The pandemic has forced schools and universities all over the world to forge ahead with digital learning. But what we are experiencing in the COVID-19 emergency is perhaps only the beginning of one of the biggest educational revolutions in history.

More than 1.5 billion students have been forced by the coronavirus pandemic to study from home, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)[1]. The first were the Chinese, who built on already sound distance learning foundations created before the virus outbreak. Then they were followed by countries all around the world – as of 5 May, there were 177 country-wide closures of educational establishments, according to UNESCO. The pandemic has prompted many countries to forge ahead with e-learning in order to provide educational continuity. Much of the world turned to online platforms, sometimes accompanied by educational television programming dedicated to students, for example, in France, Spain, South Korea and China.

China leads the way

Even before the pandemic, the online learning market in China was registering double-digit growth: according to iResearch Consulting Group it grew by 24.5% in 2019 compared with the previous year[2]. This boom is perhaps due to the highly competitive nature of the education system in China, with its widespread recourse to extracurricular online lessons and checks, but also to the high quality of its distance learning based on artificial intelligence algorithms. Following the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing mobilised its forces to provide remote lessons, increasing broadband and fibre capacity, optimising e-learning platforms, and enriching content and teaching methods to ensure flexibility. The Chinese response to COVID-19 in terms of distance learning even appeared to impress UNESCO[3], giving further impetus to an already flourishing sector.

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A less advanced starting point elsewhere

Other countries have started from a less advanced point than China in terms of existing e-learning provision. In Europe for example, Italy has rolled out a variety of multimedia platforms, emails and chat messages in what critics have described as an uncoordinated manner. Italian schools were allocated €85m for e-learning[4] including funds to purchase computers and tablets for less wealthy students, as well as teacher training. In the midst of an unprecedented educational emergency, many teachers have, however, had to “invent” online teaching tools from one day to the next, without being able to test them first: research conducted by Italy’s Communications Authority reveals that, before the pandemic, only 8.6% of teachers used digital technologies for remote project activities[5].

Redesigning learning paths from scratch

Distance learning is not simply putting a camera in front of the teacher’s desk

One problem is that distance learning is not simply putting a camera in front of the teacher’s desk – it requires a complete redesign of the learning path. “There are numerous resources on the internet, of excellent quality, but you need to develop the capacity to select and aggregate them into a path with its own logic”, explains Federico Frattini, dean of MIP-Milan Polytechnic University, the Business School that recently entered the Financial Times’ ranking of the world’s top 10 online MBAs[6].

A new paradigm

Weeks – and months – of e-learning are however leading to many changes. And when the health crisis is over, it will likely be difficult to return to the classroom with the same attitude. During the coronavirus pandemic, school systems across the world have launched or accelerated a revolution in which the linchpin of education is arguably no longer the teacher who teaches, but the pupil who learns. Teaching has taken on a flexibility that is very different to traditional lessons, rigid programmes and codified assessment standards. The school of the future, into which we have been projected by the COVID-19 crisis, will in contrast likely be made up of personalised and flexible learning paths, with diversified rhythms and learning styles, spread over different media.

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The main trends in online education

But more specifically, what are the segments of the e-learning industry that will benefit most from the transformation of schools? According to the study E-learning Trends 2020[7], produced by distance learning company Docebo, mobile learning (on specific platforms for smartphones), game-based learning – learning based on techniques similar to those used in video games – and microlearning (short educational units) will continue to make progress. Meanwhile the wearable market, which consists of wearable learning devices, for example virtual or augmented reality helmets, is starting to become saturated. The personalisation of learning paths, also with the use of artificial intelligence algorithms, remains central, however.

The “MOOC” model

The school of the third millennium is thus destined to be focused more on demand than on supply, more on virtual digital spaces and collective learning workshops than on rigid timetables and programmes. We can already glimpse this in “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses), the online courses organised by universities or private companies open to everyone. Some of the best known are Coursera – a union of six US universities, including Stanford and Princeton, with 37 million registered users – edX, created by MIT in Boston and Harvard, with 18 million users, China’s XuetangX, with 14 million users, and Udacity (10 million). And the teachers? It can be envisaged that they will become the directors of learning processes based on the needs of individuals and big data analysis. A valuable and creative director, able to build personalised learning paths, organising multimedia content on a variety of platforms, including social networks. So goodbye, old school: after coronavirus, in the world of education, it is quite possible that nothing will be as it was before.

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