-lined productivity growth, a new automation age, and the need to level up our economy, a bold new approach to lifelong learning is demanded by these challenges.’

My comments

Despite the apparent ‘good news’ about the positive effects of online learning, this study is so bad I hardly know where to start. So let’s start with the positive.

The importance of informal learning

First, three cheers for a report that looks at the impact of online learning on informal learning. (You would not know that this was the topic if you just read the main report). Informal learning typically takes place naturally and spontaneously as part of other activities. (‘Non-formal’ learning is more organised, or structured than informal learning, but non-formal learning still takes place outside the formal system of schools, colleges and universities.)

Most of us probably recognise how much we learn from our day-to-day ‘non-academic’ activities, and of course most of us, as this report demonstrates, use online search in particular not only outside our day-to-day work activities, but also when in work, without being ‘directed’ by an employer or supervisor.

I have no argument with their view that a bold new approach to lifelong learning is needed, and informal online learning is an increasingly essential component. 

However, in all other respects, I am deeply disappointed by this study.

A fail in methodology

Its methodology is unbelievably flawed, and its conclusions trite. 

First, the methodology is far from transparent. The report states that it draws on:

  • a comprehensive literature review that examined existing evidence relating to online learning. However, this is in an annex separate from the main report that I had to track down. I have no issues with the review itself; it is just that anyone with a cursory reading of the main report is likely to assume that online learning is primarily about informal learning; there is no mention in the main report about MOOCs, for-credit online learning and other types of more formal online learning. This wouldn’t matter except for the exaggerated claims being made for informal online learning in the main report
  • a nationally representative poll of more than 20,000 UK adults conducted by Demos However, I could find no details of the sampling process, and no details of the actual questions asked. In particular, out of the 20,000 polled, how many replied? It appears the authors have just picked the numbers that they are interested in. There is no way of checking the reliability and validity of the data
  • ten in-depth semi-structured interviews with people who have achieved professional or personal goals through learning online 
  • ten in-depth semi-structured interviews with people from socioeconomic and/or demographic groups identified as being less likely to learn online 
  • economic modelling

It is the economic modelling though that most disturbed me. Again I have no issue with their argument that informal online learning can help people do their jobs better. It is the pseudo-quantitative claim that informal online learning contributes 10% to the British economy that is unsustainable. The methodology they used to support this claim is completely bogus.

The claim seems based on a couple of questions about how much extra an individual believes they have earned from informal online learning, and how many felt that informal learning helped them get a better job. However, we get only the conclusions about how much extra they earned or whether it got them a better job, not the actual question asked, and we don’t know how representative the sample is of those who answered these particular questions (except that they appeared to be the more highly educated).

Now just think about this: how would YOU answer such questions? How much extra do you think you earned in your job by going online? You’d probably make a huge guess, right? Also there’s a concept in psychology known as cognitive dissonance. Once you make a decision – such as to spend time learning online – there is a tendency for post hoc justification of that decision, which is likely to inflate the perceived benefits.

Having got this data from who knows how small or unrepresentative a group, they then multiple up this figure for the entire UK working population of 20 million to the tune of an extra £120 million annually ‘pumped into the economy’ by informal online learning. Give me a break!

In the Appendix 2 of the main report, they admit to other shortcomings in this analysis, such as

  • how much extra they would have earned anyway without the internet
  • how much it was the internet or other factors that lead to a pay rise or a better job, in particular other forms of on the job training or formal study.

Then let’s look at the main topics of informal online learning: cooking, gardening, do-it-yourself activities, and for those over 65, bird-watching. While these undoubtedly increase people’s ‘mental welfare’ as the report puts it, I’m not sure most economists would see this as contributing to GDP.

A missed opportunity

What the authors of this report have clearly gone for is a cheap but compelling headline: informal online learning leads to 10% increase in annual economic output, with really no evidence to sustain it. The irony is that the main outcome of this study is unfortunately one of the worst by-products of the internet: fake news.

This is such a shame as there is surely a really good story to tell about the value of informal online learning. It is there if you look for it in the report, but being New Labour it had to be wrapped up in a pseudo-capitalist framework.


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