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The Big Break Online Education’s Been Waiting For

The global online education industry was a $188 billion market in 2019. Now, it’s projected to grow to a $319 billion market by 2025 thanks to improving internet access and technological advancement. 

But the real wildcard for the industry was the outbreak of COVID-19, with remote learning becoming the new norm. School closures due to COVID-19 have affected at least 1.38 billion students across the world, which amounts to 80% of all students. And including the number of workers who must get their training remotely, the number of affected individuals would be much higher. 

Bullish decided to connect with three online learning providers to understand what makes them stand out in this highly valued industry and how COVID-19 has affected their platforms.

Different approaches to providing education online 

One of the biggest players in the industry is Coursera, an online learning platform amassing 58 million learners that partners with educational institutions and companies to provide projects, courses, specializations, certificates and even degree programs. 

Image featured on @coursera Instagram profile.

At a price much lower than the tuition of a typical higher education institution, users can take classes and earn applicable credentials. For instance, a degree can cost you as little as $9,000 if taken on Coursera. Plus, users can audit many classes for free if they don’t need certificates as proof. 

Udemy, another popular online learning platform with 295 million course enrollments, has a different approach. Darren Shimkus, the president of Udemy for Business, told Bullish “Udemy has been an open, global marketplace since Day 1.” 

“We believe that not all teachers can be found in a traditional classroom,” Shimkus said. 

He added that Udemy brings experts in any field to develop a course, offering a library of 150,000 courses in more than 65 different languages. 

“Udemy has more relevant and updated content than anyone else,” Shimkus said. “This has enabled us to uncover exceptional talent who deliver the freshest content such as updated iOS and Android app development courses before their public release.”

But sometimes the education provider is not a private company, but a higher education institution itself. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offers OpenCourseWare (OCW), which is a collection of free courses and materials licensed to encourage download and redistribution. While there are many universities across the world that have pursued such an initiative, MIT has the largest collection of OCW courses and boasts nearly 2.5 million subscribers on its YouTube channel

“The OpenCourseWare model is truly self-paced. There’s no registration involved,” Curt Newton, the director of MIT OpenCourseWare, said. “We’ve heard stories of people who learned software engineering from scratch in the pace of six months and got themselves a job.” 

The courses on MIT OpenCourseWare reflect every topic taught at MIT — from linear algebra to music technology — and about 60% of faculty contribute to the resource. While the courses were originally intended for other educators to use as reference, Newton said there was “tremendous hunger for this material” from other user groups as well, including students and professionals. 

“OpenCourseWare has always been and will always be free to the world,” Newton said. “It’s a gift from our faculty.” 

Value to instructors and students

There are debates on whether online learning is inferior to its physical counterpart. But John McGready, a Johns Hopkins University professor in biostatistics and a Coursera instructor, said he believes “online courses are a really viable way to do teaching.” 

“It allows opportunities for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate in a degree program or a course because of geographic travel limitations, economic limitations, etc.,” McGready said. 

Some students also echoed the value of online learning platforms, in both academic and professional capacities. 

“I use Udemy all the time,” Jeff Yang, a junior studying computer science at Northwestern University, told Bullish. “The instructors are very knowledgeable industry veterans that deliver great value for a great price.” 

Yang said “you can find just about anything that you need,” especially software development courses, which he said he enrolls in mostly. Udemy’s courses span “beyond the academic scope set up by the school,” which he said he found useful. 

Others also look to online learning platforms as sources for picking up specific skills or knowledge. Paris Grant, who is pursuing his associate’s degree in business administration while working as a bank teller, said he took LinkedIn Learning courses for his job. 

But he found the platform to be helpful and took additional classes for his own knowledge. In fact, he said he uses the material as reference for his own podcast on personal finance

Due to COVID-19, Grant has a month between finishing his associate’s degree and going onto his bachelor’s degree. 

“In the meantime, I actually plan on taking a lot of the courses,” Grant said. “It’s a way to keep myself stimulated without the pressure of passing or failing, and really, just going to learn.” 

Learners must also keep themselves accountable and motivated due to the self-paced environment of online learning. Yoonjie Park, a master’s student in engineering design innovation at Northwestern University, echoed this challenge when discussing a course she took on Coursera during spring break. 

“I liked how there were courses available I couldn’t take at Northwestern,” she said.

But Park added “it was pretty difficult to motivate [herself] to regularly listen to the lectures and do the assignments without having strict deadlines or a schedule.”

COVID-19 causes huge increase in e-learners 

Other platforms have also experienced user growth. MIT OpenCourseWare has experienced 2.7 million unique visits during April, according to Newton. He said this is up 70% from the same period in 2019. 

Udemy has also seen “increased demand across every segment of Udemy users – from individual learners to new and repeat instructors to employees learning for their job,” according to Shimkus. 

Certain courses have proven to be more popular in the age of pandemic. For instance, “The Science of Well-Being” on Coursera has had more than 1.9 million enrollments in 2020 so far. The course, offered by Yale University, became one of the top three most popular courses of all-time on the platform, according to a Coursera spokesperson. 

Another unusually popular topic across platforms is bitcoin and cryptocurrency. Udemy published that people were “signing up en masse” for such courses and demand increased fourfold. MIT OpenCourseWare also saw higher interest in its new course on blockchain and money

While the long-term consequences of the pandemic on learning remain unknown, online learning platforms are certainly seeing surges in users and user activities. But with the edtech industry growing rapidly and coronavirus proving the importance of online learning solutions, one thing for sure is that learning might look really different in the future. 

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