Inaugural Future of Learning report outlines global trends in digital education

From social media to the digital divide and Gen Z expectations, FutureLearn’s new report explores prospective learning trends across the UK, US and Australia

There’s no denying that the last 12 months have been transformative, not just for education, but for the world at large. Words and phrases like ‘quarantine’, ‘lockdown’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘new normal’ are now among the accepted daily lexicon across all corners of the globe, while the rapid and widespread adoption of technology has shifted the perceptions of even the most critical former technological naysayers.

Individuals, collectives and organisations alike now acknowledge technology’s ability to keep us connected, entertained and engaged, even through extraordinary chaos, and though it’s important to recognise that issues like digital inequality and accessibility mean we still have a long way to go, it’s clear that pre-pandemic social constructs must now be reinvented or updated to become inherently digital.

The education sector stands front and centre of this long-term change; teachers have either learnt or are learning how to adapt their classroom practice to suit the digital realm, ensuring all students have the chance to receive the same quality education online as they traditionally would face-to-face. The remote learning model has given confident individuals the opportunity to shine in self-directed projects, while introverts have thrived in a virtual learning context in which the anonymity of the screen, paired with tools like the chatbox function, have allowed them to feel ‘heard’.

So, the million-dollar question is: where do we go from here? With the past year showing that the whole world can turn upside down pretty much overnight, we can only really speculate as to what might lie ahead, but in terms of identifying the current and unravelling trends in digital education, FutureLearn’s inaugural Future of Learning report sets out some of the most prominent trends.

Matt Jenner, director of learning at FutureLearn, told ET: “The report is the latest research into revealing attitudes and opinions during the pandemic of what people in the UK and around the world are most interested in learning and why. It covers how people want to use learning to take control of their careers as well as addressing accessibility and inclusion as two major themes.”

Commissioned by YouGov, the study attempts to build a picture of tomorrow’s education system, building off survey data of more than 2,000 UK adults, and more than 1,000 adults from across the US and Australia respectively; as well as qualitative interviews of 15 experts from across those same three countries. Here, we delve into some of the report’s most impactful findings with regards to the future of digital education.

Women are statistically more likely to pursue an online learning programme than men

Future of Learning
Women are more likely to believe that education has the power to drive positive change. Image source: Christin Hume/Unsplash

The study showed that, overall, women demonstrate a greater level of trust in education’s ability to incite positive change in the world. It’s likely that these perceptions have led to greater acceptance of online courses among female learners, since the increasingly ubiquitous nature of technology empowers round-the-clock access to educational content regardless of geographical borders or socio-economic background (but the latter depends on the financial cost associated with the programme, of course).

According to the findings, women are more likely to agree that online learning heightens diversity and inclusion across the education sector (49% of women vs 45% of men), with 47% of women stating that online learning offers the privacy some people need to pursue subjects they wouldn’t feel confident to take on in person – such as engineering, for example, with a World Bank report confirming that the discipline remains dominated by males across all 97 countries surveyed, making girls less likely to pursue the subject in an academic setting, let alone as a career.

FutureLearn’s enrolment data from 2020 supports this positive trend, with the platform seeing more female applicants (55%) across its science, engineering and mathematics programmes than men (45%). On top of this, the learning provider saw an almost 350% surge in tech and coding programme enrolments from 2019 to 2020 – and last year, more than half of those enrolments came from female applicants.

Close to two-fifths (38%) of women feel that online learning has increased access to education for women around the world (compared to  30% of men). Considering that one of the UN’s sustainable development goals is to ensure that all girls have access to complete free, equitable and quality education by 2030, since more than 48% of young women in some regions remain out of school, the potential of digital technology to drive change here is huge. Of course, this all depends the necessary investment in infrastructure, but with the pandemic fast-tracking the digital adoption process by 5-10 years, the target seems much more achievable following the events of the last 12 months.

In an email interview with ET, Jenner commented on the benefits of digital education, citing its potential to place the learning process more firmly in the hand of the student as a key advantage. “It’s moved us beyond some of the physical constraints of a classroom or campus,” he said. “This is highly advantageous for many, but especially those who can’t afford the luxury of learning full-time. Digital education means you can spend an hour or two in your day on learning but with none of the upheaval of transporting yourself to a building. But there’s more to it – one of the constraints of physical buildings are timetables. As Mark Adams states in our report, digital learning allows learners to ‘study in their own time and their own pace’. He’s right – it’s even more powerful, as digital makes it a much more personal learning experience.”

Women love the personalisation capabilities that come with online education, as, compared to men, they are significantly more likely to cite the ability to pace your own learning as a benefit of digital programmes (62% vs 50%).

“The idea that we go from 16% of English computer science graduates identifying as female, to 46% of our learners identifying as women on online courses suggests that there are groups for whom online courses are a better option” – Dr Rachid Hourizi, Institute of Coding

Furthermore, 45% of women agreed that being able to learn at your own pace increases self-esteem, compared to 39% of men.

Across all three countries surveyed, women were more likely than their male peers (42% vs 25%) to identify structured online learning – meaning they are guided but still able to pace their own learning – as a form of education best suited to them.

Women are also more interested in pursuing online personal development programmes than men (40% vs 35%), and when it comes to tracking current affairs via social media, women generally turn to Facebook, Instagram and TikTok more commonly than men to learn about diversity and inclusion (20% vs 14% Facebook; 16% vs 9% Instagram; 6% vs 3% TikTok) social justice (19% vs 15% Facebook; 14% vs 8% Instagram; 5% vs3% TikTok), and environmental sustainability (17% vs 14% Facebook; 13% vs 8% Instagram; 4% vs 3% TikTok).

Gen Z are keen digital learners

Future of Learning
Millennials and Gen Z believe education can change the world. Image source: viewapart/Freepik

Younger generations are hungry to consume digital forms of learning – good news given the digital transformation that has recently revolutionised the sector. The study revealed that both Millennials (born 1981–1994/6) and Gen Z (born 1997–2012/15) show more interest in online education than older populations; a trend that’s likely driven, at least in part, by their familiarity with all things digital. Gen Z, for example, never knew the world before the internet, and most will have developed digital literacy competencies alongside traditional literacy skills. Overall, younger people are eager to see diversity in education technology (edtech) offerings by 2030, with the exception of virtual reality (VR), which is pretty much equally desired across generations (39% of Millennials, 38% of Gen Z, 35% of older generations).

Augmented reality (AR) is notably more popular among younger generations, with over a third (35%) of Millennials and three in 10 (30%) Gen Z-ers choosing AR as their preferred edtech tool, compared with just under a quarter (24%) of older individuals. Perhaps, again, this is a case of familiarity, with younger people generally having more exposure to AR since, in terms of consumer usage, it hasn’t been around as long as VR technology. In spring 2020, ARtillery Intelligence studied VR and AR usage in the US, hoping to uncover who is using such technologies, how they use them and why some people don’t. The research confirmed that the assumption that VR is more popular than AR because it’s been around for longer is wrong, since 19% of the people surveyed said they own or have tried VR, compared to 26% who had experience in AR. This could be owed to the success of Pokémon Go, as well as Snapchat and Instagram filters. 

Speaking of social media – younger people are more keen to see educational features on their favourite platforms than their older peers, with 30% of Millennials and 29% of Gen Z saying they’d appreciate this technology, compared to 19% of older generations. In fact, younger respondents were more likely to have already used social media for educational purposes, with 24% of Gen Z and 15% of Millennials using Twitter to educate themselves about environmental issues, compared with just 6% of their older counterparts.

Instagram was also used for self-education on issues surrounding diversity and inclusion among 37% of Gen Z-ers and 22% of Millennials, compared to just 4% of older respondents.

It’s interesting that Millennials favour structured online learning more than Gen Z (41% vs 37%), but both generations prefer learning through online social interactions, with 15% of Millennials and 16% of Gen Z feeling they are well suited to this community-driven form of educational development.

It seems that among the youth, the perception of digital learning is positive, with one in five (21%) Millennials strongly agreeing that it can provide similar benefits to formal education, which is marginally higher than the 18% of Gen Z-ers and 14% of older adults who feel the same.

It’s no surprise then, that when it comes to personal development, half of Gen Z and Millennials said they are likely to pursue an online course in the next five years, compared to 29% of older participants. Furthermore, younger people are more likely to study online for career development within the same time frame, with Gen Z leading the charge (60%), followed by Millennials (53%) and then older populations (33%).

“I went to university at 18 and I’ve never left. That’s not going to be a common career path in the future with the pace of acceleration of technological change. I think for the younger generation now, what good secondary education can give them in the UK is the ability to learn how to learn, learn how to change, and learn how to understand new opportunities” – Professor Josie Fraser, deputy vice-chancellor, the Open University

And, it seems, the pandemic may have increased the appetite for online learning – probably because social distancing has restricted or prevented most forms of in-person training, but people are still eager to learn, improve and keep themselves occupied as lockdown wages on. Close to two fifths of both Millennials and Gen Z (42% and 39% respectively) claim COVID-19 has made digital education a more desirable study option, compared to 23% of their older peers. This could be a result of the impact of the pandemic on their career prospects, with 15% of both groups reporting that they have re-evaluated their career path as a result of the pandemic, compared with 8% of older generations who are not retired.


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Source: Future of Learning report, FutureLearn

Another positive trend was that across all three countries surveyed, learners showed considerable optimism for the potential of digital to widen access to learning worldwide.

In Australia, more than half (54%) of respondents agreed that education access will broaden in the future, with two-fifths (42%) saying the same thing in the UK and US.

Inclusivity would be intertwined with this advancement, with close to two-fifths of participants stating that education will adopt more inclusive teaching methods moving forward (46% Australia, 41% UK, 39% US). As such, the general consensus across all three countries is that education will become far more feasible for people with disabilities (55% Australia, 47% UK, 46% US), also agreeing that it will start to become more individually tailored towards specific interests (47% Australia, 33% UK, 38% US).

In light of the last 12 months, digital inequality has, understandably, been a topic of contention, with the digital shift across global education systems having a disproportionately negative impact on disadvantaged learners who may not have had access to the tools needed to learn, thus making them more likely to fall behind.

On addressing the digital divide, Jenner commented: “The first step to resolving the digital divide is to further highlight the current situation. While technology isn’t the sole answer, a lack of it can be a barrier.  It came through loud and clear from our experts that, while technological advances bring huge opportunities to the education system, there is still a digital divide. There are still too many people without access to basic technologies – whether that’s because of where they are in the world or their financial situation. A positive outcome is that the cost of mobile devices and data connectivity is dropping annually across the world, but we need to make it a shared responsibility to reduce the divide. This includes governments, technology companies and education organisations working together to identify, and then open up greater access to connected devices, which could prove life-changing for people’s learning and increasingly, their careers.”

As part of the report’s qualitative study, researchers interviewed education experts from across the three nations surveyed to gather their insights on digital inequality, and as the paper notes, most agreed that the ability to take part in online or blended learning gives minority or marginalised communities a much greater chance of receiving a quality education.

Likewise, notes the report, many of the experts were keen to explore the possibility that digital channels could open up greater diversity of thought and learning techniques, affording all students more opportunity to engage in education.

According to Mark Adams, senior vice-president and head of innovation at VICE, most of the world’s education systems do not currently adequately account for neuro-diverse individuals: “We don’t have different learning paths…I think they would be a really powerful unlock for our education system,” he said.

What next?

It’s uplifting to consider data that, overall, paints a positive picture for the future of a sector that has been rocked by the stress, disruption and uncertainty of the last 12 months. It’s time to accept that there really is no going back to the way things were pre-COVID-19, and instead embrace the change that, pandemic or not, was ultimately inevitable in an increasingly tech-driven world. While the road to COVID recovery will no doubt be long and arduous, the future generations who will reshape and innovate our world demonstrate a clear hunger for digital. And with online delivery’s ability to democratise education, to empower diversity and support communal knowledge-sharing that defies geographic borders, perhaps we’ll even start to wonder why we ever resisted the transition to begin with.

As Jenner eloquently concludes: “We often hold a mental image of students in a campus, with buildings all around. The pandemic has shown that we need to review this as the only way to get a high quality education – especially with more of us at home and fitting study and work into our already busy lives. The student experience in a post-pandemic world is a positive one; it is flexible, personal and more affordable.

“Campus life will return, and this is a good thing, but our report highlights that more learners are going to study remotely from the institution. These are likely to be younger audiences, millennials and Gen-Z in particular. But we’ve also shone the light on inclusivity and accessibility; online learning is more personal, it fits your life and your requirements better than a typical face-to-face course. Lastly, it’s more affordable, our report highlights that professionals want a career boost and that there’s no more ‘jobs for life’ – with that in mind, learning becomes the key to unlocking a brighter future, especially when it can be offered at different prices and payments, such as through monthly subscriptions like ExpertTracks or more modular, such as microcredentials.”

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