September 9, 2021

Why online learning in higher education is here to stay: A trends assessment

Major world events are often an inflection point for rapid innovation. The 2020 pandemic created sudden dramatic shifts in how we live, work, and learn. Through a global stay-at-home order, social distancing disrupted the traditional campus-based model, effectively remapping the landscape of education by forcing a near-absolute adoption of online learning.


But even before the pandemic hit, the education revolution was well underway. Driven by technology, changes in student behaviour and broader societal shifts, the e-learning industry grew by 900% over just two decades. And while some higher education institutions were shifting in the direction of online content delivery before Covid-19, the pandemic both accelerated and forced a more universal move.

  • In 2020, the e-learning market size surpassed USD 250 billion and is projected to grow at an exponential compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 21% through 2027.
  • Due to the pandemic, 98% of universities moved a majority of classes online and since 2020, 43% have invested in creating new online learning resources.
  • Udemy, the leading online learning marketplace, saw a 425% increase in student enrolments in late March 2020 compared to the previous month.
  • At the start of April 2020, Zoom usage for online classes increased to over 90,000 schools in 20 countries.
  • Byju’s, the biggest EdTech company globally, added nearly 20 million users to its platform in just four months in the aftermath of Covid-19.

As vaccination programmes gain traction and lockdown measures ease, the resumption of in-person classes at universities and colleges are expected to resume. In the UK, for example, education secretary, Gavin Williamson, recently suggested that he expected British universities to offer face-to-face classes and tutorials from Autumn 2021. However, it remains to be seen how educational organisations will respond to a ‘new normal’. The disruption to learning models, as well as their associated business models, experienced over the last 18 months will have a lasting impact on higher education institutions and the sector itself.


Online education gives students access to world-class teaching from the comfort of their own homes and greater flexibility in their education. Learning institutions, in turn, gain access to a broader range of global students. There’s no doubt remote learning is here to stay.


So how will colleges and universities continue to improve and adapt their online education offerings to remain relevant in a post-pandemic future?

Here are six key trends driving the rise of online education:

  1. Education technology (EdTech)

Digital technology is shaping the future of education by changing how content is generated and distributed, how learners engage with the material, and how their educational outcomes are evaluated. With the increasing reliance on digital learning tools, tech adoption is rapidly accelerating in higher education and the global EdTech market is expected to be valued at USD 377.85 billion by 2028 – this according to research by Grand View Research.

  1. Gamification

Enhancing student engagement is emerging as a prime concern for educators, and one of the most effective ways to encourage students to interact with educational content is through gamification – using game elements in non-entertainment contexts to promote learning. Gamification can help to make e-learning more enjoyable, immersive and accessible, resulting in higher uptake and ongoing participation. Typically, as a “game” progresses, new concepts are introduced. Students must then apply these concepts to increasingly challenging problems and new situations.

  1. Virtual and augmented reality

Integrating virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in EdTech solutions is another strategy to boost student engagement. These immersive and interactive experiences allow learners to explore and seamlessly connect with abstract concepts – turning them from passive observers into active participants.


While VR and AR are closely related technologies, they have different use cases and opportunities and can be defined as:

  • VR immerses the user in a replicated or imagined world (for instance, flight simulations, video games) by completely shutting out the physical world through the use of an opaque headset.
  • AR overlays or adds digital elements or imagery to a live view (like Snapchat lenses and Pokémon Go).

AR and VR are expected to become a significant element of online education in the near future, with VR in education predicted to become a $700 million industry by 2025.

  1. Learning analytics

With the surge of big data, the e-learning space will increasingly rely on machine learning and analytics to measure student performance and assess the next steps of their curriculum. Thanks to hyper-personalised content on-demand provided by companies such as Netflix and Amazon, students, like consumers, have come to expect a tailor-made digital education experience. Learning analytics allows educators to measure and report on student learning to optimise their training and tailor it to their specific needs.

  1. Blended learning and hybrid curriculums

Blended learning combines online and face-to-face instruction – a self-paced hybrid curriculum that gives students more ownership over the learning process. With access to digital learning resources, collaboration tools and virtual classrooms, face-to-face interaction between learners and educators is qualitative – focused on clarifying issues and exploring new ideas.

  1. Mobile learning

Technological innovation is fundamentally transforming education, but those who don’t have access to the necessary tools struggle to participate in digital learning. This widening gap is particularly evident in lower-income countries and previously disadvantaged communities. By mid-2020, less than half the population in 71 countries had access to the internet for remote learning (UNICEF). And according to OECD data, only 34% of students in Indonesia have a computer to use for their schoolwork, compared to 95% in Switzerland, Norway, and Austria.


For many students, their smartphones are their only computing device. In the United States, several universities have turned to mobile technology to provide learning access to their students during the pandemic. Some administrators deployed devices and academic infrastructure to support student access via smartphones and tablets. Others expanded wireless connectivity outdoors, creating makeshift campus workspaces. At Michigan’s Montcalm Community College, students can use Microsoft Teams to join classes via mobile, and Canvas (a mobile-friendly Instructure app) to access course content, assignments, discussions, and quizzes.

Is learning online as effective as in class?

For those who have access to the right technology, online learning can be more effective than in-class instruction. Research has found that students retain 25-60% more material when learning online. In contrast, information retention rates of face-to-face training are much lower at only 8% to 10%. Plus, students can learn faster online than in the classroom. E-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting. This is because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading material, skipping sections, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.

What’s next for online education?

Since the start of the pandemic, millions of students have discovered first-hand that online learning is an excellent alternative to traditional in-classroom study and want more from their current or future universities. Others may have found that remote studying has unlocked new opportunities in the job market and are reluctant to return to campus full-time.

While most countries slowly return to business as usual and begin in-classroom studies again, higher education institutions must not only embrace emerging trends to appeal to students but recognise the opportunity in leveraging EdTech to deepen the learning process.


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