One of the biggest trends in the education world over the last several years has been the rapid rise of online learning. Although distance learning has been possible in various formats for quite some time, it was only with the emergence of the internet that this trend really started to take off.
One industry report produced just before the pandemic forecast that the online education market would reach $350bn by 2025, with the introduction of new flexible learning technologies in both the corporate and education sectors helping the sector to explode.
These estimations have been revised upwards in recent months, with one industry report predicting that the global e-learning market will reach an estimated $645bn by 2030. As part of this upward trend, we have seen educational institutions at all levels and from all around the world embracing the potential e-learning and online education opens up. With everything from mainstream educational institutions to online education-specific platforms, putting these new technologies to use.
Given that online learning is more student-centered, the growth in the online learning sector has very much been student-led. In particular, students have taken advantage of the many benefits online learning offers over traditional in-classroom teaching, such as greater flexibility, more active engagement with learning material, reduced costs and increased course variety.
With the growing popularity of online learning in mind, however, how did we get here?
A history of distance learning
Although we might think of online learning as a relatively new innovation, the roots of this trend stretch much further back. In much the same way that the technological development of the internet has enabled this new era of online learning, it was the advent of the modern postal service in the 19th century that first made distance education possible.
Early examples of distance courses can be traced back to the 1840s with Sir Isaac Pitman, and later with the correspondence schools run by the Society to Encourage Studies at Home in 1873 in the US.
One of the most important innovations came in 1858 when the University of London started to offer distance learning degrees through its external program. This model was replicated in various forms in the US, such as those efforts by William Rainey Harper.
Arguably the next most important development came with the establishment of the Open University in the UK, which was the first fully remote university. This model has been replicated around the world and remains popular today.
Online learning and the Covid-19 pandemic
Despite distance and online learning having been around for quite some time, it was only during the Covid-19 pandemic that we really got a sense of how it could work at scale.
Not long after the pandemic began to ramp up from the initially detected cases, schools and educational institutions around the globe took the decisive action to move from primarily in-person tuition to remote and online learning.
The result of this was not only the essentially overnight transformation of traditional forms and patterns of learning. It was also a massive experiment in online learning being conducted at scale for the first time ever.
Although it is arguably difficult to extract any clear data from this experiment given that learning was being conducted during a devastating, unprecedented global pandemic, it quickly became clear that online learning did have some distinct benefits. Importantly, it was also clear that many individuals actually preferred either this style of learning or a blend of traditional and distance learning.
The current state of online learning
In terms of what the online learning market is looking like now, there are several dedicated online learning platforms currently competing for market share. This includes platforms such as Udemy, Coursera, Lynda, Skillshare and Udacity, among others, that deliver online learning to millions across the globe.
Among these major players, we are beginning to see increased market segmentation and specialization. For example, Skillshare is becoming the go to online learning destination for creatives, while Coursera is more focused on traditional academic courses.
Another trend we are beginning to see — and which builds directly on the gains made in online education during the pandemic — is that traditional universities are beginning to diversify more seriously into this market. While many of these universities switched to remote learning during the pandemic, this was very much on an ad-hoc basis without turning this into a more formal way of enrolling at the university.
However, we are now beginning to see major universities developing their own dedicated e-learning platforms. This includes schools such as Stanford University and Harvard University providing access to online courses on computer science, engineering, mathematics, business and much more. These new learning platforms also present a way for universities to create new revenue streams, particularly given the increased financial pressures that educational institutions have been placed under in recent years.
In light of these developments, it is clear that the education sector and learning institutions find themselves at a critical juncture. In particular, traditional educational institutions are faced with deciding the extent to which they respond to these growing demands for flexible, online learning solutions.
The rise of online learning: The numbers
In terms of the raw numbers behind the global movement towards online learning and education, there are several representative figures we can point to which give us a sense of the size of this shift.
According to a report by the WEForum in 2016, there were around 21 million students registered with Coursera’s online learning platform. This continued to increase annually by about seven million for the next two years. However, the switch to remote living brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic significantly increased the number of enrolments, which as of 2020 stood at 71 million and in 2021 at 92 million.
Other learning platforms and environments saw similar rises. According to a global e-learning survey, this stood at $189 million in 2021, which marked a 32% increase over the previous year.
Although this is just a small sample of figures, they nevertheless help to illustrate what is a much broader societal shift. It is clear that the acceptance of online learning has significantly increased in the last couple of years.
The regions where this change has taken place the most dramatically paints an interesting portrait of the world.
Regionally, the Asia Pacific region saw the biggest overall presence on learning platforms. However, the country with the most online learners was the US at 17.3 million online learners. This was followed up by India with 13.6 million, 4.8 million in Mexico, 3.7 million in Brazil, 3.3 million in China, 2.4 million in Canada, the UK and Russia, 2.2 million in Colombia and 1.6 million in Egypt.
What is interesting about these figures is that online learning is helping to significantly increase participation in education in certain developing parts of the world, however, the availability of reliable internet still remains a barrier to access.
The benefits of online learning
Online learning presents several distinct advantages over traditional in-person education. While many of these benefits are relatively obvious — such as greater flexibility and more active engagement — others are less immediately so.
One way that online learning platforms are unique when compared to traditional learning institutions is the amount of user data they generate. This is significant as this data is a rich source of information that can be used to generate insights that can enhance the student’s learning experiences.
Teachers can use these insights to rework lesson plans, test students or to clarify difficult concepts. The ability to instantaneously generate this information provides a distinct advantage over traditional learning environments.
Another distinct advantage of online learning environments is that they tend to be much more accessible and inclusive. Flexible online learning programs do not put up the same obstacles as in-person learning environments as classes can be attended at a time and place that suits the student. This is particularly useful for students with caring responsibilities or disabilities who might otherwise struggle to meet in-person learning requirements.
In terms of accessibility, online learning programs also tend to be cheaper, which has obvious implications for becoming more widely available to all types of students for enrollment.
Although the cost structures of online learning programs are not necessarily drastically cheaper than in-person classes, the ability for online courses to be scaled up more easily in terms of enrollment means that costs can potentially be significantly reduced. Other reductions in the costs associated with enrollment also come from a reduction in the cost of learning materials, such as textbooks.
The flexibility of online learning programs also has positive implications from a student learning perspective. As classes can be scheduled at a time, place and pace that suits individual students’ needs, this allows a student to learn in an environment that suits them best.
With these general advantages in mind, let’s look a little bit more closely at how online learning impacts how you study, when you study and what you can study.
How you study
One of the most interesting things about the shift to online learning, is that it has brought about significant changes in how we learn. Teachers in all settings have had to develop new teaching methods for use in the online environment, with many traditional approaches proving a bad fit for the online era.
Some of these methods include an increased reliance on both teacher and student-led presentations, using online interactive whiteboards, educational games, live chatting, class blogs, podcasts and short-form videos.
While not all these methods will be equally effective from a student learning and retention perspective, what they have shown is that a more diversified approach is important in the online environment. In particular, teachers are advised to rely on a diverse set of teaching tools to ensure that all students’ learning preferences are supported.
When you study
Another clear benefit to online learning is that it allows students to study in a much more flexible manner. This means that in many programs, students themselves will be able to select when and where they study. While keeping some degree of routine is important, it is clear that greater flexibility helps to make educational programs more accessible.
There are a number of different approaches a teacher might take to ‘flexible’ learning. For example, online education programs might run synchronously — albeit online — or asynchronously. Both approaches have distinct benefits and drawbacks and will be better suited to certain types of learning programs than others.
What you can study
Another benefit to online education is that it can offer students a much greater diversity of educational programs to choose from.
Online courses do not suffer from the same resource constraints as in person programs, as educational institutions do not have to rely on students being able to be physically present. Instead, student enrollments can come from potentially anywhere in the world.
This allows a greater diversity of courses to be run. For example, we are now seeing more niche programs such as an online AGACNP post master’s certificate, in addition to more traditionally popular programs such as bachelor’s degrees. The Rockhurst program prepares students to care for aging people with a range of acute and complex conditions.
Challenges going forward
Despite the clear benefits that online learning presents, there are numerous challenges that remain for the entire sector.
Perhaps most immediately, there is a pressing need to ensure that teachers are adequately trained to both teach in a remote or online environment, as well as to take advantage of the unique advantages it offers.
One of the best things about online learning is that it presents teachers with a whole new set of engaging and immersive tools to use in their teaching. However, if teachers are not trained to use them properly, there might be too much focus on gimmickry rather than actually meeting learning goals. With that said, reskilling current teachers and properly equipping the next generation of classroom leaders will be essential to the growth of online learning.
Another challenge facing online learning in most, if not all, contexts is keeping students engaged and motivated. While online learning material has been shown to be more engaging for students — particularly where they can watch and rewatch content at their desired pace — keeping students motivated in the learning program itself can be much trickier.
Self-motivation in online learning is essential. However, at the same time it is also the thing many online learners struggle the most with. It is quite common for online learners to enthusiastically enroll in a program only for their motivation to start waning as it progresses.
Loss of motivation in students is a complex and much-studied topic and is made all the more complicated in an online environment. A lack of engagement with course material, assignments or the program itself can be exacerbated when there are no regular in-person meetings to keep students accountable.
The other major challenge online learning students face is balancing the requirements of their online program with the rest of their lives. While this is certainly something all students grapple with — whether online or in person — it is exacerbated in an online environment where classes can be attended on a more flexible basis. In this context, it can often be easy to fall behind on work.
For this reason, time management can often be a real struggle for many online learning students. While flexibility is certainly an advantage for online students, too much flexibility can sometimes lead to them failing to dedicate adequate time and resources to their schoolwork.
The future of online learning: What’s in store?
Despite these challenges, it is clear that online learning is here to stay. But the question remains to be answered: what might the future of online learning look like?
Although the full answer to this question is not yet known, the signs are broadly positive. While many predicted that a return to the classroom after the pandemic was inevitable, this does not necessarily appear to be the case.
Online learning platforms such as Udemy, EdX and others have continued to post record-breaking profits and user registrations, as well as seeing millions of dollars’ worth of investments funneled into them. Similarly, the more traditional learning environments such as universities have continued to expand their online learning options, which has helped to legitimize online learning as a form of education.
With that said, it is clear that online learning is here to stay.