Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

Subscribe for free

Demand for online learning and alternative credentials surges during COVID-19

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The move toward online learning and shorter programmes this year is being called a “Netflix moment” for higher education
  • College degrees still provide a valuable edge but, for some students at least, legitimate alternatives are emerging – in one notable example, Google has launched a series of six-month certificates that, for its own hiring purposes, will be equated with full degrees
  • EdTech companies are growing by leaps and bounds, with many increasing their user base by offering free services during the height of lockdowns

The societal and economic disruption caused by COVID-19 is accelerating a movement towards online education, skills-based training, and affordable credentials that take weeks or months to achieve rather than years.

The credit rating firm Moody’s predicts that non-traditional education will be hot area of economic activity even after the pandemic is controlled, predicting that that short-term credentials will rise above the 10% of total enrolment they represented in 2019 “even after the pandemic subsides.”

The fact that these credentials are overwhelmingly delivered online is a key reason they are poised for serious and long-term growth. The pandemic has aligned education more than ever before with digital technologies, as for much of this year, students were only able to learn online. By the end of March, approximately 1.37 billion students were out of classrooms, and millions were studying remotely through technologies such as Google Classroom and Zoom – as well as apps delivered by the world’s most enterprising EdTech companies.

A Netflix moment

Speaking with the Financial Times, Kirill Pyshkin, Senior Portfolio Manager at Credit Suisse, likened the disruption to what happened in the film industry a few years ago: “This is education’s Netflix moment.”

Sean Gallagher, an executive professor of education policy at Northeastern University and founder of Northeastern’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, agrees:

“This looks to be a catalytic moment. Like what’s happened with the rapid digitization of so many other areas of our daily lives, we’ve probably gained in a few months a level of interest and participation in online education that would have steadily played out over years.”

Similarly, an August 2020 Strada Education Network COVID-19 Work and Education Survey found that fully 1 in 5 Americans plan to enrol in an education programme in the next six months, and “they also have expressed a consistent preference for nondegree programmes, skills training, and online options.”

Increased demand evident pre-pandemic

The stage was already set for disruption in higher education before the new coronavirus began its destructive run across the planet. A massive online survey conducted in 2019 by Pearson of more than 11,000 learners in 19 countries found that:

  • 68% agreed that a degree or certificate from a vocational college or trade school was more likely to result in a good job with career prospects than a university degree.
  • At least three-quarters of respondents believed that you have to keep learning after college to stay relevant in your career. This rose to over 90% in Australia, Canada, China, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and South Africa.
  • Among employed respondents who had opted for further education, many more had chosen self-training/teaching themselves via Internet resources or taken courses provided by employers or professional associations than had undertaken upskilling from a college or university.

Pearson repeated the survey in August 2020 and interest and participation alternative education has held strong since 2019.

Google: Making moves

Not surprisingly, Google has been closely watching the market trend and, already increasingly active in the post-secondary education space (through Google programmes delivered on Coursera), it announced in July that the company is:

  • Offering three new six-month programmes – data analytics, project management, and user experience design – resulting in Google Career Certificates;
  • Treating these certificates on par with four-year degrees in its hiring practices.

Google has cited affordability and the need to provide skills retraining to workers whose jobs have been lost due the pandemic as factors that led to its decision to offer the certificates. It is also clearly positioning the certificates as alternatives to college degrees. Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice-president of global affairs, blogged that, “College degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn’t need a college diploma to have economic security.”

Industry experts agree that Google’s announcement is a significant bellwether of a trend towards greater acceptance of certificates by employers, but the trend doesn’t herald the end of demand for college degrees, either. Dr Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, told Times Higher Education that it remains to be seen how much traction skills-based certificates have beyond technical fields, opining that, “A degree remains a signal of other attributes, other than the specific skills needed for a job in the moment.” He added that there are signs that rather than becoming obsolete, four-year degrees are actually becoming more popular “as an entry-level hiring barrier” because companies are becoming more selective in tough pandemic times.

A new level of urgency for students and workers

All of this gives rise to the possibility that, in this time of disruption, college degrees could be moving more into the category of luxury goods for some students and families – leaving ample room for alternatives such as online certificates, industry certifications, and microcredentials to penetrate the mainstream. These short-term offerings offer:

  • Affordability (key to the many workers who have lost their jobs)
  • Relevancy (crucial for job seekers who need to show concrete proof of mastery of a particular skillset for a particular job)
  • Stackability (meaning that several certificates obtained over time can eventually lead to a more valuable specialisation or even degree)
  • Flexible scheduling (a must for the multitudes juggling education, work, family, and sometimes illness or caregiving during the pandemic)

The pandemic has made everything more urgent and the near future is exceptionally difficult to predict, and as Northeastern’s Mr Gallagher told Inside Higher Ed, this extends to education and skills training: “Why commit to a long-term investment when your situation and options may change in a month?”

Online as the constant

When the world’s students were forced out of school classrooms by COVID-19, one of the most breathtaking results was that all of a sudden, millions of students needed to learn remotely if they were going to learn at all. This has opened the door to more EdTech offerings than ever before, with one of the most impressive being the free online school set up as early as March 2020 by Indonesia’s Ruangguru, the most prominent EdTech provider in Southeast Asia. As Financial Times reports,

“Online classes ran for five hours every weekday simultaneously across 18 live streaming channels, with tutors covering all school subjects from Grades 1 to 12. Mirroring a normal school, students could learn a different subject each hour and also had access to free live quiz sessions in the afternoons and evenings.”

In the first 24 hours of the service, more than 1.5 million students accessed Ruangguru’s app, “surpassing more popular apps such as WhatsApp and TikTok.” By school year’s end, 7 million students had signed on for Ruangguru’s free classes. As of August 2020, the company claims a base of 17 million registered learners in Indonesia.

Also in the EdTech space, these pandemic times have seen:

  • Language learning app Duolingo recording a 108% increase in traffic over March 2020;
  • China’s online tutoring providers Koolearn, GSX, and Youdao enrolling 10 million students in free online courses at the height of the lockdown
  • Coursera recording a 520% increase in enrolments from mid-March to June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019
  • Byju’s, the Indian online learning app, gaining 6 million new users in March, a 150% surge in enrolments
  • Brazil’s Estacio seeing 55% growth in Q1, 2020, in online distance-learning student enrolments

Credit Suisse’s senior portfolio manager Kyrill Pyshkin notes of the massive new economic footprint of EdTech since COVID-19 began that,

“Last year, before the crisis, we’re talking about a digital penetration rate of two to three percent in the education sector. That’s what mobile phone penetration rates were in 1998/99. At the peak of the crisis we were above 90 percent.”

For additional background, please see:


Sign up for our news alerts!

Did you enjoy this article? Then don’t miss the next one!

Subscribe for free