The future of learning in a post-Covid-19 world

By Ivan Bofarull

It is already widely accepted that the Covid-19 crisis is not only a short-term emergency but a tipping point in the trajectory of a number of social behaviours. One of the most relevant of these shifting behaviours is that “online", in many aspects of our lives, will not be considered a second-best alternative anymore.

In certain situations, it will just be our best alternative. It is a safe bet these days to say that some industries, including productivity and collaboration services, streaming, online learning, telemedicine and digital infrastructure in general will largely benefit from a post-Covid-19 world. 

When it comes to education and learning, instead of remaining in the comfort of simply acknowledging a massive shift to online learning, it would be highly relevant for academic institutions to reflect on the profound implications of this crisis down the road.

It would be highly relevant for academic institutions to reflect on the profound implications of this crisis down the road

At the same time, those designing a strategy for academic institutions should understand whether Covid-19 creates a completely new scenario or, in contrast, it just accelerates a process of disruption that was already occurring in their blind spot.

In the last few years, education and learning have experienced a process of “unbundling”, in the same fashion as many other industries.

In the 20th century, higher education was delivered in a “bundle” that included a sophisticated hardware with an elite touch (classrooms and campuses) and a software pack (courses) that was largely validated by the academic community.

The hardware constrained the software in such a way that learning had to happen at the same time, in the same place, and at the same pace for everybody. On top of this, universities added a stamp to the bundle, the credential/degree, for which they had the printing/issuing monopoly.

In the last few years, education and learning have experienced a process of 'unbundling'

Students were happy to buy into this bundle, because the university stamp had a signaling effect to grant them access to the best possible alternative in a myriad of potential professional careers. Learning was cheap. The credential was extremely expensive.

However, in the digital age, education and learning have experienced a progressive “unbundling” process, a major disruption mostly happening in a strategic blind spot for higher education incumbents.

For one, hardware has developed in a variety of forms. Jolt, a startup from Israel, is weaving a network of microcampuses in cities like Tel Aviv, London and New York, where students meet for short courses taught via a proprietary videoconferencing system. These learning spaces allow so-called “jolters” to enjoy world-class instructors, no matter their location.

Jolt microcampuses
A Jolt learning space in London (Photo: Jolt/CC)

Y Combinator, the world’s most famous startup incubator, has become a sort of educational funnel in itself, where relatively polished ideas enter the funnel, to become infused with knowledge from top-notch practitioners. At the end of the funnel, venture capitalists will invest in the best talent (in the form of a startup company), as recruiting companies do in business schools.

Y Combinator sends a signal to VC’s that they are investing in the right startup. Even the corporate workplace is increasingly becoming the new hardware where learning happens, due to the myriad of possibilities that players like Coursera, the online learning platform, facilitate.

Y Combinator
Y Combinator summer session (Photo: Kevin Hale/CC)

Not only has hardware unbundled in unprecedented ways, but software too. Take Minerva, the San Francisco-based player that is reinventing college from scratch. It has created a curriculum of habits of mind conducive to the critical wisdom that students will have to develop in a context where change and disruption are a new normal.

Minerva’s learning platform, called Forum, follows a synchronous online learning model (instead of an asynchronous one, which has been commonplace since the irruption of online learning).

By developing a curriculum focused on the habits of mind upon which critical wisdom is based, Minerva has made a contribution to unbundling higher education. In other words, Minerva has chosen to focus on the “operating system” of what students need to learn (the “thinkings”), in contrast to other new players, like Jolt (mentioned above), which facilitate access to the “apps” of knowledge (topics of immediate application).

Minerva has made a contribution to unbundling higher education

In an unbundling process, lots of transfers of value happen across different players: current or new users perceive that a few players have a better understanding of how to add value in the new context, while they perceive that other, usually incumbent, players deliver value in a disappointing way, because these can’t get away from the inertia that made them successful in the past. Also, new ways to synthesise value emerge.

  • For instance, because stackable content is becoming a new normal in higher education (as most online learning platforms facilitate), this will also take us to stackable credentials, a way to actually unbundle the “big degree”. Degreed, a platform, allows a student to validate different strings of content and learnings that she will have acquired throughout a period of her life.
     
Degreed
David Blake, CEO of Degreed, at Kaplan EdTech Accelerator Demo Day (Photo: Degreed)

 

  • Another great value proposition will be for those players who know how to unlock the massive power of collective knowledge. In other words, how to transform the student into a producer of content and knowledge. Teachable, another platform, has more than 250,000 active courses and 80,000 online instructors (these have earned more than half a billion dollars in instruction fees so far).

Are these trends irreversible? How is Covid-19 going to have an impact on the pace of these trends?

These days, it seems like most of the world is experiencing the emergence of something like a “shut-in” economy, where the home is becoming the new hub of activity, including work and learning. We can already anticipate that, as in many other sudden disruptions, we will adopt new habits that result in substantial improvements to what previously existed. 

In the post-Covid-19 world, we might become aware of some aspects where making learning ubiquitous results in a superior experience.

A great value proposition will be for those players who know how to unlock the massive power of collective knowledge

For one, we can choose the hardware that works best for us (university campus, workplace, coworking space, home, etc.). We can also get a better sense of our learning process, as AI facilitates the design of increasingly sophisticated online tutoring tools that help us to learn at our own pace.

Because AI adoption will be higher, more data about learning will be gathered, which will increase the quality of those “tutor-like” tools, in a sort of virtuous cycle or “tech flywheel”.

AI facilitates the design of increasingly sophisticated online tutoring tools that help us to learn at our own pace

We will also be aware that by personalising our learning pathways through connecting different pieces of knowledge, we can obtain a more unique learning profile that can more accurately explain who we are, and better match specific market or recruiting needs, a matching process that will also be assisted by AI.

A post-Covid-19 world will accelerate the irruption of an “interface moment”. Masterclass, an online learning platform that streams videos of top-notch experts, has a Hollywood-like production quality.

Masterclass
Masterclass produces online classes with renowned personalities in their respective fields

In the same fashion, a shift to ubiquitous learning will unlock infinite possibilities for top teachers, allowing the possibility for them to reach an almost unlimited upside. It is no science fiction to think about “star teachers” making millions of dollars per year in Hollywood-like production budgets to produce memorable learning experiences.

In short, after Covid-19, learning will accelerate the unbundling process, with hardware becoming ubiquitous, software becoming more bifurcated, with more “app-like” courses on a variety of online platforms and a few players focusing on “OS-like” learning.

A shift to ubiquitous learning will unlock infinite possibilities for top teachers

Finally, after Covid-19, transfers of value will accelerate too: we will witness the irruption of platforms that facilitate the validation of strings of disparate pieces of knowledge, which will disrupt not only the credentialing space but also the whole business model of higher education. 

For incumbent players in the higher education space, a post-Covid-19 world is no longer the realm of monopolistic profits, but a space where new ways to provide value, in partnership with a variety of other (new) players, have to be designed.

If there is a truth for the upcoming few years, this is that Covid-19 will accelerate the belief that disruption is a new normal, and with it, unlearning and learning, our most relevant skill to thrive as individuals and as society altogether.

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