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The Future Is Here: Upskilling through online learning

  • 31 May 2022
  • By Laura Brassington in conversation with the Coursera Skills Transformation Team

By Laura Brassington in discussion with the Coursera Skills Transformation Team. 

In a recent blog post, ‘Five common predictions about COVID and education that now appear to be wrong’, HEPI’s Director, Nick Hillman, pointed out that, contrary to common assumptions, the pandemic saw a rise in student applications to higher education institutions, and it seems that drop-out rates have remained low or may even have fallen. But perhaps one of the more predictable outcomes of the pandemic was the rise of online learning platforms. In April 2020, the World Economic Forum stated, ‘the COVID-19 pandemic has changed education forever’. They found that:

For those who do have access to the right technology, there is evidence that learning online can be more effective [than learning in person] in a number of ways. Some research shows that, on average, students retain 25-60% more material when learning online compared to only 8-10% in a classroom. This is mostly due to the students being able to learn faster online; e-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.

World Economic Forum, ‘The COVID-19 pandemic has changed education forever. This is how‘, 29 April 2020.

The pandemic accelerated a need for more established online learning platforms – those that have expertise in leveraging technology to enhance teaching and learning. Ten years ago, Stanford University computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng founded just such a platform, Coursera, which offers access to online courses and degrees from leading universities and companies around the globe. The company partners with more than 250 leading university and industry educators to offer online learning to nearly 100 million learners and more than 6,500 governments, employers and academic institutions worldwide. Coursera’s COVID response supported the platform’s community of learners by providing a large selection of courses free of charge for anyone, anywhere in the initial stages of the pandemic. (*This initiative ended on December 31, 2020, but you can continue to explore many free courses on Coursera.) 

Upskilling and reskillingthe UK digital higher-education sector

By modernising curricula and preparing graduates with job-ready skills, online learning can help higher education institutions retain students and increase enrolments. The University of London, for example, offers students the opportunity to apply for credits from Coursera’s Google IT Support Certificate – one of their many industry-led courses – to the University’s BA in Computer Science.

By linking learners, academic institutions, and industry, Coursera serves as a critical bridge that empowers students to learn in-demand skills and, in so doing, boosts both their confidence and employability.

Coursera for Campus Team

Due to their high volume of learners and partner institutions, who regularly report their demands for new content, online platforms ensure that the skills they offer remain up-to-date in rapidly changing technological fields. This approach allows a fast and flexible response to demand for new modules. Courses are ranked by students and updated if they fall below expectations.

In keeping with the UK government’s current emphasis on upskilling, Coursera’s model is wholly focused on enabling learners to acquire the digital and human skills most in-demand by employers. The end goal is to prepare students to thrive in real-world work environments. This may be one of the reasons why Coursera has proved popular among entry-level employees, graduates who have not yet decided on their next steps, and professionals looking to upskill or reskill later in life.

Widening Access

As a recent article in The International Journal of Educational Technology notes, universities’ choices to improve access to online education are motivated by a range of economic and environmental factors, as well as a desire to use digital technology to serve larger and more diverse populations. Indeed, while demand for higher education is a global phenomenon, so too is unequal access. As a recent HEPI blog post argued, ‘higher education now must bring policy on refugees from the fringes’. Over the next five years, the UK could see as many as half a million displaced people arrive in the UK from Ukraine, Hong Kong, and Afghanistan. As Michael Natzler, author of the post stated: 

It is an important moment for the [higher education] sector to assess how to react to [these] immediate challenges. … The sector should consider now how best to lay the groundwork for strong responses to future crises of displaced people and prepare for what will be an important element of international higher education for the foreseeable future

Michael Natzler, ‘Higher education now must bring policy on refugees in from the fringes‘, HEPI blog post, 16 March 2022.

In the absence of a comprehensive government strategy on higher-education provision for refugees, online platforms have begun offering free courses to refugees around the world. In collaboration with governments and non-profit organisations, Coursera for Refugees provides access to learning for more than 94,000 refugees in 119 countries. To date, the programme has seen nearly 492,000 enrolments and 114,000 course completions. Lifelong learning has always been important, but it is now even more critical — and more widely available — than ever before.

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