The Evolution of Online Learning Market

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Online courses emerged sometime in the 1980s or early 1990s, depending on who you ask. Their exact origin is thrown into confusion by the competing marketing campaigns of various eLearning stakeholders.

Whatever institution was the first to do it, there’s no doubt that the online classroom concept became popular in the higher education world through the 1990s and early-2000s. Major universities began creating whole departments focused on delivering distance education over the internet.

Providing online access to courses was seen as an excellent way to make formal college education more accessible while also reducing overhead costs for universities.

The Rise and Fall of Massively Open Education.

The online classroom was a significant step forward for college students. But, some in the education industry imagined even more ambitious democratization of learning. In 1998 Stephen Downes wrote a vision of the future of online learning that is spot on in terms of the tech we’d be using ten years later. At the same time, Downes proved to be over-optimistic in his imagining of an interactive online learning utopia.

“Only when the capacity for new technology to customize and personalize education are employed will the efficiencies begin to show.” — Stephen Downes

Downes would eventually realize a portion of his imagined future for online education when he co-created what is thought to be the first Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) with George Siemens in 2006.

MOOCs were envisioned as a revolution in online education that would bring free or inexpensive university-quality teaching to the entire world. There are many variations on the MOOC, but they all use a similar core principle: one lecture and one set of course materials are developed and distributed online to hundreds of students.

A few years after Downes’ pilot course, Udacity, a startup founded by Sebastian Thrun (yes, that Sebastion Thrun), took the MOOC concept and ran fast in the direction of VC-backed mega-profit.

Unfortunately, Udacity’s very first attempt at offering university courses via their MOOC platform fell flat.

The company partnered with San Jose State University in 2013 in a failed experiment to provide university classes in a massively open format. This public flop derailed Udacity’s plans to spearhead the MOOC revolution. Later the same year, Thrun said he believed his company had failed to live up to the vision of making higher learning available to the masses.

Modularity in online education

Around the same time that uDacity was picking up steam, another MOOC platform was being developed in a partnership between Harvard and MIT. This platform was called edX.

Because edX is still just a MOOC platform, it suffers from the same shortcomings of uDacity and other similar platforms.

One of the creators of edX, Robert Lue, has said that the success of platforms like edX will depend on providing hyper-focused learning “blocks,” rather than complete courses.

By breaking down the learning process into hyper-specialized, just-in-time modules, learners are able to target the specific skills they need at the moment they need them. This helps to maintain engagement and results in more learners completing their objectives.

The future of online education is the development of just-in-time microlearning experiences.

Education: from formal to informal Systems

According to Holon IQ, back in the 2000s, the listed Education Companies were almost exclusively Higher Education, “still the majority in 2010 and by 2020 just under half of the total market cap of the listed sector. K12 emerged in the last decade, principally driven by China (see second chart below) alongside Workforce and Pre K which both make up a meaningful segment of the total now.”

This last year, the same research company (Holon IQ), coined the category of OPX as “collectively defining the entire spectrum of services models supporting Universities in the design, development and delivery of online higher education” which is worth $3.5B+ in the market and is supposed to reach $7.8B by 2025. Within this meta-category, you can find OPM (Online Program Management model) OPE, MOOC-as-an-OPM and other models.

OPMs, has proven to deliver success to universities or companies that partner with. Considering it is a $3B+ market, growing at 17% and having 60+ operator and counting. So compelling are the results, that their major competence (MOOCs) have started to work in a similar way (MOOC-as-an-OPM). To be more specific, as claimed by Holo IQ, more than 500 Universities have engaged with OPMs and the global OPX revenue is expected to be $7.8B by 2025.

All in all, the evolution is no so linear, as it is impossible to make formal education more accessible just reducing costs or translating “things as they are” to a digital space. What this evolution makes it clear, is that education must change, having always students at the center of design, to engage learners in new channels and formats.

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