Last week, in a round led by Owl Ventures, edtech start-up Degreed announced they have gained a further $32MN in venture capital funding. This news comes as a boon to the rapidly expanding e-learning learning platform industry. Founded in 2012 in San Francisco, Degreed upskills and trains workers by connecting them with learning resources, enabling them to build skill profiles that are then used to link them with relevant positions. With this latest round of funding, Degreed’s total known amount of funding stands at $182MN.
Degreed have reported a spike in interest recently. This can - at least in part - be attributed to the COVID-19 outbreak, under which remote and distanced arrangements have become a necessity. However, this explosion in interest in the e-learning market represents a fantastic opportunity, a trend that is sure to amplify post-COVID and beyond.
In 2019, the e-learning market was valued at USD 200BN and is forecasted to grow at 14% CAGR between 2019 and 2025. The COVID-19 outbreak has created the ideal circumstances for this market to expand exponentially and is expected to propel the e-learning market even further into the stratosphere. A recent market report by Technavio projects that in Europe alone, the e-learning market will see growth of USD 24.23BN between 2020-2024. By region, however, Asia Pacific is expected to dominate the market over this period of growth, which experts attribute to this area’s early incorporation of e-learning technologies into the corporate sphere.
When lockdowns swept the globe earlier this year, there was a swift and sudden pivot to a largely digital function. Schools and universities closed up, along with offices and workplaces. Across the world, professionals had to adapt to working remotely. Similarly, learning never stopped; it simply moved online. Now, in a shrinking job market and turbulent world, training and upskilling are more critical than ever. Undeniably, the online environment is where the majority of this training will take place going forwards. No longer a mere alternative to in-person classroom learning, eLearning and virtual programmes are the future.
Earlier in the outbreak, the Cornerstone Institute for People Development tracked a notable uptick in the time users were putting into learning, clocking in 27.5MN hours in March 2020 alone. Some of the most popular remote courses on the site were ‘Time Management: Working from Home’, ‘Build Work Relationships Remotely’ and ‘Tips for Remote Collaboration,’ indicating an overall eagerness to hone and develop the work-from-home skills. Over the past six months, Degreed have also noticed an increase in users: nearly one in seven of their total accounts were opened between April and May of 2020, at the height of the lockdown in the United States.
Among working professionals, the benefits are myriad and an eagerness to learn is palpable, particularly at this critical turning point in history.
“It’s an orange instead of an apple.”
Of course, eLearning is hardly a new concept and it’s development didn’t occur overnight. However, even the biggest, most lucrative platforms experienced significant struggles in their journey to the market. Since its incubation, edtech and virtual learning have suffered pushback, with more blended or traditional models preferred by many naysayers. In this respect, the move towards eLearning required a total paradigm shift, a change in mindset that many professionals remained resistant to long after the market had established itself as a major player. To evangelise themselves, those in the eLearning sector have had to expand, develop and innovate while also remaining palatable and user-friendly. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has hastened this conversion to eLearning.
People Matters spoke exclusively to Professor Chris Dede, educational researcher and the Timothy E. Wirth, Professor in Learning Technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, about his impression of how the crisis will alter our attitudes to eLearning over the next half-century, what sets virtual, remote education apart from classroom learning, and what misconceptions and myths are still prevalent.
Firstly, Professor Dede stressed the importance of distinguishing eLearning from classroom learning. “The first misconception is that eLearning is an inferior form of classroom instruction,” he said. “For informal learning, a lot of people have fun with internet games, learning by doing environments. It may not be academic but they’re learning lots of different things that are fun for them together. It would be weird to do that in a classroom, but it’s a very powerful thing to do remotely. eLearning isn’t an inferior mode of classroom instruction: it’s an orange instead of an apple. Look at an orange and you can say ‘this is a really inferior apple. It doesn’t taste like an apple, it’s the wrong colour. But if you think of it as an orange, then all of a sudden interesting stuff happens.’”
Just one of these many fascinating technologies mentioned by Professor Dede is the use of digital puppeteering through companies such as Mursion - an immersive VR training simulation software, described by Dede as “like the Wizard of Oz” in that it’s controlled by a single person, mixed with “Mystique from X-men,” in that it’s polymorphic. Mursion’s corporate clients include Coca-Cola, Nationwide Bank, and T-Mobile. According to Dede, in a corporate setting this technology focuses on interpersonal relationships. “You can do a lot about implicit bias for example, with the puppets. That’s a really interesting opportunity that’s becoming more scalable and cheaper,” he added.
Upskilling using AI technologies
Even pre-COVID, 66% of CHROs and 86% of HR technology leaders listed building critical skills and competencies as a top priority for 2020. As economic disruption and workplace transformation takes over, knowledge gaps will need addressing, quickly and specifically. This is where eLearning will really shine.
Professor Dede has done extensive research into learning engineering and educational optimisation - even publishing a book on the subject in 2018. According to Dede, this mode of technology allows you to see patterns “that help you understand which students learn best through which approaches.” In this respect, virtual learning undoubtedly has the upper hand. “The point is: this works much better in remote learning than through face-to-face learning, because in remote learning you’re collecting everything automatically, but in face-to-face learning, you’re collecting very little. So we have the opportunity to use rich data streams to make a difference,” says Dede.
Dede points to the work of Professor Ashok Goel at Georgia Tech, who’s development of AI technologies encompasses teaching assistants that can answer questions, social assistants that help students find other students in large classes who they may share interests with and library assistants. “These are not substitutes for human beings, this is not to say we will not need teaching assistants, but what AI does is the simpler, time-consuming, routine parts of human work, which frees up human beings to do the complicated, interesting parts of work,” Dede says.
Personalized learning, AI-powered recommendation engines and the use of data-enabled skill profiles such as Degreed’s will all serve to specialise training and deliver learning that is as useful and specifically catered to employee needs as possible.
These models will also enable more independent self-training, meaning more time for both leaders and learners to focus on doing their jobs. Professor Dede went on to say that “AI assistants are going to upskill instruction; AI will do the simpler parts so humans will have to be smarter about the complicated things.” This could include developing crucial, psychosocial or soft skills that will be increasingly essential in the turbulent times on the horizon. However, a fundamental part of this partnership is dismantling the idea of mere artificial intelligence i.e. machines. “What we want to get to is IA - Intelligence Augmentation,” Dede says, “where machines are working for people and the partnership is able to do more. But then you have to upskill, upskill and upskill. AI is like the sorcerer’s apprentice, following you up the food chain, getting really smart.”
Personalized or customised learning tools will grow even more popular in the post-COVID world. Cost-cutting measures will drive leaders and CEOs to seek specific, results-driven training for their staff based on their needs and interests, rather than spending on more general, company-wide qualifications. According to Technavio’s report, data analytics will have a marked influence in this area, allowing e-learning vendors to better curate and design ideal skilling courses and even provide micro qualifications at every level.
‘Death by Zoom’
Professor Dede said we must not “let the tool dictate the andragogy.” For this to happen, we need to move away from the idea that eLearning is just videoconferencing. “I see higher education institutions say ‘how do we use Zoom or Teams or WebEx to teach? They were never designed as teaching systems: they were designed as videoconferencing systems.”
Professor Dede also disputes the myth that eLearning is somehow a narrow or restricted range of learning. “People will say ‘I’m using Zoom, there’s almost nothing that I can do in Zoom.’ Well, ‘that’s true’” but that’s because they’re not looking at all the other options out there such as Mursion, Harvard-based program Helix, digital puppeteering and AI teaching assistants.
Another myth Professor Dede wants to debunk is the popularity of MOOCs - a more traditional mode of instruction that saw an explosion in popularity around 2012. “MOOCs were actually a step backward in terms of distance learning,” in Dede’s opinion. “Teaching by telling and learning by listening - distance learning had gotten beyond that, which is what MOOCs were set up to do...saying that we should rely on MOOCs is silly as a way of thinking about this.”
Rather, “we must let the andragogy dictate the tool,” says Dede and seek out specific, scalable, innovative personalised eLearning platforms - of which there are many, and getting more sophisticated every minute - to deliver and train people in the skills they need now as well as foster a spirit of continuous, lifelong learning.
Contrary to some beliefs, eLearning actually has the potential to reach far more students in a broader, more meaningful way than classroom learning. As Dede points out “If I were to walk into a classroom and say ‘everybody fire up their social media and work on their phones,’” he would be met with resistance. Not so, with eLearning, which creates “an ecosystem of different kinds of learning in which people can navigate to whatever their niches are.”
Mutual learning in a virtual world
According to the commonly-used L&D ‘70:20:10’ model, 70% of learning happens on the job, 20% through interactions with colleagues, and just 10% through classroom-style learning. If this is the case, what does that mean in a post-COVID world, in which remote work is the norm and daily, informal interactions with colleagues are - if not gone completely - significantly reduced? eLearning may hold the answer.
When asked about this possibility - and how Professor Dede would counter those who raise questions about eLearning’s potential - he said he would ask them to tell him about their informal life - what they do when they’re not working. “Somebody might say, I’m really into photography. I’m part of this online group where we share photographs and talk to one another about our photographs. I watch YouTube videos about new types of equipment that are coming out. I would say: well, wait a minute, you’re describing a whole set of ways of learning that didn’t involve getting in the same room together. Tell me what percentage of your informal learning is actually face-to-face.”
While Professor Dede says there may be some individuals who learn exclusively face-to-face, he would say “95% of the naysayers are doing perfectly normal remote learning all the time, informally. They’re just not able to transfer that into their formal thinking. Some of them, when you point it out, just don’t get it. Some of them start to open up a little bit.”
Already, managers and leaders have harnessed technology to keep up a sense of workplace culture, social interaction and collaboration. eLearning will be the next, most productive step as longer term remote or blended work measures are brought in, enabling a cross-functional interaction in which teams are gathering knowledge, honing essential skills and upping the ante on their training, while also partaking in much-needed social interactions with colleagues.
However, Dede recognises the legitimate fears that surround the loss of face-to-face interaction and all those things that technology simply cannot replace. “Nothing that we can do is going to change that, where face-to-face contact is unique in some of the things that it offers.” He added that this is not a problem of remote learning, as such, but of the entire concept of being “remote” from one another. Again, our ability to adapt and transform our expectations will help with this problem - even if it doesn’t solve it entirely.
According to a recent analysis by the Advance Workplace Institute, there are even fears that cohesion and trust could deteriorate during the move to virtual working. By facilitating collaborative training and eLearning, leaders can help ensure cohesion and team dynamics do not suffer and professionals don’t grow atomised from one another. As Andrew Mawson of Advanced Workplace Associates said of their findings, “organizations increasingly need to harness their knowledge resources as opposed to controlling and 'managing' them,” adding that, “when we are working in a more virtualized model, old models become more difficult and we need new understandings and practices to deliver success in a virtualized world.” Part of these new models could and should be related to education technology and eLearning.
Previously, criticisms over a lack of social interaction and motivation have swirled around eLearning. Vendors are working to address them, developing ways for social interaction, large-scale participation and reward systems to keep up motivation and deliver tangible results. One way, for example, could be through peer-to-peer learning - creating collaborative projects in which team members are put into breakaway rooms to complete tasks together. The possibilities are limitless, and, as Dede points out, often far better-suited to remote learning than the classroom.
Professor Dede also mentions the power of non-traditional, non-academic platforms as a way to boost a sense of social belonging as well as learning. “It’s easier to build on the powerful ways of informal learning that students have. Too often, education and training are all about instruction and curriculum, but when people aren’t formally enrolled in schooling, they’re doing informal learning these days primarily through social media. Social media can be a very powerful way to learn things and build social capital at the same time,” he says.
As social interaction is one of the main elements working professionals say they are missing about office life, collaborative eLearning programs in The New Reality could offer a way to keep up a positive dialogue and company spirit while keeping socially distanced, working remotely and honing necessary skills. This also ensures soft skill training doesn’t suffer in a socially distanced situation.
From talking to experts such as Professor Dede, what seems certain is distanced learning and virtual teaching are in no way a lesser alternative to face-to-face, classroom learning. On the contrary, they are their own world entirely: an innovative branch of tools, experts, resources and technologies that offer both a broader, more global reach and a more specialised, personalised offering for individuals based on how they learn and what they need to learn. As demonstrated by the exponential growth of eLearning models - including the latest funding for Degreed - this technology is only going to get more pervasive, more persuasive and absolutely indispensable as we move into a post-crisis reality.