The Future of Online Learning
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.
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.
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.
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.