The Future of Online Learning

The history of Edtech from MOOCs to Cohort Based Courses and what the future of online learning looks like.
Author Headshot
Olivia Higgs
Aug 13
7 mins
Aug 13
7 mins

The world is rapidly changing with shifting attitudes around what a job looks like. Working from home is freeing up time for our hobbies, and shifts in wider industry are requiring the workforce to upskill and prepare for the future. Online learning is going to be a big part of that future, so we’re digging into the history of ed-tech, and the evolution of tools built to help us learn virtually before thinking about what the new wave of education post-lockdown and beyond might look like.

The rise of self-service education

Education up until 2008 was largely associated with institutions like schools and colleges, which often came with exclusivity created by a high price tag. When the MOOC (massive open online course) was first introduced in 2008, teachers at top colleges and universities were starting to experiment and offer up their knowledge online to a wider audience. By the time 2012 came around, MOOCs started to gain traction with the rise of Coursera, Udacity and edX (to name a few). What we were seeing then, was the democratization of education driven by instructors who wanted to create a more equitable society - tearing down barriers to entry for lower-income families.  

So, what is a MOOC?

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. This form of online education focuses on taking traditional course materials (often taught at universities in the early days), and converts them into digital content that can be delivered online. One of the largest goals was to reach students around the world who wouldn’t usually be able to access the education in-person, and at an affordable price.

Once MOOCs became widely accepted, many sites followed - offering educational content online in a range of ways, YouTube, for example, started being flooded with tutorials and how-to videos, ranging from make-up classes to molecular biology. In fact, this rise in online educational content was one of the main drivers behind TED. With this shift to online, regardless of where you were in the world you could get access to very specific educational content from instructors, teachers, and “YouTubers”, and it all came at a much more palatable price (or free). Plus, it could all be done from the comfort of your home working around your own personal schedule. 

While this democratization was very successful, the internet was quickly swollen with information and the content quality varied a huge amount - information wasn’t always accurate and the credibility of the instructors was sometimes questionable as the number of self-proclaimed ‘experts’ increased.

Toolkit Solutions

As instructors continued to provide wider access to knowledge, 2012 saw a rise in toolkit solutions - platforms offering the top instructors the digital tools to build a brand and customer base away from marketplace websites. The big benefit of these solutions, was that instructors could claim full ownership over their earnings, pricing, distribution and the learner’s experience. This model was well suited to the instructors who today, would fit into the online ‘creator’ and ‘influencer’ categories who had built strong online audiences through the likes of YouTube. For the average instructor though, there were significant limitations. Learning multiple technologies and infrastructure tools as well as the marketing skills needed to acquire customers became too much for most instructors, making it very difficult to deliver a high quality learning experience.

Curated Edutainment

In parallel to these white-lable toolkit solutions we saw content curation and the rise of edutainment platforms to address some of the failings of the market around content quality. Platforms like Masterclass, founded in 2014,  aimed to guarantee a certain standard of quality wrapped up in a monthly subscription model. This content-focused approach was driven in part by consumers becoming tired of the unreliable content available on platforms like YouTube. As the amount of information made available via public platforms continued to grow, the conversation became less about democratizing content, and more about finding high-quality, trustworthy content. Between 2014 and 2019, we saw a shift in the way that educational platforms aimed to scale - putting an increased reliance on content ownership, and producing the ‘best quality’ content on the internet. Trouble was, while this content was glossy, people began to dig into the poor completion rates of the courses being run by platforms like Udemy, Coursera and Masterclass. Only 5% on average were making it the full way through the courses, which led to a shift in the way people thought about ‘online education’. This shift in thinking would later become what we know today as ‘cohort-based learning’, which would be brought on in part by the pandemic.

The Pandemic

Whilst we were all locked down inside our homes, we lived out our lives online. By the end of 2020 the video chat platform Zoom had on average 350 million daily meeting participants versus 10 million the year before. Our binge watching habits and online content consumption was at an all time high (doubling on average from 3 hours 17 minutes to 6 hours 59 minutes). But then fatigue set in. This same fatigue was similar to what we were already beginning to see with online courses - only it was amplified now with more people having no other choice but to learn remotely. When trying to understand why so few people were succesfully learning - the two suggested, and later consensus, reasons came down to a lack of accountability, and engagement. Which brings us to the next phase of online learning.

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What does the future of learning look like?

When we think about what the future of learning might look like, the obvious challenge we need to solve is around fatigue, engagement and accountability. The last couple of years have started to pave a possible solution to these problems in the form of cohort-based learning.

What is cohort based learning?

It’s a form of learning that more closely resembles the classroom, putting the learner/student at the centre. So how does this new style of learning work?

First and foremost, it’s highly interactive. As mentioned, platforms up to this point have been focused on delivering glossy content made to be watched passively. Cohort-based learning platforms instead tend to focus on creating virtual spaces for smaller learning groups, with the emphasis on being able to engage in classes, ask questions and seek feedback from the instructor. This direct access to instructors and the personalized support has already had an impact on the effectiveness of learning.

Second, is the focus on peer learning. Instead of learning and building in silos, cohort-based learning has shown there’s real benefit in learning together with people on a similar trajectory. It’s proven that there’s an improved level of accountability and we’ve even seen habit-forming behaviors evolve out of the platforms.

So with the improved interactivity, and the focus on peer-learning, it will likely come as no surprise that the quality of learning achieved by these new platforms is signficiantly improved. What’s surprising though is by just how much. When Harvard Business School moved one of their MOOCs to a cohort-based platform, the average completion rate jumped ten-fold. And it’s not an isolated case, cohort-based platforms on average achieve completion rates of 70% or higher.

So what comes next?

Upskilling, and learning from home is a market that’s still rapidly growing, even in this post-pandemic era. On top of that, we’re seeing a resurgence in the toolkit solutions that were once built to help creators develop MOOCs now develop their own cohort-based courses. Kajabi, Teachable and Thinkific are now being replaced by companies like Maven and Disco. They’re focus is on providing the next generation of ‘creators’ with the tools they need to monetize an online course. Meanwhile, the specialists who don’t have a large social media following or online personality to their name will look for greater support in alternative solutions.

For me, the future of learning does away with mass on-demand lectures in favor of creating virtual spaces for small learning groups to discuss, critique, develop projects and learn together. Direct access to instructors for personalized support and for thinking critically and creatively through abstract concepts will also be crucial to make sure the education is a relevant as possible for people.

This is a similar approach to what we’re doing at Rassa but our focus is on there being tangible output alongside the learning - e.g. you build your first product, experiment with wacky ideas turning them into creations, develop a menu ready to monetize, create your first fashion line or get your own creative business off the ground.

So, if you’re looking to develop your next creative idea, product or side hustle - take a look at some of our programs where you’ll receive personal guidence from your mentors, engage in workshops led by expert instructors, and learn collaboratively with a community of fellow makers. Most imporatntly though we’ll give you the knowledge, and confidence to invest in yourself.

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