The global spread of COVID-19 has forced a new era of teaching and learning in today’s digital world. Nearly 15.5 million UK students have had their education disrupted in what is a watershed moment for education worldwide. The spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated why higher education institutions must build a robust technological backbone and be digitally competent to weather this crisis – namely online learning platforms.

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Emily Glassberg Sands, VP of Data at Coursera.

Historically, online education has been largely on the periphery of how most educational institutions invest in the student experience. The tide began to shift a few years ago among certain top universities when more course content was shared online. 

The current crisis will only accelerate this trend, and soon online learning will be the ‘new normal’. In the UK, we’ve seen a 186% spike year-on-year in registrations in demand for our online courses. In order to remain resilient, we are seeing a period of forced experimentation for universities, similar to what was seen during the Y2K crisis that compelled institutions to upgrade their technical infrastructure.

Technology saves system

If this crisis happened only a decade ago, the system would have crippled. But broadband access is now nearly ubiquitous. And we have widely available and reliable communications tools like videoconferencing and smartphones, and more familiarity with online learning and accessing course materials through the university’s existing learning management system. 

These technologies make it easier for universities to adapt to virtual lectures and aim to deliver a high-quality online learning experience for all of their students. 

At the forefront, leading professors from top universities have spent the past eight years authoring thousands of highly-rated online courses. All of these are now accessible to both individuals and institutions through Coursera for Campus. 

Any university can use these online courses as a new type of digital, interactive textbook. This is currently being offered for free to universities being impacted by this crisis and so far more than 2,600 institutions have started using it.

Move to online learning

The pandemic has seen universities try to rapidly offer online learning in place of their regular, in-person lectures and seminars. However, most are finding it a challenge to create this offering from scratch. 

Fortunately, they don’t need to. It’s now possible for universities to integrate ready-made courses from other trusted institutions into their curriculum, even as they build their internal online capabilities over time. 

To facilitate the move online, today we launched CourseMatch, a machine learning solution that ingests a school’s on-campus course catalog and matches each course to the most relevant courses in our catalog of 3,800 courses. 

We’ve seen many great examples of institutions leading in this shift to go online, for example, Duke University had spent the last seven years setting up its online learning infrastructure. So when COVID-19 started to impact its Duke Kunshan campus in China, it was already prepared to transition learning and allow its students to access courses using Coursera for Campus, with the full support of lecturers.

Online programs

The University of Edinburgh and University College London are two other leading examples of higher education institutions that now offer a variety of online programs that are academically equivalent to on-campus degrees. This “buy-build” strategy ensures a timely response to needs today, with a sustainable online capability over the long-term. 

The higher education ecosystem may historically have been seen as slow to adapt. But faced with unprecedented urgency, there is now an ability to seize the moment to deliver high-quality teaching and learning online. Virtually every institution in the world is currently exploring how they will offer online learning as a stop-gap measure. Thankfully, there is technology and content that can help make this happen quickly and with quality ensured.

Digital transformation of education

What started as a short-term response to a crisis is likely to become an enduring digital transformation of higher education. Once the initial, urgent response has stabilized, universities will be able to author content using widely available tools. These can be combined with live lectures or custom assessments to keep students on track. 

Online learning now offers the chance to link academic approaches with applied, job-relevant learning on modern tools and technologies skills-based methods, as online platforms also offer strong links with business – for example our Google Cloud Platform Fundamentals course, which is one of the most popular around the world. These important in-demand skills will ultimately help make students stand out and become more employable. 

Eventually, when students return to campus, we hope they will get more out of the experience than just the lessons, and as a result there will be greater use of blended learning on campus as the “new normal”.

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