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What 2020 taught us about online learning

Revolutions change the way societies think, and consequently, how we teach and learn. In fact, school as we know it is a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution, which sparked the need for a universal, state-sponsored education system. Two centuries later, the Digital Revolution ushered in another radical proposition: If information is now readily available online, why then should schools and universities hold the monopoly on education?

The answer, online learning, has been around since the early days of internet. And with each major technological advancement — broadband, Wi-Fi, smartphones — came new capital, companies, and students. In 2019 alone, about $18 billion was invested globally in edtech, with market projections that same year being $350 billion by 2025.

But then, a pandemic happened.

If the Information Age was already calling into question the educational primacy of traditional schooling, COVID-19 flipped over the board. January classrooms thawed out to 1.5 billion students disrupted by spring break. However, since learning must continue, schools — including teachers, students, and even parents — had to adapt. The result was an unprecedented, unforeseeable explosion in demand for online learning.

As one of the few sectors that saw increases in both investment and demand this year, how transformative was 2020 for edtech and, most importantly, which tangible, long-term solutions has it offered its customers?

Why has online learning become so relevant?

Core features of the elearning apps

Crises often serve to accelerate processes already underway. For decades, new technologies have been changing classroom infrastructure, and while on-site lessons will certainly resume after the coronavirus is controlled, the paradigm shift of what is possible with online learning is permanent. Throughout 2020, students worldwide were irreversibly exposed to the many benefits that online learning brings.

Flexibility

The portability of the devices that enable online learning — smartphones, tablets, laptops — allow pupils to learn anywhere, and depending on the course, at any time. Furthermore, online learning goes far beyond traditional education, with academic-level courses being offered in virtually every segment, professionally and recreationally, ranging from massotherapy to rocket science.

Accessibility

As long as an internet connection is available, Gordon Ramsey can teach cooking to an aspiring chef in a remote rural area all the same as to one in Manhattan. Even the language barrier ceases to be a problem in some cases, with auto-translation (sometimes AI-powered) bridging the lack of dubbing or hard-coded subtitles.

Customized learning experience

In direct contrast to the standardization that defines traditional classrooms, many online courses permit users to dictate their own pace of learning. Bite-sized modules can be chewed up over months or gobbled up one after another, and content that students already excel at can be fast-forwarded or entirely skipped in favor of topics they struggle with.

Effectiveness

Online learning’s personalized approach leads to substantially shorter learning times and better content retention. Furthermore, it’s also cost-effective: Tuition fees can be reduced when the maintenance costs of physical spaces aren’t a consideration. For online courses, one-time payments and subscription fees let students better manage their budgets at will.

The many possibilities of online courses

As with everything internet-based, online learning has branched enormously since massive open online courses (MOOCs) first appeared. Today, edtech is a fertile ground that includes plentiful ways to study academic curriculum, extinct languages, leadership and career coaching, general skills, and more. Learning styles involve app gamification, AR/VR immersion, the aforementioned top-level tutoring by famous masters, and even platforms — such as Curiosity Stream — that blur the lines between teaching and entertaining.

How did big players react to 2020?

Biggest online learning platforms

Among the long-established MOOCs — by their size better prepared to deal with 2020’s influx of new users — gains, positive branding, and innovation walked hand in hand:

Udemy, one of the first MOOCs to go mainstream and now boasting 35 million learners over 130.000 courses, reported a 425% increase in enrollments in the first quarter alone, mostly in courses related to professional improvement.

Codecademy, an online learning platform for programmers, handed out 200.000 Pro memberships to students and workers affected by the pandemic.

Coursera, a MOOC that partners with universities to offer their content online, created CourseMatch, a new product that automates matches between university course curriculum with Coursera classes to guide new students overwhelmed by its many options — and, ironically, had an Imperial College London’s course on COVID become their most enrolled in 2020.

Their objective, naturally, is to retain those new users acquired during the pandemic and establish themselves as legitimate learning platforms, on par with — or even better than — traditional schools after the world returns to normalcy.

Remote learning and iTechArt’s role in it

Remote learning and iTechArt’s role in it

As with any paradigm shift, online learning doesn’t come without challenges. Computers or equivalents, for instance, aren’t readily available in many parts of the globe, nor is reliable broadband internet. Kids in the K-12 range are more prone to distractions, opening up questions on how to retain their attention more effectively. And while Millennials and Gen Z students seldom are tech-illiterate, the same can’t be said of teachers belonging to older generations, potentially impairing the experience.

Within the technological aspect, the sudden, unprepared-for surge of online learning demand created server bottlenecks that some solved masterfully. Here are some examples of what we came up with for our edtech clients in times of need:

KidsAcademy is an educational platform used for teaching children at home or in classrooms up to Kindergarten level. Our task was to create an app that encompassed all their learning programs — in increasing levels of difficulty, with performance evaluated by a neural network — while being user-friendly enough to keep the kids interested.

Equal Education, a non-profit that supports schools by providing tutors for kids with special needs, was looking for a way to automate the student-tutor matchmaking process, from pairing to invoicing. We created a Salesforce-based record management platform that successfully met all the client’s requirements.

Voxy, already an established company with 4 million clients worldwide, needed an urgent upscaling for its eLearning platform due to the increased demand brought by COVID. We migrated their codebase to Python 3.6, eliminated redundancies, optimized data processing methods, and improved their overall security and performance.

The lasting legacy of 2020 for edtech

Has 2020 proved that online education works? Yes. Has 2020 proved that online education is a substitute for traditional learning? That’s where things get muddier.

The way forward will most likely be an amalgam of each educational style’s best practices, and our online lessons will undoubtedly influence chalk-and-board classrooms. Edtech, by external circumstances, was forced to fill a role at a speed many were unprepared for, exposing significant tech literacy and privilege inequality cracks in the world canvas.

Disruptions surely happened, and students missed out on a lot of ancillary, hard-to-replace school rituals — from practical lab classes to prom nights — but as far as stress tests go, edtech handled 2020’s educational hurdles remarkably. After this crisis is over, students, teachers, parents, institutions, and companies can certainly expect more flexible, personalized, and digital-friendly on-site lectures.

And if this year has taught us anything, it’s that we will only keep learning as we go.

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