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Class action: The rise in online learning

With a huge range of online courses now available, more and more people are signing up to gain the skills needed to advance their careers

Free online courses offers particular value to learners who otherwise could not afford to enter higher education, or upskill. Photograph: iStock

Increasingly, people are taking greater control of their careers and their learning and with advancements in online technology, more and more people are choosing to study online.

"They want skills that will help them advance their careers and to learn in a way that suits them at a pace that suits them," Dave Flynn, executive director at Skillnet Ireland says.

Online learning offers huge choice via e-learning platforms such as LinkedIn Learning, Degreed, Udemy, as well as accessibility, convenience and flexibility. It also means students are not necessarily being bound by academic terms and also offers them more affordable options, he adds.

However, there are currently no official stats available for online learning and information provided by online learning providers needs to be considered with caution as they – in many cases – only offer information about the number of subscribers rather than learners, Matt Glowatz, assistant professor at UCD’s College of Business, says.


“For instance, the drop-out rate for many MOOCs [Massive Open Online Course] is as high as 90 per cent [100 per cent initial enrolment with only 10 per cent completing the course]. However, statistically 100 per cent will be counted as ‘online’ learners, although they haven’t completed any course, module or learning component at all,” he says.

Lifelong education

Having said that, free online courses offers particular value to learners who otherwise could not afford to enter higher education, or upskill. MOOCs are also suitable for anyone who would like to engage in casual lifelong education.

“Additionally, ‘online learning’ can have a different meaning for different people. For instance, online learning, in the context of UCD, incorporates VLE [Virtual Learning Environments], such as Brightspace or Blackboard. Those VLEs are primarily being used to offer learning support online rather than offline. New generations of VLEs, however, do offer more advanced online learning components, such as online assessment, feedback, content delivery and general student support,” Glowatz says.

"MOOCs, on the other hand offer 100 per cent online courses which can either be free, for example Coursera, or fee-based such as with Udemy," he adds.

With so much choice, people want to know which online option is of a high calibre and to what extent will it be recognised by employers. An online offering delivered by a recognised higher-education institution or body in Ireland addresses these important questions, Flynn says.

"Examples of these include the higher-education institutions: National MSc in Artificial Intelligence, which is a two-year part-time degree, some intensive workshops, delivered by Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet and the University of Limerick or Professional Bodies Law Society Skillnet and CPA Ireland Skillnet offer concise online learning options, for example webinars on new pieces of legislation or regulations, with thousands of their members accessing them with minimal disruption to their working day," he says.

An emerging trend in this area relates to digital badges, Flynn says.

These are micro-credentials for non-accredited programmes or short programmes. It’s an icon or indicator of the accomplishment that can be verified online and will boost the employability of people who display credentials on LinkedIn or other platforms.

A successful pilot programme – "Artisan Food Marketing" – was recently delivered by Taste 4 Success Skillnet and University College Cork, he says.

Not officially accredited

In terms of certification, depending on the provider, including Udemy and Coursera, the majority of online courses offer a certificate. However, those providers are not officially accredited, “somehow devaluing achievements”, Glowatz says,

“It would certainly be nice to include those certificates to your offline and online CV [LinkedIn] categorised as lifelong learning achievements, however, official degrees including cert, diploma, bachelor, masters and PhDs awarded to accredited institutions carry a much higher value. Many universities offer a blended-learning approach as part of their bachelor and masters degrees, allowing students to complete part of the programme or maybe one or two modules or part of a module online,” he says.

So is online a good alternative to classroom learning and what about the loss of social interaction?

“That’s an excellent point. Although, many online courses try to include the social interaction and collaboration part of education with online discussion forums, dedicated WhatsApp groups or closed Facebook groups, those online initiatives do fail to deliver tangible benefits. Personally speaking, I am a strong advocate for online and educational technology [Edtech] usage, however, simply throwing technology at students and educators, lecturers or teachers is simply not good enough. Students and educators need to be educated first, outlining how Edtech and online can add value. If whatever technology or online initiative is being used cannot add value to the learner and educator, it will eventually fail,” Glowatz says.

Some content is more suitable for online learning, some for offline or traditional learning and some with a blended approach, he adds. “Having completed several online MOOCs myself, self-discipline is the key success factor here,” he says.

Industry leaders


Now in its seventh year, the MOOC movement passed 100 million learners, with 101 million signing up. However, they are also seeing a decrease in the number of new learners signing up. In 2018, 20 million new learners signed up for at least one MOOC, but this is down from 23 million the previous year.

“Despite the slowdown, the number of paying users may have increased. MOOC providers’ constant tweaking of the model seems to be paying off, given providers such as Coursera are hitting record revenues,” Class Central says in its MOOC report.

Top 5 MOOCs

Coursera: 37 million

edX: 18 million

XuetangX: 14 million

Udacity : 10 million.

FutureLearn: 8.7 million