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A Leader in Online Learning Predicts the Future of Education

child studying in isolation

The president of Pearson's UK and Global Online Learning talks micro-degrees, emotionally intelligent interactions, and more.

From school classes to corporate coursework to adult continued education, online learning platforms notably took off when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. As brands like Khan Academy, Masterclass, and Skillshare reported notable changes in customer behavior overnight, places of education and employment mustered the swiftest pivots they could. But like so many surges that seem to be directly related to COVID-19, the momentum in online learning has been building for quite some time. 

In the fall of 2018, nearly seven million students at the post-secondary level in the U.S. alone were enrolled in distance-learning courses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The year before, 77% of U.S. companies used online learning to further their employees skill sets. And the global market for e-learning is projected to hit $325 billion by 2025 compared to $107 billion in 2015. 

If anything, the pandemic has forced the world to take distance learning seriously. Online learning institutions like Coursera and edX saw global interest spike after the COVID-19 outbreak: Coursera added 18 million registered users while edX, a joint platform from Harvard and MIT, saw 5 million new users just in April. 

They’re not alone in accelerating the e-learning space. Pearson, a leader in the education space historically known for publishing textbooks, shifted its business to provide digital coursework to grade schools, high schools and universities in 70 countries. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Pearson saw an opportunity to take charge in the space by offering initially free online coursework in its markets. It also introduced UK Learns, a platform featuring coursework to help working adults obtain new skills, quickly attracting hundreds of thousands of people, according to Rod Bristow, president, Pearson UK & Global Online Learning. This new program joins the already-active Connections Academy, Pearson’s virtual learning schools for K-12 students. And in September, the company launched Pearson Pathways, a digital learning platform with coursework focusing on graduate-level business education before expanding with other grad-level verticals and undergraduate learning. 

According to a 2020 Pearson consumer survey conducted in seven countries, around 80% of respondents believe the pandemic has changed education forever. Whether that’s in physical classrooms, online academic learning, or adults utilizing e-learning to advance their careers, Pearson and other companies and platforms will continue to lead the charge. 

How Pearson gets ahead working with Salesforce 

To assist with its agenda, Pearson uses the full Salesforce Platform, including Sales Cloud, Marketing Cloud, and Service Cloud, to digitally connect and communicate with students  and faculty from initial interest through post enrollment support. These products help Pearson increase productivity for its own employees and agents while improving customer experience. For example, deployment of an integrated support community and interactive chat bots have enabled students to resolve questions and issues faster through self-service while improving key metrics like average handle time and first call (contact) resolution. These insights are then shared internally through reports and dashboards with product management to drive improvements to avoid the interaction in the first place.

Here, Bristow offers insight into the future of learning in its various forms.  

Online provides high-quality affordable learning

“There’s a big opportunity for quality at scale,” Bristow said. “This is providing a very high-quality experience linked into employability outcomes, but to be prepared to provide that on a greater scale and through that scale, is to also be able to offer something that is affordable. 

That’s not to say that online equals low cost. If you’re going to invest in quality, it’s like anything in life. You still need very high-quality resources and need the learning experience to be high quality. The more we can scale great teachers, the more affordable it becomes. I think we will see that happen and it’s certainly one of the roles we want to play — to help universities and schools develop quality and scale.”

Online learning boosts diversity and inclusion

“If you walk into a respectable university, you’d likely find a bunch of kids from a certain socio-economic background,” said Bristow. “This isn’t always a diverse group.” With online learning, you get tremendous diversity. This is a powerful way to improve inclusion in learning. Bristow adds that introverts tend to love online learning. “They’re more confident in raising their hand,” he said.

Digital skills needed for career growth

Bristow emphasizes the increased demand for courses that teach digital skills such as cloud computing, user experience (UX) design, and blockchain technology. Because the demand is skyrocketing, he says online learning’s innate scalability will enable it to meet this demand more efficiently than in-person classes. And again, he’s using the Pearson platform to scale the “very best teacher” to as many learners as possible. “If you’re relying on a physical institution, maybe that physical school or college wouldn’t always have the very latest expertise,” he added. 

Human interaction will remain relevant in the digital space

Bristow speaks to an employer survey Pearson conducted that revealed many believe human skills will become more important as the jobs of the future evolve. “The way human skills are exercised in a digital environment will also be different,” he explains. “The way we work together, where we collaborate, the role of social media, the way we influence others, the way you lead in a more digital environment” will all have to incorporate “softer” human interaction in order to be successful in a digital environment. 

Will we see a rise in micro-degrees for corporate learners?

“We’re seeing that learners increasingly want to take more control of their curriculum,” Bristow said. He adds customers these days have a much clearer vision of the career outcomes they desire. “They’re more inclined to make choices as consumers about what it is that’s going to help them to achieve that.” Bristow says this trend predates COVID-19 and he also sees more demand for shorter classes that enable a specific career objective or outcome.

At the same time, customers want classes that come with some accreditation. If those credits can stack up to a qualification or degree, whether undergraduate or a graduate, all the better. 

Bristow believes these shorter courses — micro- or nano-degrees — will weigh heavily in the future. The company has created a portfolio of programs called Pearson Pathways that will add up to more impactful career outcomes for consumers. 

Making home school more efficient

“Kids are pretty much on their own at home with their parents and this is very difficult for parents,” said Bristow. He adds that children need extra structure to their learning because they are less self directed than an adult learner. The more structured and interactive a children’s program children can be, the more effective the education, taking pressure off parents.

To learn more about how Salesforce can help your company, explore Customer 360

Ari Bendersky Contributing Editor

Ari Bendersky is a Chicago-based lifestyle journalist who has contributed to a number of leading publications including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal magazine, Men's Journal, and many more. He has written for brands as wide-ranging as Ace Hardware to Grassroots Cannabis and is a lead contributor to the Salesforce 360 Blog. He is also the co-host of the Overserved podcast, featuring long-form conversations with food and beverage personalities.

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