Leah Holroyd is a learning designer and the co-founder and director of White Bicycle Ltd. This ORB member business designs and builds bespoke, interactive online multimedia learning experiences for your staff, students or an external audience. Why is online learning great and how is it not so straightforward? Read on for a cosy blog post courtesy of Leah!


Elevating the online learning experience


I’ve met a lot of people who are not at all sure about online learning – and I totally get it.

Online learning has definitely become more common since Covid, but I’ve been working in this sector for 12+ years now, so I’ve had my fair share of conversations with people who were deeply sceptical about this approach to education and training.

Online learning – like books, TV or any other medium, for that matter –can be brilliant or it can be rubbish, and there are lots of things we can do as learning designers to improve a learner’s experience. We can provide a clear and coherent narrative, make sure that the navigation and interactive activities are intuitive and easy to use, and design courses to be accessible and inclusive. We can build in elements designed to boost engagement – video interviews with inspiring experts, branching scenarios that allow learners to follow different paths and see how they play out, or colourful animations which bring stories to life.

An online course which is boring, badly designed and full of bugs is about as much fun as a TV show with no discernible plot, lots of distracting continuity errors and scenes so poorly lit that you can’t make out what’s happening… It’s not the medium that’s at fault – it’s how it’s been used.


What’s your online learning style?


There’s also an aspect of personal preference, of course. I think The Great British Sewing Bee is great television, while my partner finds it so tedious that he’d rather do the washing up. Likewise, while I’m happy spending my free time watching short video tutorials on everything from crochet to collage, he’s currently working through a multi-module online course about programming with lots of quizzes and practical assignments.

One of the key advantages of online learning is being able to learn when and where it suits you. So my partner and I can sit in our house in Essex and he can watch a mini-lecture from a professor at Harvard or MIT, while I’m getting tips from an artist in Amsterdam or a potter in Paris. 

He puts in some study hours most days, whereas I dip in and out, picking a couple of creative exercises to do when I have some spare time in the evenings or at weekends.

This flexibility is fantastic – but there’s another advantage to online learning which doesn’t receive nearly as much attention and that’s its environmental impact.


Sustainable convenience


I’d always just assumed that online learning was better for the environment. It stands to reason – I’ve attended countless workshops and training days where people have travelled from all over the country, where coffee is poured into disposable cups and sandwiches sit curling in plastic trays, where 120-page print-outs are distributed under the glare of electric lights. 

Surely accessing learning materials from the comfort of your own home has to be a more sustainable option?

Joining ORB and hearing about the other great things going on in this community encouraged me to dig a bit deeper… Rather than making assumptions or just hoping for the best, I wanted to find out whether there was any research to back up my thinking – and there is!

Studies have shown that online learning (compared to in-person learning) cuts down on commuting and transport, therefore lowering emissions. It also helps to cut paper usage, using digital materials rather than printed hand-outs. And it can save energy in terms of heating, lighting and other facilities needed to host in-person classes.


The environmental wins of online learning


I picked out a few interesting and encouraging statistics:

  • A study by the University of West Georgia found that online learning helped to cut CO2 emissions by 5-10 tons per semester for every hundred students.
  • The Open University Design Innovation Group (DIG) found that online training consumes nearly 90% less energy than in-class training programmes.
  • A study at the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) calculated that students who moved their studies online lowered their CO2 emissions from 180 pounds to 4 pounds per term.

Clearly, we can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. The environmental impact of online learning will vary from one situation to the next, depending on a range of different factors – there’s obviously a big difference between walking to a local class and flying to an overseas conference. But I hope the figures above provide useful food for thought if you’re looking for ways to make your own learning and development offerings more sustainable.


The joy of learning anywhere


I’m not an online learning evangelist. I know the quality of courses varies hugely, and I certainly don’t see online training as a magic solution to every issue. What’s more, I know there’s real value in face-to-face learning experiences, when they’re planned and run well.

I love going to a fortnightly life drawing class in one of my favourite pubs. I walk to the station, ride the train to one-stop, and spend two blissful hours sketching and sipping red wine, chatting with the other attendees, and getting some informal tutoring from the two professional artists who run the sessions. These in-person classes always boost my mood, help me to unwind and make me feel connected to other people.

However having access to the world of online learning has provided me with opportunities to expand my horizons, pick up new hobbies and interests, and develop my professional and creative practices in unexpected ways. I can learn sitting on the sofa, drinking tea out of my favourite mug, even wearing my pyjamas (if it’s one of those days!) while our car sits on the driveway unneeded. And what’s not to like about that?


Leah Holroyd

Leah Holroyd

Co-founder of White Bicycle Ltd

The duo at the helm of White Bicycle Ltd, Leah and Finn, are siblings on a mission. They’re online education experts crafting bespoke online learning adventures, tailoring digital content to cater to various learning styles and needs. Drawing from their journey with sight loss, they champion digital accessibility training, making the online world a more inclusive space for everyone. Leah has been named a Top 10 Female Entrepreneur by the Telegraph and NatWest and White Bicycle was named “One to Watch” according to Family Business United.

Leah’s commitment to diversity and inclusion shines through collaborations with social enterprises like Diversity & Ability, contributing to disability inclusion training for global entities like the United Nations World Food Programme and Sony Pictures. The White Bicycle website was audited by fellow ORB member, Eco-Friendly Web Alliance, and proudly emits less than 1g of carbon per page view. Beyond the digital realm, Leah supports causes dear to her heart, from sponsoring local girls’ football to donating to Moorfields Eye Charity.