The global expansion of online learning

By Elise Hodge

shutterstock_1729282750The world at the moment looks vastly different to the world we knew a couple of months ago. Where people were once free to travel, work and move about with ease, we must now stay home and within our local communities. In fact, half of the world’s population is currently in lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The pandemic has also brought a sudden disruption to education systems around the world, many of which have operated in the same way for centuries. Colleges and schools around the world have closed their campuses and moved delivery of their programs online. However, it is not just currently enrolled students who are learning from their laptops. Non-traditional learners, who would usually have full time in-person jobs and a myriad of obligations, are making the most of their spare time by up-skilling through online courses.

The online learning boom

The uptake of online programs has surged in popularity since March, when restrictions around the world became more commonplace. Online learning has been historically considered by some as an alternative form of learning, while also hailed by others as the next biggest thing in higher education. As the quality of online courses has increased in recent years, new platforms have emerged in the education space and universities have extended their online options, making it a viable and credible choice for students.

At degree level, universities across the world are enhancing offerings as well as releasing new online degrees in the wake of the pandemic. The University of Wisconsin- La Crosse has extended its offerings with two brand new online degrees launching this coming Fall Semester, while online education pioneers such as Penn State are celebrating 15 years of online nursing education. Meanwhile, Grace College is reducing the cost of its online degrees by 19.5% to help students further during this uncertain times.

Courses and certifications are also experiencing a massive uptake in popularity since the pandemic began. At Yale University, the course "The Science of Wellbeing" has experienced a 295% increase in enrollments over the past few months, while another focusing on happiness at University of California Berkeley has over 500,000 students registered.

Providers such as Udemy are booming during this time when much of society is home and has more time to consider learning in addition to their usual schedules, especially for professionals or those unable to work due to the pandemic. Offering access to a huge vault of online courses, these providers offer a wide range of topics, including business, finance, office administration, productivity, personal development, design, marketing, photography, health, music, and the humanities and normally at a fraction of the cost of a full degree or program.

Perhaps the most recognised platform for those who want to study at university level is Coursera, which offers students access to academic courses that can lead them into a university degree for a lesser cost than taking the program in-person. Many of these courses are offered by high-profile companies like Google, IBM, Stanford and Yale, and taught by renowned academics from around the world.

With this mode of learning on the rise, the question remains whether the adoption of online education will continue to rise and become a commonly used learning mode of learning. If so, what impact will this have on traditional higher education?

The future of online learning

Before the coronavirus pandemic, many universities offered high-quality education via their own online platforms or through partnerships with organizations such as Coursera and edX.

After the crisis has passed, online education will continue to be a valuable part of the higher education world, as it is a non-rival good, an economic term for resources that do not get used up as more people take part in it or use it. This is good news for universities and colleges, as it means that the best university lecturers will be able to teach a greater number of students at the same time, increasing the overall quality of student learning as they progress.

Students want interaction, online must work to create connections

Accessible online learning may have risen in popularity at the moment, but this does not entirely mean that such widespread use will be sustainable long-term, and across all disciplines. For many programs, practical and interactive work is a significant part of education. Students and teachers currently have no access to many of these physical aspects of their studies, such as in-person tutorials where they are able to interact, come together and grow. This is especially true for liberal arts colleges that require a significant amount of interpersonal interaction between students and professors as part of their curriculum.

Wheaton College in Massachusetts has had to significantly alter the format for a lot of its courses which have never been taught online. Wheaton Professor M. Gabriela Torres says there is a deep sense of loss for both students and professors with research projects, in-person theatre, studio and art programs having to be changed significantly.

These challenges highlights the need for course convenors and professors to focus on maintaining the important connection between students and professors when offering online programs. Lecturers can do this by reaching out to students to see how they are doing, and to make sure they are accessible for students to talk with, whether that is by email, over the phone or via video conferencing. They can also look towards more interactive methods of teaching, such as incorporating live quizzes with applications such as Kahoot!, or Quizizz

Some things will remain the same, but a new era of learning will rise

While technology is currently enabling enrolled students and eager nontraditional learners to access education from the convenience of their laptops, there are still limits. The education world may not be the same once the coronavirus crisis is over, but higher education providers can still expect a return to the aspects of physical learning that are most needed, especially in disciplines such as the arts or sciences.

For many programs, technology may be considered a solution to free up precious lecture time that was not available before the pandemic. Overall, these changes and experiences learned as a result of the pandemic will benefit to the overall advancement of higher education. Moving forward, students will benefit from learning in a new post-COVID era, one that will evolve as a combination of learning methods and practices from both worlds, enabling greater engagement through new and more varied ways of teaching and learning.

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