When COVID-19 closed down school and college campuses in March, many children and young people were forced to start studying remotely. At the same time, interest in online training and certificate programs soared.
Several leading massive open online course providers, coding bootcamps and business schools offering non-degree credentials reported manyfold increases in web traffic, inquiries and enrollments. Though big surges took place in April and May, they quickly started to flatten for most providers. They did not, however, return to their original baseline.
Online learning leaders report that interest in both free and paid credentials is holding steady at a rate that is significantly higher than what many were seeing last year -- suggesting the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn may have a lasting counter-cyclical impact on online enrollment.
These new online learners are a mixture of recent college graduates looking to boost their résumés, current or prospective college students trying to get ahead, furloughed or laid-off workers looking to pivot to new careers, and people with stable jobs who are now working from home. Many are taking courses related to business, technology, and public health.
"I think people are much more familiar with online learning now than they were before," said Simeen Mohsen, managing director of Harvard Business School Online. "Words like 'synchronous' and 'asynchronous' didn't use to be part of everybody's vernacular," she said. "Now I hear those terms tossed about on local news."
In mid-March, traffic on the HBS Online website started to rise, peaking in April with five times more visits than the January-to-March average. Traffic dropped slightly in May, June and July, but remains much higher than it was last year, Mohsen said.
This increase in web traffic has also translated to increased enrollments in HBS Online's 13 courses. HBS Online saw a 650 percent increase in enrollment between April and June compared to the same period in 2019, Mohsen said. She declined to share exact course enrollment numbers but said they now total thousands of students.
HBS Online's CORe course, which helps students prepare for an MBA at Harvard and elsewhere, saw the biggest gain in interest and enrollment -- likely because it has the broadest appeal of all the courses, said Mohsen. It is also the most expensive course offered by HBS Online.
"Many people are now at home with found time on their hands," said Mohsen. "Whether you're a college student whose summer job ended up being canceled or a working professional who no longer has to commute, people are saying, "Now is a good time for me to invest in my career and build new skills.'"
People appear to be more receptive to the idea of online education than they were before than pandemic, said W. Brooke Elliott, associate dean of online programs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has also seen increased interest and enrollment in both degree-level and non-credit-bearing online programs offered through the Gies College of Business.
Working from home has forced people to become familiar with new technology and given them greater freedom to control how they spend their day, Elliott said. "Many people have moved to a remote work environment and that's not likely to change over the next 12 months, maybe the next 24 months. There will be likely a permanent shift in employees who will spend at least some time working from home," she said.
"There are people who may have never considered learning in a remote or online environment before all of a sudden realizing, 'Hey, it can be done,'" Elliott said. "People are looking for flexibility in education, the same way they're experiencing flexibility in their work environment."
Online degrees offered by the Gies College of Business, including an iMBA priced under $22,000 offered in partnership with online learning platform Coursera, have seen record applications this year, Elliott said. Applications have particularly increased among women. More than 2,500 applications have so far been submitted to the iMBA program starting this fall -- a 35 percent increase from August 2019.
"All of our degree programs were in the peak of fall recruitment when the pandemic started, and after seeing a two-week period of application submits slowing down, we ended up seeing record application numbers for our online portfolio of degree programs," Elliott said.
Non-credit-bearing options are also seeing a lot of interest. Demand is high for self-paced, skills-based, interactive programs that are shorter and more affordable than full degrees, Elliott said. Illinois began offering a 12-week certificate program called MBA Essentials in October 2019. The first run had 62 students. The most recent start data, in April 2020, had 119 learners enrolled, "showing strong growth in the midst of a pandemic," said Elliott.
Coding bootcamps, like online business schools, have seen increased interest in their online programs. At Flatiron School, applications are way up -- in part due to a viral TikTok video of a graduate showing off their first paycheck, said Adam Enbar, co-founder and CEO of the company. Flatiron was recently acquired by Carrick Capital from co-working company WeWork, and is in the process of hiring new instructors so that the school can take on more students.
The quality of Flatiron candidates has increased since March, with more people with coding experience applying, said Enbar. He has also noticed an increase in the number of young people expressing interest -- possibly because they don’t want to go to college this fall while COVID-19 is still prevalent. Flatiron offers both in-person and online instruction, but has pivoted to fully online in recent months.
General Assembly, another coding bootcamp, saw website traffic increase from 175,111 visitor sessions in April 2019 to 313,559 visitor sessions in April 2020 -- an increase of 179 percent, said Liz Simon, co-chief operating officer. From an enrollment standpoint, General Assembly saw 30 percent year-on-year growth in its immersive courses in the second quarter of 2020.
"Our Software Engineering immersive remains the most popular full-time course, even as we've shifted to fully online courses," said Simon. "Across the board, we've observed a steady flow of students interested in immersive programs because many folks are going through transitions, have more time to commit to a full-time program or are recently unemployed."
Many more of General Assembly's prospective students are unemployed than were in previous years, said Simon. There has also been an uptick in interest for the company's income-share agreement program called Catalyst, an alternative tuition-financing program which has students start paying back tuition once they land a job, and not before.
Massive open online course (MOOC) providers also reported record web traffic and enrollment this spring, particularly for free or low-cost credentials.
“In general, MOOC providers have really expanded their footprint, so I would expect all the providers to be a lot bigger post-pandemic,” said Dhawal Shah, founder and CEO of Class Central, a search engine for free online courses and MOOCs.
MOOC providers successfully built on a period of media hype in 2012-13, and are doing the same again but with much bigger results than before, said Shah. So far this year, top providers have been able to attract “25 to 30 percent of their lifetime registered users within a span of a few months,” he said.
Between February and the end of March, course enrollments on online learning platform Udemy increased by more than 425 percent, said Shelley Osborne, vice president of learning. Unlike some other platforms, that enrollment growth has continued since April.
"We have seen sustained triple-digit growth week-over-week," Osborne said.
Courses on Udemy range from $10 to $200, but there are also free courses available through the Udemy free resource center, said Osborne. At the end of March, there were "massive enrollment spikes on the Udemy marketplace in courses for both personal and professional development," she said. Enrollment in courses such as the ukulele and watercolor painting grew by more than 200 percent. Corporate learners on Udemy for Business focused on courses related to productivity. A course on telecommuting saw enrollment increase by 21,598 percent.
Both Osborne and Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera, said they saw a huge surge in international learners on their platforms. Since mid-March, more than 18 million registered users have joined Coursera, a more than 400 percent increase from the same time period last year. Enrollments in India increased by 1,044 percent, followed by Italy at 519 percent and Brazil at 345 percent.
More than 1.5 million of these new users are students at universities and colleges that signed up to Coursera for Campus, said Maggioncalda. In March, Coursera made it free for institutions to join this service, enabling students to take non-credit-bearing courses from other institutions -- and get certificates -- at no cost. The offer has been hugely popular, with students taking six courses on average.
While Coursera has seen an uptick in the number of learners choosing paid credentials, the growth is nowhere near as high as for free credentials, said Maggioncalda. Adam Medros, president and co-CEO of edX reported a similar pattern.
An edX survey published in June of 904 adults working full-time from home found that 56 percent of respondents want to pursue additional education. But 29 percent felt they could not do so due to cost. Of respondents who said they were interested in taking a course online, 45 percent said they are looking for a course to help advance their career, compared with 30 percent who want to explore a new interest.
In past recessions, people have been driven to get additional education and better position themselves in the job market, said Medros. This time around, there are many more affordable and more granular credentials available -- reducing perceived barriers such as time, location and cost, he said.
"There's only so much Netflix you can watch," said Medros. "People have more time, they are curious, and they are investing in themselves in terms of learning something new." In April, edX saw 5 million new users join the platform -- more than it added in the entirety of 2019.
"We are in a huge acceleration of online learning," he said.