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How coronavirus is forcing online learning to evolve

Education is at a crossroads right now, where the choice is between clinging to old practices and theories or redefining learning in the age of COVID-19. The pandemic more commonly known as the coronavirus has forced schools around the world to close, prompting a chaotic scramble to move online and find a way to somehow finish out semesters.

Online resources like Kaltura and Coursera — platforms that support course creation and video hosting for schools — have seen spikes in use as professors scramble to figure out how to teach online, as well as interest from clients and potential partners. Coursera and Kaltura have also announced they are offering some of their premium services and course content for free, for a limited time.

In some ways, the educational world is lucky that tech has developed to the point that it has. “If this had happened 10 years ago, the whole system would be crippled,” said Jeff Maggioncalda, the CEO of Coursera, to Digital Trends. “We didn’t have phones with cameras on them, for one.” Computers and broadband were also not able to handle the load they can now, at least in the developed world.

But now coronavirus has now put a brick on the metaphorical accelerator of the ed tech car. The question now is, where will it take us?

online school materials
NurPhoto/ Getty

Fortunate timing

The expansion of online education was already slowly happening before the outbreak. Coursera, for one, had made a concentrated effort to begin courting universities and colleges.

“Two years ago, we realized that universities will be moving more and more online,” said Maggioncalda. “It’s just inevitable, with the coming automation of jobs, with new skills emerging, it’s clear that this has to happen.” Coursera began working on a “for campus” program in 2018, specifically with the aim of partnering with universities to host and develop online coursework. It launched in August 2019. The timing was fortunate: “We were just in the awareness phase. Before the virus, only around 25 to 50 universities had purchased it,” Maggionclada said.

Not only will more people need to learn new skills faster in the near future, the fact that students will have access to different university classes will not only make it easier to share resources, but perhaps also equalize the university system in a way.

“I don’t think higher ed will ever be the same …”

“Technology inherently centralizes things,” said Jeff Rubenstein, vice president of product strategy at Kaltura. “This will certainly push more countries to have a more centralized curriculum. And, digital resources might cost more, but they will be available to every student.” Plus, there is an ability to scale beyond the limits of a physical classroom, he added.

A variety of challenges

This new reality brings with it new challenges as well. challenges a lot of universities are running up against right now. How does one structure an online course in a compelling way? What about interactive elements? And how do you make sure it counts for the same credits as an analog course would?

“Right now, one of the things that’s tricky is a university feeling comfortable making its content available online, but not necessarily counting the online course as a credit,” said Maggioncalda. This has been a big road bump lots of online educational platforms have run into: The prestige question.

teacher livestreams lesson

Aaron Rasmussen, the mind behind the popular online Masterclass series and the founder of his own online education company called, which just launched in August, said the prestige question was one of the biggest on his mind as he began his new venture. Outlier offers just two courses right now, with credits granted through the University of Pittsburgh.

Rasmussen said when he was thinking up, he realized that some of the big hindrances to online education used to be the poor content, the lack of social interaction, the cost, and the lesser prestige associated with an online degree. The internet now has many high-quality education platforms, at a variety of price points, all of which, like Kaltura and Coursera, allow for social interaction of some sort. The last question is the prestige question.

“For better or for worse, people will be sampling all sorts of brands of universities in their online education,” Rasmussen said. “We will see pressure from student bodies to innovate and be as good as other schools.”

A huge equalizer

Above all, the massive shift to online education will be a huge equalizer, he believes. Students will now all have access to the same tools online, and it will be a level playing field for schools.

“I don’t think higher ed will ever be the same,” said Maggioncalda. “It’s a little bit like Y2K,” he said, in reference to the changing of the clocks at the turn of the millennium, which many engineers feared would short out computer programs worldwide due to the date format change.

Y2K, Maggionacalda said, forced people to evaluate their tech stacks. This, he thinks, will do the same. “This will cause every college and university today to think ‘what is our digital strategy, for real? How will we allow students to get more access?’ It will accelerate what’s already happening.”

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Maya Shwayder
I'm a multimedia journalist currently based in New England. I previously worked for DW News/Deutsche Welle as an anchor and…
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