The unprecedented nature of this year has accelerated a number of trends, but the rapid rise of remote learning is perhaps the most prescient of the future. Whilst many people are looking forward to heading back to the classroom to see their friends and discuss their research in person, it is clear that a large part of the future of learning will be over the internet.
Remote learning has been a reality in the UK for decades thanks to the pioneering Open University. Established in 1969, the OU has offers distance-learning undergraduate degrees and other forms of further education, with tutors including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and naturalist Sir David Attenborough. More than 150,000 students join the OU every year, with the institution accredited in both the UK and US, but as more schools and universities move their teaching online, remote learning is becoming has today become the standard.
Whilst schools and universities have remained open since June, remote learning has now become part of the educational package they offer pupils. Pupils are regularly required to miss weeks of school to comply with quarantine regulations, and who classes or schools have also been shuttered if an outbreak is discovered, and some form of remote learning has been required to fill the gaps. Indeed, in October, the Department for Education (DfE) published a temporary continuity direction which placed a legal obligation on state schools to provide “immediate access to remote education” should they miss school due to coronavirus.
Meanwhile in universities, whilst the government was keen to encourage students back to their halls to continue to courses, the reality for many was quarantine in their halls of residence and exorbitant fees. These students may be missing out on the social aspect of university life, but luckily the online learning platforms offered by most UK universities today provide the digital tools required for the research and open discussions required in higher education.
Beyond schools and universities, other more open platforms have also found success this year. As millions of people have been stuck at home whilst on furlough, many have turned to online learning platforms to learn new skills from calculus to carpentry. The best example of this growth is Udemy, perhaps the largest online learning platform, which saw a huge 425 per cent growth in enrolments in April as lockdowns were imposed across much of the world. Some of the strongest figures coming from the US, Italy, Spain, and India, with the highest surge in new enrolments including courses about office productivity (159% increase), health and fitness (84%), IT & software (77%), and personal development (61%).
Darren Shimkus, President, Udemy for Business, commented: “Udemy’s mission to improve lives through learning has never been more vital than during today’s challenging times…The trends we’ve seen over the last two months represent a significant acceleration in the transformation to a new Future of Work.”
Whilst we all hope that life will return to some form of normalcy over the next 6-12 months, one take-away from the experiences of 2020 will be that the remote learning trend that was already gathering pace before has now become mainstream. From now on students will expect educational institutions to provide access to learning resources wherever they are, and that should mean a further opening up of education for all. We were perhaps always on a path to remote learning, but it is now the norm and that is not going to change.