Education's new normal will be hybrid, more virtual

Students are headed back to the brick-and-mortar, but rest assured that online learning is going to still play a big role going forward.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Education is searching for a new normal and it's clear that new models will take some trial and error. Just like the new normal for work, education is going to fumble around a bit before finding its future groove.

Here are some anecdotes to ponder:

  • K-12 students are going back to school as the COVID-19 pandemic eases, but increasingly questioning the merits of the hassles involved with the day-to-day classroom. Students are no different than the workers that question the inefficiency of the office.
  • College students have been remote long enough to form new habits. Sure, they miss the social experiences, but I've heard from more than a few that there are cost savings to be had too. Let's face it: Many universities are landlords as much as educators.
  • Students are realizing that they're going to have to learn new skills repeatedly. As a result, certificates similar to the ones championed by Google may be more cost effective.
  • Hybrid models may be the new norm for colleges. K-12 students aren't likely to have a choice. I've found few students that want to go back to the classroom all day every day. It turns out that students are a lot like workers.
  • Platforms such as Chegg and Coursera have thrived in the pandemic and will likely be a big part of the new normal.

Those are just a few of the moving parts for education and then there are the economics. Online education can address multiple financial problems. Here's the biggest issue: $1.55 trillion in student loan debt as of Sept. 30, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig said at the Jefferies Virtual Online Education/E-learning conference last week:

Our research now shows that 75% of all students want at least a hybrid system. Because why should you have to go freshman year to take all these courses you don't want at really expensive rates? More and more students are taking courses at community colleges and then transferring them in to save money.

The unit economics for colleges are going to be disastrous. If they think people are going to continue to pay these exorbitant rates, force you to live in a dorm, force you to pay for a food service, force you to pay $3.50 every time you take money out of the school when the average age of the student is 25 in this country. So, the top 50 schools, they can invent time. If you're a Harvard, Stanford, you can do what you want. But almost nobody goes to those schools, right? It's less than 20% of the population go to those kinds of schools. The rest of them go to state schools and community colleges.

And so, this was inevitable. This is something where the empire will try to strike back for a while, but the students will reject it.

Coursera's IPO filing lays out a similar argument:

We believe the future of education will be characterized by blended classrooms, job-relevant education, and lifelong learning, and that online learning will be the primary means of meeting the urgent global demand for emerging skills. According to an estimate by the World Bank, there were more than 200 million college students around the world as of October 2017, many of whom did not have necessary job-relevant skills. Online learning holds the promise to enable anyone, anywhere to learn new skills in preparation for high demand, digital jobs. The combined forces of online learning and remote work have the potential to increase global social equity by enabling a future where anyone, anywhere has access to both high-quality learning and high-quality job opportunities in an increasingly digital world.

Rosensweig said many observers of education make the mistake of thinking that learning stopped. The only thing that changed is the location of the person getting education.

Sounds a lot like work eh?

Education won't take the exact path as the new normal for work, but rest assured there will be a lot more space for virtual learning to expand.


The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.


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