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Four Signs Online Learning Is Here to Stay

COVID-19 has sparked a seismic shift in how schools operate, sending millions online. The digital divide is shrinking, and it’s time to embrace remote learning for the quality it can provide.
COVID-19 has sparked a seismic shift in how schools operate, sending millions online. The digital divide is shrinking, and it’s time to embrace remote learning for the quality it can provide.

Thirty years ago, as a history teacher, I believed we were on the cusp of a fundamental transformation in student learning powered by the amazing promise of digital technology. I witnessed my sixth-grade students dig into history with their hands full of virtual soil, as they participated in a computer-simulated archeological excavation that my colleagues and I had built on early desktop computers. And I decided to devote my career to education technology.

But something happened in the last three decades that significantly slowed the rate of innovation, including the persistent digital divide in our classrooms.

The pandemic has been a paradigm-shifting moment for online education, with schools and universities bringing hundreds of millions of learners online for the first time. But this rapid digital migration is part of a much larger and longer-term trend of growing global readiness for—and acceptance of—online learning, particularly in higher education. And we’re already seeing what’s possible: A new study found that access to online college courses can speed students’ degree completion.

Now, two years into the pandemic, I’ve identified four signs that signal a significant turning point in the adoption of online learning—not just as a business continuity tool during a global pandemic but to fundamentally improve student outcomes.

1. Better—and Cheaper—Technology

Digital technology continues to improve rapidly and is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and affordable. Given the exponential increase in and mass commodification of computing power, we can now deliver digital learning experiences we thought impossible even 10 years ago. Today, online higher education has evolved to incorporate interactive and collaborative learning tools, enhanced through high-quality video, motion graphics and augmented reality, and available seamlessly across multiple platforms and devices.

Just this month, 2U and the Rochester Institute of Technology launched a rarity in higher education: an online master’s degree in architecture that harnesses many of these new technologies to deliver a hands-on, virtual learning experience that will match—and eventually surpass—the traditional classroom model. At what point does the ritual of constructing a Styrofoam model of a house give way to building a navigable 3D VR model?

I argue it will be very soon.

Put simply, online architecture programs (and, for that matter, undergraduate and graduate programs across the board) will begin improving as fast as Google Maps or mobile phones.

2. 30+ Years of Learning Science

When I began teaching high school in 1989, learning science had not yet become an academic field of research. I was simply handed a textbook and sent on my way without any advice on how students actually learn. It didn’t go well (just ask my first-year students).

Fast forward to today: We benefit from over 30 years of research across the fields of cognitive and developmental psychology, neuroscience and teacher education to inform our understanding of how people learn effectively. And yet, we’re only starting to apply these learning principles to digital curriculum design.

Digital learning environments allow us to build these principles more directly into the learning experience than traditional curriculum. For example, when I was at Pearson, we tracked students’ study time using traditional print-based textbooks and new digital textbooks to understand habits and optimize them for student learning. In the digital environment, we could deploy automated study break prompts to students, which helped optimize spaced learning and cognitive load, as well as encourage them to persevere when they got stuck. Our internal studies showed significant gains in student mastery through these simple algorithmic interventions.

3. An Explosion of Learner Data

Perhaps even more powerful than the output of academic researchers in the field of learning science is the growing compendium of learner and learning data that online learning providers have amassed over the past few years. To date, most players in the online learning field have either had insufficient data or computing power to meaningfully analyze the data (or both). However, this fact is rapidly changing.

At 2U, we have been able to use new techniques and apply them across years of historical and normalized learning data to gain deep insights into the effectiveness of different types of digital learning content. Now, particularly after our acquisition of the global online learning platform edX, we can predict student and cohort success with increasing accuracy in time to apply necessary interventions and support. The sheer volume of data we collect will result in continuous and rapid improvement in the fidelity of our insights about learners and learning far beyond what even experimental research science can yield. While we’ve published our findings and made them freely and openly available to other researchers, more edtech providers and universities must come together in the spirit of academic study to continually advance the still new but growing field of online learning science.

4. Seismic Shifts in the Learning Landscape

There is a growing middle class in the developing world that—combined with the continued impacts of COVID-19—are creating a new and dynamic global learner population that will continue to shift learning online.

Those focused on learning in the U.S. and Europe see total enrollment as flat to declining. But overall enrollment is poised to more than double in the next two decades, driven almost entirely by the growing middle class in India and China. In fact, by 2035, students from India and China are projected to account for 50% of all higher education enrollments.

Doubling down on funding and building physical classrooms on our campuses won’t be enough to accommodate a fraction of the 120 million projected new learners by 2030. Nor will many of these learners have the means or the access to attend traditional colleges and universities in person. It’s a matter of mathematical certainty that online and blended learning will become the primary modalities, and full-time residential education will become a specialized experience.

The Future of Learning Is Now

Perhaps my biggest takeaway after 30+ years in the education technology field is that a revolution in learning is only possible when many forces align. It can’t just be about the potential for technology to deliver new learning experiences or the ubiquity of affordable access to online learning—we need societal and scientific forces to help us scale and deliver widespread impact.

We are at a unique moment in the history of education when these forces are coming together to finally make good on the promise of digital learning. With millions of students and faculty members now experiencing online education, the challenge is for all of us in the education community to accelerate the improvement of digital learning for learners across the globe.