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A class apart: What COVID-19 is doing to education

How long before we see startups mushrooming to help motivate students who choose online education and who assist universities assess student progress, customize learning and deliver testing and certification as a service? How long before Apple joins the battle and changes the face of education forever?

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MOOCS are on fire, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Massive Open Online Courses have been around for some years now, steadily growing in popularity. Some, like the Khan Academy, have an impressive list of supporters ranging from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to Google and from the Walt Disney Company to Bank of America. But it took a pandemic of gargantuan proportions to send MOOCs into the stratosphere. In a matter of weeks, Coursera has grown 644% and Udemy has grown 425%. With schools and colleges being cautious about having students return to campus, online learning has made a decade’s worth of progress in 10 months. After centuries of staying rooted in classrooms, textbooks and fixed academic years, education has questioned every single tenet it is based on. And helping it achieve this is technology.

A well-researched estimate by the American Council of Educators suggests that enrollment for the next academic year will drop by 15%, including a projected decline of 25% for international students, resulting in a revenue loss for institutions of $23 billion. A study in Canada found that 54% students were planning to defer their admission for a year. The story repeats itself with minor variations across the world. Without remedial action, says a new World Bank report, we must expect an estimated loss of $10 trillion in earnings over time for this generation of students. Many countries will lose their way in achieving their education goals and decades of assiduously-made investments in the fight against poverty via better education will be wiped out.  The picture isn’t better for advanced nations either. An OECD report released in September 2020 says, “For nations, the lower long-term growth related to such losses might yield an average of 1.5% lower annual GDP for the remainder of the century.”

This is the perfect storm for ed techs to step up their game. In 2019, $18.66 billion was invested in ed tech around the world. That’s a modest figure by any standards, for any industry; but because it was education, the investment figure was described as “breathtaking”. After all, other than philanthropists and governments, who could be bothered with putting money down on education? The investment forecast for 2020, hold your breath, is $252 billion. The money will flow into online and mobile education – especially to services using advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). They will go to organizations using IoT to create connected digital classrooms; to those that use Machine Learning (ML) and Blockchain to assist teachers in grading students; that use cloud to scale; and that provide rich media 24X7 for self-paced learning. 

The change is evident in the waves created by Byju’s, an ed tech launched in 2011, which saw $300 million in investments last September and has a valuation of $11 billion. Since the lockdown, Byju’s has added 25 million new students and its app has over 70 million registered students. Schools and universities that have been around for decades have been left behind. 

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller has launched Engageli, an online platform that is browser based and requires no downloads. Those with modest smart phone hardware will appreciate this. Engageli is showing us how online education can be reinvented and how the quality of education can be made consistent, regardless of where the student is located. 

Even tiny schools are experimenting. An elephant regularly arrives in the classroom of a school in Malappuram, Kerala, via AR. 

Many innovations are on their way to make online education accessible and easy. For students without adequate bandwidth NVIDIA’s AI-based compression technology can be used (it reduces bandwidth requirements to one-tenth), and its Conversational AI can be used take notes and answer questions in human-like voices. 

Education appears ready for advanced technology and primed for a complete makeover. Even enterprises, desperately in need of reskilling their workforce at scale, will be delighted with the innovations that are on the way. 

Traditional universities and the top-most educational institutions across the world have been rendered helpless. Their models depend on campus facilities that students must use and pay for.  Now, an ed tech startup with enough gumption can organize a legion of Nobel prize winning professors on YouTube to deliver class at a fraction of what students pay to attend Harvard or Stanford. The future of education, fiercely protected for centuries by existing institutions to safeguard their untenable financial models, just got wedged wide open.

I am also willing to go out on a limb and make a forecast: Large technology companies will move aggressively into education. The time for it is right. As we have seen, Google has invested in the Khan Academy, but had kept an arm’s length from actually creating courses. Not any longer. Google has a slew of paid online courses. They cost $49 a month. Most students complete the course in three to six months. Given the conditions created by the pandemic, Google has promised to fund 100,000 need-based scholarships. “At Google we will consider our new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related entry-level roles,” says Google. The jobs these certifications lead to pay between $60,000 and $90,000. Not bad for an education that costs under $300, without having to leave your bedroom. Meanwhile, in this case, it does appear that a traditional university degree has been rendered useless. 

Microsoft too has promised to assist 25 million people across the world with free courses mapped to the current top 10 most in-demand jobs and which Microsoft believes will stay relevant for the next decade. How far can they be from launching the equivalent of an online university featuring the world’s best professors, paid classes, the use of AI, AR, VR, ML and predictive analytics to assist students, teachers and educational administrators to improve education outcomes? How long before it promises to offer jobs to the best students to win the talent war? How long before we see startups mushrooming to help motivate students who choose online education and who assist universities assess student progress, customize learning and deliver testing and certification as a service? How long before Apple joins the battle and changes the face of education forever?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Pradeep Kar

The author is Microland's Founder, Chairman and Managing Director, setting the foundation for excellence as Microland guides enterprises in adopting nextGen technologies to achieve the highest possible levels of reliability, stability, and predictability.

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