What are the core themes shaping online learning?

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Aimee Kleinman Education Marketing Consultant & Tim Landucci, Business School Marketing Consultant, SMRS

The shape of the global education market has changed dramatically over recent years and been driven by partnerships, investment and new players entering the market. The demand for online education and training is increasing worldwide and clearly on an upward trajectory for the years to come.

Online learning is a constantly innovating and increasingly crowded market that has seen rapid growth across the board. In the UK alone, online learning is predicted to expand by $9.94bn over the next three years. However, the digital maturity of many higher education providers varies significantly.

Within this context, we set out to uncover how and why the market is changing, what key themes providers need to be aware of, and how best they can react. This syndicated research, featuring 15 universities and business schools, built on an extensive market report we conducted in 2020.

With a panel of over 2,000, we spoke to a wide cross-section of learners interested in a range of study levels, from Undergraduate Degrees to Exec Ed. Our aim was to understand similarities and differences among three distinct groups: those who have experienced online learning before, those who are currently deciding on an online course or provider, and those who are unsure if online study is right for them.

From our extensive report, 10 core themes emerged from our research:

  1. In an innovating market, traditional subjects remain strong

Postgraduate study is still the most attractive online learning choice, and Business Management, Law and Computer Science stand out as the most popular subjects.

  1. Online learners are thinking long term

Most online learners are motivated by professional development requirements or aspirations. Skills development and improving career potential are key motivators, as is personal enrichment.

  1. The student experience matters

A high-quality experience is a big factor in cultivating future or repeat learners. There is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to the online experience — particularly during application and onboarding.

  1. Learner communities are neglected

Most experienced respondents were unaware of any alumni offering. This is a missed opportunity, as a robust, engaging alumni offering is a powerful way to encourage learners to return and strengthen lifelong learning opportunities across all areas.

  1. Interactivity is lacking

While live or recorded sessions are important, most learners want deeper engagement with tutors and peers. Learning platforms would also benefit from offering greater interactivity as part of the user experience.

  1. Location and reputation remains important

More than half of our respondents told us the location of the course provider is a key deciding factor. Clearly, the potential access to tutors, facilities and campus is an attraction for many. For those who said location didn’t matter, reputation came first.

  1. Decisions are made quickly

Compared to those considering traditional campus-based study, online learners make decisions and apply in a much shorter timeframe. For example, more than half of our respondents will start their online course within two months of application.

  1. Employers are seeing the value

The perceptions of online learning have shifted immensely in recent years. Around half of the respondents feel that employers value online programmes as much as face-to-face learning. More reassurance from providers could shift this even further.

  1. The price isn’t right

Learners of all levels who’ve experienced online learning feel that online programmes should be priced lower than they currently are — particularly when compared to campus-based study modes. An improved experience could help address this.

  1. The pandemic effect

Over the last couple of years, COVID-19 has made online learning the sole option for many. This has been a mixed blessing. It has opened many people’s eyes to online learning, but the necessary rush to online provision tainted the experience for many recent Undergraduate and Postgraduate students.

We explore these key themes and recommendations in detail throughout the full report. To find out more and to purchase a copy of the full report, please contact: consulting@smrs.co.uk