Online learning, now at an all-time high, signals a new future for education

COVID-19 has brought schools and workplaces online. Here's what the transition means for the future of MOOCS.

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The coronavirus pandemic is radically shifting the global economy, transforming workplaces, community spaces, and education. According to the World Economic Forum, more than 1.2 billion children in 186 countries have been impacted by school closures due to COVID-19. And overall education online--including virtual classrooms, language apps, online tutoring, or online education software--has also surged during the pandemic, with the market expected to hit $350 billion by 2025

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As a result, many schools and businesses are taking advantage of the climate to offer new programs online, for a range of skill building. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), have become increasingly popular--and many are offering free courses during the pandemic. Stanford's Code in Place experiment, for instance, (or CS106A--Code in Place), has been offering free coding training, in Python, for beginners.

Lisa Tagliaferri, senior manager of developer education at cloud firm DigitalOcean, taught for Code in Place--alongside two Stanford Computer Science faculty, a team of assistants, and 900 volunteer section leaders--helping roughly 10,000 students from six continents across the globe. She sees the experiment as a signal of what's to come in online education.

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Tagliaferri believes the program was successful in combining "online asynchronous lectures"––meaning that students could take the course whenever it worked with their schedule. "Combining that with a synchronous check-in with a volunteer section leader that helped to develop a community of learners and also instilled a layer of accountability," she added.

The beauty of MOOCs, Tagliaferri said, is that they can help expand access to education for students who might not otherwise be able to get to, or afford, other options –– and are able to receive the same high quality materials of those elite institutions.

MOOCs also bring online education to students who might have other obstacles to getting into the classroom. It "enables flexibility for both teachers and learners who have disabilities," she said. "Those who might be neuro-divergent, those who have other forms of work, like students who are working while also attending class. And also those who have, you know, elder care or child care work going on alongside their learning. Having a more flexible model that includes either entirely online or an online hybrid could work to drive greater equity in the education," Tagliaferri added. 

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Another essential component of MOOCs, Tagliaferri said, is that "pivoting to a completely online learning experience offers ways for us to rethink MOOCs and ways that we might be able to build community, whether that's around creating synchronous communities of learners that are meeting together." Intentionally facilitating the community, she said, should be a priority.

In order to do this, it's important to think with an open mind. It's important to "try to make it successful rather than just experimenting and seeing how it goes," Tagliaferri added.

"I think the pivot to online learning is for acquiring that kind of step back thinking alongside actually doing the work so that these MOOCs and other online learning spaces can be set up for success," she added.

"At the end of the day, what's great about MOOCs is that they just allow more people to have greater access to materials," Tagliaferri said. "So things that are coming out of elite institutions like Harvard and Stanford and MIT are actually being distributed for everyone, and can provide open education and greater access for people to learn things that they may not necessarily be exposed to otherwise."

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Young woman having online training, using laptop and wireless headset

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