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Are online degrees going to become the new normal post-pandemic?

In a world built on physical distance, online study might have finally found its golden moment.

RMIT Online
RMIT Online

Along with travel and hospitality, education was probably the sector rocked hardest by COVID-19. It’s tricky to get an exact figure, but the World Economic Forum estimates that the pandemic displaced about 1.6 billion children and young adults from schools and universities all over the world. Many of those children, the WEF notes, may never return to school again.  

Most educational institutions were forced into an online learning model, whether they were ready for it or not. Schools in the UK switched to apps like ClassDojo to communicate with students and parents. Google Classroom users doubled to 100 million in a single month. And universities across Australia had to pivot their business model overnight.

"There’s a growing sense that online learning, which was already booming before COVID-19 arrived, has now entrenched itself as the default educational model"

As the pandemic enters its second year, it’s worth reflecting on the status of online education. Is it here to stay? Are webinars and lecture streams the ‘new normal’? Will face-to-face learning and bricks-and-mortar institutions be gradually phased out in the post-COVID world?  

The boom in educational technology (known as ‘edtech’) and remote classrooms has been a welcome move for some. Despite the disruption to schools and universities, Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), described COVID-19 as a “great moment” for learning. “All the red tape that keeps things away is gone and people are looking for solutions that, in the past, they did not want to see,” Schleicher said.   

In that spirit, in May 2020, it was announced announcing that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates would help “reimagine” New York’s education infrastructure, with a big focus on edtech. There’s a growing sense that online learning, which was already booming before COVID-19 arrived, has now entrenched itself as the default educational model. A perfect storm of circumstance, opportunity and lucrative financial investment.  

“I could read the subject material at any time, and I had access to everything so I could pace myself based on my schedule,” 
Jelvie Grech

 

As Louise Scott-Worrall from KPMG noted, “The longer restrictions remain in place, the more time that virtual social learning has to continue proving its worth. As a result, the harder it is to imagine ever going back to face-to-face as our primary delivery mechanism for social learning.”  

The ‘worth’ of online learning is fairly obvious. Online degrees are often cheaper, faster and more flexible than traditional in-person Bachelors. They’re more targeted, and easier to update and maintain. The curriculum can change quickly in response to new technologies or industry trends. And they make learning more accessible for people with a disability. There’s even research to suggest that online learning might be more effective than traditional, face-to-face education (some studies, for example, have shown children retain 25-60 per cent more material when studying online).  

“I could read the subject material at any time, and I had access to everything so I could pace myself based on my schedule,” RMIT Online student, Jelvie Grech, wrote recently. “I also tackled all my modules and then used the webinar to check my understanding.”  

Of course, as with most seismic industry changes, there have been winners and losers, and the shift towards online education has many experts warning of a “digital divide” between (essentially) English-speaking, affluent learners with good internet access…and everyone else.  

“Inequalities in digital readiness hamper the ability of large parts of the world to take advantage of technologies that help us cope with the coronavirus pandemic,” said UNCTAD’s technology and logistics director, Shamika Sirimanne. “This situation has significant development implications that cannot be ignored. We need to ensure that we do not leave those who are less digitally equipped even further behind in a post-coronavirus world.” 

If online learning is to become the ‘new normal’, institutions will have to work hard to make sure it’s normal for everyone, regardless of age, wealth, language, ethnicity, location or culture. There will also have to be careful oversight of Big Tech’s roll in the online learning revolution—Amazon is already undercutting traditional institutions with free online courses, and Google, Microsoft and Facebook aren’t far behind.  

Will online learning completely overtake face-to-face education? It seems likely that the two systems will co-exist side-by-side.

Do we want online education administered by accredited institutions or tech companies? Is there room for both? And how do we maintain quality standards online, when courses can easily cross borders, oceans and legislative boundaries? These are the big questions that online learning will have to answer in a post-pandemic world.  

Will online learning completely overtake face-to-face education? That’s doubtful. It seems likely that the two systems will co-exist side-by-side (this is especially true for school-age children, who have been shown to benefit from a more structured learning environment). Still, the writing is on the wall for online education: global investment in edtech more than doubled in 2020, to a record $16.1billion, and the industry shows no signs of slowing down. Quite the reverse, in fact.  

In a world built on physical distance, online study might have finally found its golden moment. The new ‘normal’ starts now.