While our global pandemic has thrown a wrench into the gears of the economy world wide, it has also triggered a stampede towards digital technologies that facilitate virtual training and e-learning.

Many institutions of higher learning have had to shutter their doors owing to social distancing regulations designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

But many of these same schools have turned to technology to deliver courses online — and some academic institutions were already offering online programs before the pandemic crisis made distance learning a necessity.

While no one really knows how long the turmoil stemming from COVID-19 will last, it appears likely that the new normal of virtual training and e-learning in higher education is here to stay.

“Schools and businesses are focusing on adopting virtual instructor-led training, video conferencing tools, and online learning software to improve the engagement and learning experience among students,” said Saloni Gankar, a senior research analyst at Selbyville, Delaware-based Global Market Insights.

“Video conferencing applications, such as Google Meet, Hangouts, Skype Meet Now, Cisco Webex and Microsoft Team, will be mainly adopted by schools and corporates. These providers are also utilizing the opportunity by expanding their services in the education sector.”

Gankar is one of the many analysts who believe e-learning and virtual training are bound to become more widely used in the academic and business worlds. Educators on the front lines see the advantages of using digital technologies to instruct their students.

And companies offering e-learning tools are confident that the current COVID-19 crisis means that schools will now have to take digital technologies for e-learning and virtual training more seriously.

Market Research

According to Global Market Insights, the global e-learning market size was worth over USD 200 billion in 2019 and is poised to cross the $375 billion USD threshold by 2026.

Increasing internet penetration, the proliferation of smartphones and the growing demand from corporate for on-job training are driving the market growth. Elsewhere, Statista notes that the e-learning market worldwide is projected to surpass USD 243 billion by 2022.

On the Front Lines

Educators say that digital technologies are helping them to meet their obligations to students and faculty.

Dr. Bora Ozkan is an assistant professor of finance and the director of the online MBA and BBA programs at Fox School of Business in Philadelphia, PA.

The institution’s fintech, blockchain and digital disruption course — delivered via virtual reality technology — could be one example of how online education will change and adapt in the future. The seven-week accelerated course may very well be one of the first MBA-level courses to be offered in a virtual reality format anywhere in the U.S..

While acknowledging that digital technologies like Zoom have their place in academia, however. Dr. Ozkan adds that there are also some limitations to such tools.

“When I became the academic director of the online programs almost 18 months ago, I had the idea about virtual reality,” he said. “We’re all trained to think of data in two dimension. If you think about data, you have the numbers and you have the variables, typically. When I became academic director, we started having this discussion with the education technology team. When you have three or four people in a Zoom meeting, you all talk. But when you have 40, when you have 30, or even 20, you get lost a little bit. So my idea [looked at whether] virtual reality could close that gap and make the discussions…more engaging or more fluid.”

Over at the Rensselaer Lally School of Management in Troy, New York, Dr. Clint Ballinger has personally experienced the revolutionary potential of digital technologies in academic programs.

Dr. Ballinger, a lecturer in the school, is an entrepreneurial expert who works with students on the MBA track. He also helps engineers and scientists to bring their business ideas to market.

In looking at the role digital technology can and has played at the institution of higher learning, Dr. Ballinger recounted the time he worked closely with a PhD candidate who was the first Rensselaer student to virtually defend his thesis. This development, he said, could become the “new normal” as institutions of higher learning leverage technologies more and more.

“I remember when I was getting my PhD. It was difficult to coordinate all of your advisors and all of the people on your review committee. Now that you can do a PhD defense online, it may actually be somewhat easier because people can be in different time zones…

This sort of new normal may become beneficial as far as scheduling goes. So I think that, going forward, these remote educational experiences or remote PhD defenses will be online with live chatting from the professors asking questions, pinging a person as they’re doing their PhD defense, which is a big part of the defense process,” said Dr. Ballinger.

He also envisions digital technologies progressing in capabilities to the point where students will eventually go from huddling behind laptops and staring at small screens to enjoying a more immersive and seamless experience.

“I think that in the future, there’ll be much larger displays integrated in a house or a room or a classroom or all these types of things. [It will be] a natural thing where you see a larger display with built-in cameras so you get more of a seamless integration that looks, feels and smells like a real face-to-face meeting with people.”

More Digital Technology Options

One thing’s for certain when it comes to institutions of higher learning in the here and now — they can’t ignore, tippy-toe around or look indifferently at e-learning technologies.

Danielius Stasiulis is the CEO of BitDegree, a Kaunas, Lithuania-based company. It offers an online learning platform for digital skills with blockchain-based credentials and an incentives system. He says schools must now get on board as far as e-learning tools are concerned.

“Education institutions cannot ignore e-learning anymore,” he said, adding that BitDegree has, in response to COVID-19, launched a program enabling anyone to create courses and facilitate online learning via its online LMS.

“At the very least they have to be ready to conduct all of the teaching fully online. But learning online is much different than learning offline and the same rules do not apply.

Students' experience has suffered tremendously during the lockdown because the education institutions have treated learners as if they were in classrooms. Online learning cannot succeed with control. It must trust the learner and give him the freedom and responsibility to learn. And this requires a clever learning design.”

Another digital technology type is one that James Francis, CEO of Chicago, Illinois-based Screencastify, says is asynchronous in nature. The company’s Screencastify software is a free Chrome-based extension screen recorder that is currently used by north of 12-million people.

“Screecastify is meant for asynchronous learning,” said Francis. “There’s been a lot of attention and stories written around synchronous learning really taking over during COVID-19, during school closures — things like Zoom and Webex….Asynchronous learning…is a really interesting alternative particularly in these really wild times when no one is able to interact with each other.

With Screecastify, you can create, edit and share very simple videos, very simple screen or webcam videos.”

The Bigger Picture

Gankar from Global Market Insights notes that the nature of the competitive education space and the increase in the number of students signing up for online learning programs mean that institutions of higher learning must be proactive in adopting digital technologies.

“The education sector is highly competitive and evolving at a rapid pace with more learners opting for online courses,” she said. “Schools and businesses need to adopt emerging technologies to attract learners and remain competitive in the market. Also, the current COVID-19 crisis has forced a large number of schools and businesses to shut down.”

And this has created a large demand for more robust and flexible education and training systems.