Reimagining learning

Covid-19 has created an opportunity for students of all ages to benefit from online classes. What does that mean for the future?

by Epi Ludvik

Education 10 June 2020

Education is a marketplace. Schools, colleges, and universities provide a physical interface between teachers and students, with course content and standards to achieve, which are set and maintained by off-site regulators. It sits in a traditional three-stage life of education, work, and retirement that has hardly changed in a hundred years. It now looks like Covid-19 has finally focused enough attention to haul education into the digital twenty-first century, with an opportunity to benefit from employing crowdsourcing techniques.

In the past few weeks, millions have experienced how online education reduces the need for physical travel. Universities are future-proofing some of their courses (and their incomes) against a threat of further waves of Covid-19 infections, and they will be totally available online. So where could or should students live? Will teaching staff all be fully trained in online techniques? Will universities charge the same fees, and will students be willing to pay them if they don’t have a social life to accompany their classes? Will students still want an unbroken three or four years of study?

Among the many hundreds going online, are insights released by Cambridge University. All lectures will be online for the entire 2020-21 academic year. However, tutorials, that are often one-to-one or one-to-two sessions, will remain face-to-face—if possible. Student fees will stay the same. Lecturers are expected to arrange their own training on online teaching techniques. Tutors have been asked to think about how tutorials “can be delivered remotely should some students not be able to return to residence halls, or if there is another phase of lockdown preventing students from leaving their colleges.”

At the same time, the global adult workforce is threatened with the greatest unemployment rate since The Great Depression that began in 1929. How many post-pandemic jobs will be available—and to whom—after employers review processes and restructure them to introduce greater use of robotics and artificial intelligence?

Reskilling among adult workers, particularly those doing routine or repetitive tasks, was already an issue prior to the lockdown. Covid-19 has accelerated the trend of losing routine work to robots and AI. How many people will need to retrain and develop new skills, and where will they do it? From home and online is increasingly the answer.

There is evidence that learning as a crowd is beneficial. Duolingo is the world’s biggest free language school with over 300 million users. In a nutshell, language students are asked to translate texts to practice what they are studying. Corporations including Facebook and Google pay Duolingo for translation services, and students enjoy free learning courses.

It’s a great example of using a crowdsourcing model to tap into skills at a scale beyond what would ever be possible using internal resources—employees. The platform and its users share the same aims of free learning: people are prepared to work for free, knowing that it means others will enjoy a free language course. Users are also continually motivated by gamification techniques that tap into humans’ competitive nature. The introduction of Leader Boards saw student input increase 20%. The longest-standing students are awarded contracts, giving them intellectual property ownership of the data they provide, though with the provision that Duolingo is permanently able to use it. Nevertheless, it’s a form of recognition that strengthens the alignment of students with the platform and it aims for a win-win.

But could some form of creating value from university students’ output reduce their fees, or provide additional benefits?

Skillshare is another example of crowdsourced reskilling and an online learning community, with thousands of classes for creative and curious people on topics including illustration, design, photography, video, freelancing, and more. The platform gives teachers a more straightforward opportunity to share expertise and earn money in the gig-economy, and enables millions of members to come together finding inspiration to take the next step in a personal creative journey that could lead to their own gig-economy earning possibilities.

Skillshare continues to witness creativity as a catalyst for wider growth, change, and discovery in people’s lives, as inspiring and multiplying human creative exploration is recognized as difficult to replicate through machine learning and AI.

What is of particular interest is how education and reskilling, and work, might blend together in a post-pandemic ‘new normal.’ Catalina Schveninger of FutureLearn recently shared some thoughts on this with Crowdsourcing Week.

They can see a trend to tertiary education made up of a series of micro-credential courses, that can be studied with a variety of course providers, and earn recognized degree-level or higher qualifications at each student’s own pace. They would effectively enable crowdsourcing to provide a degree from an open marketplace.

Through online only access to course material it would be possible to study from any location with access to the internet. Perhaps universities — and some of them have extensive property portfolios—would create study-hubs in a number of satellite cities. Maybe they could share co-workspace hubs, allowing a freer flow of knowledge and increased opportunities for collaboration between students and startup business founders. Periods of study and work could alternate more frequently, avoiding the accumulation of such large personal debts.

Or, work could be anything in the gig-economy, accessed through platforms such as Upwork, Freelancer, or Fiverr, to name just three. And maybe periods of academic study and work could also include periods of acquiring more direct work skills. What used to be reserved for out-of-term time MOOC learning could become more mainstream.

There’s a lot of “maybes” and “perhaps” here, and one more is that governments will need a more flexible tax structure as people flip more frequently among education, full-time work as an employee, self-employed gig-economy activities, or temporary retirement/sabbatical as a digital nomad. A unique work and study history for each of us held on blockchain would be the solution, though how quickly is that going to be a reality?