The future of online learning is on-demand

“There is a visible need for more relevant digital learning experiences”

The global education sector has experienced more disruption and rapid change over the course of 2020 than it has over the past few decades, writes Susannah Belcher, Chief Operations Officer at FutureLearn. As schools close, universities pivot harder to digital, and professionals need to adapt and reskill, the demand for online learning is set to pick up rather than slow down.

Spurred on by Covid-19 there is a visible need for more relevant digital learning experiences, with the industry reaching record-breaking 180+ million learners worldwide in the process. Students, teachers, academics and professionals are all seeking more flexible and accessible ways to develop themselves and create more personalised educational pathways. This year really has been a tipping point for progress within education and its long-awaited digital evolution, with on-demand subscription standing out as a winning format for learners who want more control around when and how they learn.

The rise of on-demand learning subscriptions

According to Google Trends, searches for “learning on-demand” and “learning subscription” have been steadily increasing globally over the past decade, with the latter seeing a substantial spike during the pandemic. A look at other sectors that specialise in content definitely points to this being an upward trend, but we’re nowhere near the point of mainstream adoption currently being seen across publishing and programming.

The start of 2021 saw FutureLearn launch its own new on-demand subscription service, ExpertTrack, due to high demand from our learners. It had been in production prior to the pandemic but we pulled the launch forward due to meet the critical need for learning that’s palpable right now. There has never been a bigger, global demand for new skills to boost career prospects and fill gaps as the economy switches even more radically from physical services to digital ones.

Lifelong learning used to be considered something quite niche or only for those who saw learning as a hobby, but it’s clear that with the pace of technology no industry is safe from disruption. Today we are increasingly hearing from employers and learners that they want access to lifelong learning tools, to keep up with the demands of the modern workplace. Many of the latest predictions have shown that more than one billion jobs worldwide are likely to be transformed by technology over the next decade, and will therefore need continuous upskilling to keep pace with the change.

What does this mean for higher education and industry?

As with any disruption to the education sector, many are still asking what this means for the higher education institutes whose core offerings are being impacted by these shifts, as well as the industry organisations to whom a much wider range of employee development opportunities are now available.

In terms of what we’ve seen at FutureLearn, our higher education and industry partners have both been highly attuned to the need for continuous adaptation within the current climate. Leading institutions such as the University of Leeds, Coventry University, Monash University and the University of Michigan have been at the vanguard of adopting proven and practical digital solutions that work for students, academics and the university business as a whole.

Not only has on-demand learning been able to fill gaps where students have not had access to the full breadth of on-campus teaching, but it’s also proven an affordable tool that academics can work with to quickly provide that supplemented learning. With the rise of these alternative learning resources, the sector can truly continue to make quality education more accessible to all.

From an employment perspective, industry organisations have embraced and invested in new upskilling and reskilling solutions, even more so as most sectors have had to pivot towards new ways of operating. Rising unemployment figures across the world also show just how crucial it is for professionals to have readily available and financially feasible opportunities to either strengthen their skillsets or retrain for different careers. In fact, this has been a major driving factor for people signing up to learning subscriptions, especially during the second half of 2020 where we saw enrolments for courses in high-demand sectors such as coding, digital marketing and healthcare, skyrocket.

As we progress into the new year, the education sector will start planning towards a more sustainable future beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. One thing that’s certain is that online learning is going to be central to this increasingly digitised future, with new and improved models such as the on-demand learning subscription at the forefront.

About the author: Susannah Belcher is Chief Operations Officer at FutureLearn.