Outside the Box: There’s no returning to regular schooling as online learning goes mainstream

As I write this, around 30 million U.S. kids are out of school, more than 200 college campuses have closed, and millions of Americans are working from home (with many of them also trying to juggle home-schooling).

It’s a situation that was unthinkable just a few weeks ago, before the coronavirus morphed into the biggest health and economic shock to our system in memory.

The near grounding of the whole country is tough and uncomfortable right now, but the education sector may look back on this as a paradigm-shifting moment for moving learning environments to completely online.

The hope is life will return to normal, but not before educators, students and workers are exposed to a prolonged period of using online education tools and technology.

Foot in the door

When in-person education resumes, online learning tools and methods will be far more entrenched, becoming an essential and highly valued part of schools’ offerings rather than a nice-to-have capability.

As a glimmer of hope, educators and learners are likely to find that the online experience is vastly superior to what it was just a couple of years ago thanks to advances in the provider ecosystem, cloud-based technology and improvements in broadband speed.

As the CEO of college e-learning provider 2U Inc. was reported as saying, schools will be more inclined post-coronavirus to opt for “blended” educational methods that more prominently mix physical classes with online learning.

What impact such blending will have on higher education is unknown, but online education programs can be a third or more cheaper than traditional in-person education. Already, institutions forced to move online have offered room and board refunds and face pressure to give back some tuition dollars.

No other option

Until now, many colleges and schools tended to pay lip service to embracing online learning but had been reluctant to commit many resources to it. Even as students have demanded more options, there’s been a feeling among education leaders that it might result in a substandard student experience or cheapen the brand of the institution.

Suddenly, the same colleges and universities have no choice. There’s a very real possibility school campuses could be shut for the rest of the academic year. Those that haven’t already put in place robust online learning options are scrambling to do so.

Fortunately, there’s a rich ecosystem of providers out there ready to meet the online program demand. The education technology market is expected reach $325 billion in five years and major players like Blackboard, Renaissance Learning, Canvas, Moodle, Education Galaxy, Illuminate, Edmentum and Edgenuity are providing platforms that allow administrators, teachers, parents and students to interact and manage everything from curriculum, grading and assessments to course selection.

Turnkey services

Online program management (OPM) companies, such as Academic Partnerships, Bisk Education and Keypath, already offer colleges and universities turnkey solutions and are there to assist institutions that don’t have the internal resources to develop and run online programs.

Expect the adoption of these providers to explode in the coming weeks and remain on a strong trajectory even after everyone goes back to school. Their adoption is likely to prove sticky as institutions realize that online learning is often more efficient from a financial perspective.

Traditional colleges looking to innovate and attract a broader range of students have increasingly been turning to online program management to offer more flexible and affordable online degrees in recent years.

In addition, demand for online services for the K-12 sector seems likely to be boosted by emergency government support in response to the crisis. A new wave of coronavirus aid being considered by Congress reportedly includes $3 billion in mandatory grant programs and flexible funding for early childhood education and K-12 schools. School districts normally have a slow purchasing process but now they will have to move fast and decisively.

From an investor perspective, while it’s hard to see past the current market storm, this could well be the year that transforms ed-tech from a niche industry into something that’s part of the mainstream.

Pension funds and sovereign wealth funds that have allocated money to the sector may step up their interest and be joined by a broader range of funds. All the froth in the sector has already been blown out of valuations, making for some potentially attractive M&A targets when the smoke clears.

Alex Hicks is a director and co-head of MHT Partners’ Education practice, where he focuses on technology, curriculum and tech-enabled services.