Is COVID-19 a moment for online education to take the lead?

“Beyond helping the students and the industry, edtech can also help with the impact of the coronavirus more generally”

As the international education sector grapples with the impact COVID-19 is having on student mobility, Chief Content & Partnership Officer at FutureLearn, Justin Cooke, argues that the technology is available for the education sector to lead the way in combating the coronavirus, both the spread of the virus itself and its impact on learning and economies.

In the US, Chinese students make up over one third of all international students. In the UK, one-third of all non-EU students at British campuses are now from China. And in Australia, Chinese students make up 10 per cent of all students. It is clear that Chinese students represent a significant percentage of international cohorts so it’s no surprise that the education sector, as well as those students, are being impacted by the coronavirus. But the question is what are we going to do about it?

With the coronavirus and the related travel bans, many Chinese students can’t enter the countries they are supposed to be studying in. This impacts their studies, of course, but also the economies of those countries.

For example, government data shows that international education contributed 37.6 billion Australian dollars to the Australian economy in the 2018-19 financial year and Chinese students specifically contributed $14.9 billion to the US economy in 2018. These countries are set for a huge financial hit if this pandemic continues, and of course, there’s also the reputation element – will the aftermath of the coronavirus make potential foreign students think twice before choosing to study abroad?

“With the coronavirus and the related travel bans, many Chinese students can’t enter the countries they are supposed to be studying in”

For me, education technology, and in particular online learning, is ready right now to play a big part in supporting both students and universities as well as future-proofing universities. Many of our forward-thinking university partners already have flexible online learning options from undergraduate to postgraduate degrees.

These universities can offer students the option to learn from their current location so students continue their studies without interruption and the universities continue to receive their anticipated revenues. You could also argue that it’s those universities that will be top of the list for international students to apply for in future.

Not all universities have online learning capabilities and while I’m not saying that campus-based learning is finished – it’s absolutely not, there will always be a place for it – surely this current crisis highlights the need for universities, at least those interested in international cohorts, to diversify how they offer their product.

Indeed, the Chinese Ministry of Education has recently issued instructions to Higher Education Institutions to deploy online teaching to enable students to resume their studies remotely.

In the meantime, there are a wealth of online courses available from various institutions that could benefit students and we would encourage universities to work together to license content to each other, as an example, in order to help students and be a leading example of how an industry can and should react to a crisis like this.

Beyond helping the students and the industry itself, edtech can also very practically help with the impact of the coronavirus more generally. For example, FutureLearn has teamed up with the experts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to open a free online course on preventing the spread of COVID-19. This is a great example of how edtech, and online learning, can make a very tangible difference in terms of combating misinformation and offering practical advice on a global scale.

There are a plethora of ways that edtech can help in situations like this, will we grab hold of this opportunity and lead from the front? I believe we can and should take this moment to consider how we support students and future-proof our industry. I hope we do.

About the author: Justin Cooke is Chief Content & Partnership Officer at FutureLearn