Online learning has been the future of education for some time — even before the global pandemic, the online education market was predicted to hit $350 billion by 2025. The drive to online learning has only accelerated since.
“This is a time of seismic change in education,” says Justin Cooke, chief content and partnerships officer at FutureLearn, a leading social learning platform. “We’re moving towards a demand-driven world. People want to be able to learn wherever and whenever they want, from the best experts in the world, with a click.”
But universities and other educational institutions seeking to develop online programs have found there are many challenges.
“The demand for education is growing exponentially,” Cooke says. “It’s only through digitization and digital delivery that this demand can ultimately be met. But there are practical things you need to think about. What technology to use? What licenses are needed? Do they have appropriate security, are they able to guarantee privacy? What about digital storage and supporting connectivity? How will the faculty members be trained to facilitate virtual instruction?”
Aside from the technical challenges, there’s the course content itself. “How do you make a course really engaging and really effective online with measurable outcomes?” Cooke asks. “It’s not as simple as recording a seminar with a video camera in the back of your lecture theater.”
FutureLearn has quickly become a leader in online learning, boasting more than 14 million “learners” worldwide and partnerships with 25 percent of the world’s leading universities internationally. In March 2020, they launched FutureLearn Campus, which allows their partners to offer short courses to their students and staff.
While the benefits for universities in terms of enlarging their pool of potential students and modernizing their offerings are clear, online learning is also crucial to the emerging “lifelong-learning” model. As the nature of work changes rapidly, workers will need to learn new skills for existing jobs (upskilling) or whole new skills for different jobs (reskilling).
“Automation and technology are causing a huge shift in the employment landscape,” Cooke says. “Rising unemployment combined with big skills gaps are driving a global need to upskill and reskill people to equip their workforces for the future. The need is now, and the need is real.”
Flexibility for equity
One solution is “microcredentials”, which can be used to reskill or upskill workers in very specific areas without the expense or time commitment of a traditional degree. “Microcredentials are sort of an unbundling of the degree,” Cooke explains. “They provide access to affordable learning, they are designed to be more targeted and have directly job-relevant outcomes, and they’re flexible — you fit them into your life and your work.” A recent piece in Wired Magazine suggests that learners are now seeking microcredentials with a view to stacking them into a degree later on.
Cooke believes that the affordability of microcredentials and short courses is going to remove barriers to education. “It’s a real benefit of the online model because we can pass on economies of scale to our learners,” he says, noting that microcredentials can be “stacked” to eventually translate into a full degree, allowing students to pay as they go. “Thinking about this as being a lifelong journey, we need to ensure that we are providing people with the right sorts of skills that they need to develop to have a significant impact of economic change in their lives, whether it’s getting back into employment, progressing in their career, or getting into employment in the first place.”
It’s all about making the world a better and more equitable place. “Without education in a rapidly changing world, when individuals get left behind, economies suffer,” Cooke says. “The physical limitations of the current education sector make this an inevitability. Here at FutureLearn, we’re determined to make that history.”