In just a few years, advances in technology revolutionized traditional education systems and radically altered the scale and scope of virtual and online learning. According to research from Roland Berger Strategy, in 1995 only four percent of companies in the United States offered e-learning courses – a number that increased almost twenty-fold in 2014 with a whopping 77 percent. These numbers are going to grow even more as predictions foresee that by 2019, at least 50 percent of all classes will be delivered online.

Digital and cloud-based platforms can instantly provide teachers and students with on-demand, rich training environments over the web. Virtual laboratories can be set up within minutes, and companies can now establish fully functional IT environments to train their employees without even being in the same physical location.

A Glance Into History

Although the first online course provided via satellite transmission can be traced back to 1985, in 1993 Jones International University became the first university that existed completely online. However, the online education trend didn’t catch up until much later, when in 2009 numerous small colleges across the world started offering degrees which could be earned with nothing but an internet connection.

In 2011 the famous Stanford University offered the first massive open online course (MOOC), a series of new fully web-based courses where students and professors experienced a now-established form of distant education. In just a few years, the world of e-learning was filled with dozens of other acronyms such as POOCs (personalized open online courses) and SPOCs (small, private online courses), which added a healthy amount of diversity in the online education market. (Learn more about MOOCs with What Do Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Mean for Education?)

Today, virtual education and training have become a reality in many schools and workplaces, as our modern world moves another step toward the future.

Cloud Learning Solutions and Cloud Training

Providing enterprises with hands-on experience in cloud solutions is a mandatory requirement for many providers, but configuring servers, shipping specialized hardware and training the personnel might require substantial resources. However, if the whole process replicates a fully functional IT environment in the cloud, everyone can quickly access a personal data center replica on a copy of the same base system. No software needs to be installed and no infrastructure needs to be set up, cutting much of the overhead cost.

Virtual labs and turnkey cloud solutions have allowed enterprise training to take a huge leap forward. By creating complex networks of servers and clients connected to cloud infrastructures, IT companies may now effortlessly train clients on using their solutions. Today, companies such as IBM and CloudShare have gone beyond simple web meetings and conferencing, combining cloud computing with virtualization to build so-called “virtual engagement” solutions.

Virtual Instructor-Led Training (VILT)

Among the newest trends, virtual instructor-led training (VILT) seems the most logical evolution of the traditional classroom or learning experience. An instructor synchronously or asynchronously checks a dashboard that displays the participants' screens as thumbnails, by accessing a virtual environment through a cloud interface. VILT is a cost-efficient and highly interactive solution that sports all the convenience of the virtual environment.

This form of cloud-powered training delivers new levels of flexibility and scalability by making dedicated training campuses completely unnecessary. Other than the obvious benefits of 24/7 availability, remote training opportunities with no travel expenses and many other cost savings, VILTs finally provide a truly engaging learning experience for teachers and students as well. Gamification, personalization and bite-sized training are the keywords that identify this new virtual education method, which may represent the future of e-learning for a generation who grew up with a serious smartphone obsession. (For more on how the cloud is affecting education, see Education Must Turn to the Cloud.)

Global Examples and Recent Applications

Some countries have recently started using digital education by launching new virtual education projects which have achieved unexpected success. In 2016, the China Online Education Group (COE) launched the largest online education platform that provided Chinese students with live one-on-one interactive English lessons taught by American teachers. The program grossed over $135 billion, surpassing every forecast with a 180.9 percent year-over-year increase in net revenues.

Another extremely recent application was the introduction of behavioral simulators by the Qatar College of Medicine (CMED) to teach medicine to students by using virtual patients. In collaboration with an Italian technology company and the University of Switzerland, the CMED developed an innovative education solution named virtual patient learning (VPL) that allows students to interact with several patient-centered scenarios during their courses. VPL technology was pioneered in 2016 and is now a cornerstone of medical education in this university.

E-Learning and Freelancing

During the early 2000s, e-learning was a relatively new phenomenon. Back then, the limited possibilities of technology defined the teaching methods, which mostly consisted of making educational material available online. Today, everyone can download an e-book or a white paper, so self-teaching is much more focused on social interactions and advanced teaching methods. For example, webinars have become a new consolidated way to teach new skills to highly specialized people around the globe.

The global e-learning market reached $107 billion by 2015, so it didn’t come as a surprise when LinkedIn bought the online self-teaching platform Lynda.com for $1.5 billion that same year. In the last few years, freelancers worldwide have taken full advantage of platforms like Lynda, Team Treehouse and Udemy to fill their “skill gaps” and learn everything, from creative skills to business and technology, through videos. Rather than investing substantial resources, time and money by taking a university course, a lot of expert professionals can now easily enhance or hone their skills with simple and extremely affordable online courses.

The e-learning market has been predicted to reach $31 billion by 2020. The largest corporations and universities are promoting self-paced learning among employees and students, knowing that this is the best way to optimize their results. E-learning and virtual training solutions allow for a degree of customization that cannot be achieved with traditional methods and can represent the future of education as humanity evolves towards full digitalization.