Online Education & Working – The History and Trends

In 2012, Smithsonian Magazine presented its American Ingenuity Award to recipients such as Esperanza Spalding, Elon Musk, and Sebastian Thurn. Thurn had founded Udacity, a free online education platform, during his time as a Stanford Professor. He quickly enrolled over 1.6 million students and gained enthusiastic support for his mission to democratise Ivy League standards of education. The New York Times heralded 2012 the ‘Year of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses)’. However, within a year, Thurn was forced to pivot away from his original business model and admit a sort of defeat. Research revealed that less than 10% of Udacity’s students were completing the courses they had enrolled in, and even fewer received passing grades.

For the greater part of the decade this summed up how online education was perceived. A good idea, in theory. New models entered the market and picked up some steam, but online education as a sweeping force never quite lived up to the vision of its earliest momentous days. Fast forward to now, where the circumstances of a global pandemic may be giving this vision a second chance. Most platforms now charge fees. Sites like Udemy and Skillshare are geared towards practically minded self-starters, millennials and freelancers who rely on a constant upkeep of skills to stay competitive. They offer more of an element of peer-to-peer teaching as instructors are often qualified solely by their industry experience.

On the other end of the spectrum are platforms like edX, which has partnered with traditional universities to offer ‘MicroMasters’ and ‘nanodegrees.’ YouTube has finally leaned into its education credentials by launching a learning division of the site last year. Learning playlists are organised neatly by chapter and are free from some of the usual YouTube features like ‘autoplay’ and ‘recommended videos’ that might distract from lessons. LinkedIn Learning has positioned itself at the axis of education and work. It leverages profile information from members to create personalised course recommendations and offer a variety of professional certification courses. Some online platforms have shifted their focus entirely away from ‘completion’ to focus on personal growth and inspiration. MasterClass, a premium choice, offers high-definition lessons with celebrities and various ‘masters’ of their fields. Martin Scorsese teaches filmmaking, for example, and Serena Williams teaches tennis.

Before Coronavirus, the online learning trend was simmering away taking on new forms to stay relevant. When the crisis struck, these platforms were suddenly catapulted into a position where they could offer mass solutions. Between January and February of this year, Coursera saw a 47% uptake in China and Hong Kong as the outbreak closed schools and universities. When the situation became global, Coursera announced it would provide any impacted university unlimited free access to its courses. Vodafone has partnered with Udemy and Perlego, an online library of textbooks, to offer resources to all customers and employees free of charge. FutureLearn, another e-learning platform, has seen a spike in enrollment in its courses geared at healthcare workers, such as ‘COVID-19 Diagnostics and Testing’ and ‘Airways Matter’ from University College London. The Khan Academy has created daily schedules and lesson plans, delineated by age group, to support parents now faced with home-schooling their children. In fact, there has been a widespread effort from governments and communities to compile and share lists of high-quality online learning resources to supplement what schools may be able to offer. Many of these were always there but are now needed more than ever.

Moving education online, at speed, has been far from perfect. However, as this experiment forces more people to recognise the merits of online education, we may workshop ways to bring it closer to its vision of accessible, high-quality learning for everyone. Brands should consider where they might play a role in this, whether that is sponsorship, advertising on these platforms, or upskilling resources for employees. While on-campus learning will likely return to its prominence in the future, online education will have finally made a lasting mainstream impression.


Sean Mitchell

Author at Pynck

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