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May 24, 2017

The rise of online learning – the cure to the UK’s digital skills gap?

Tom Willerer, Chief Product Officer at Coursera, charts the rise of online learning for this latest instalment of CBR's Tech Express.

By Ellie Burns

EB: What is online learning?

TW: When people take our courses for the first time, they’re often quite surprised by the quality of the learning experience. Online learning has become much more than just boring videos of classroom lectures posted on the internet. These days, online courses are chunked into short videos (<10 minutes) with interactive practice quizzes, substantive assessments, applied projects (like creating a YouTube video for a public speaking course), and opportunities to interact with and learn from peers.

Online learning is all about providing maximum flexibility. You can take entire university-level courses on the Coursera mobile app. If you’re in a bandwidth constrained environment, you can download the lectures and assignments, and then seamlessly upload them for a grade when bandwidth returns.
We’re also moving towards making online learning extremely personalised by better understanding a learner’s career goals and then providing them, often algorithmically, with a series of courses that help them meet their goals.


EB: Is the UK a slow adopter compared to the US?

TW: The UK actually pioneered distance learning. The University of London started offering correspondence courses to people all over the world starting 150 years ago. Today, the UK is one of Coursera’s largest markets, and it’s growing. As more industries require constant upskilling, online learning is gaining traction as a reasonable way to learn new skills for their careers without needing to drop out of the workforce in order to go back to school. Many UK universities are continuing to lead the way in. Coursera offers over 80 online courses from top schools in the UK including University of Edinburgh, University of London, and University of Manchester.

online learning

EB: How can this help plug the digital skills gap epidemic?

TW: Even though the UK is a leader in distance learning, the workforce’s preconceptions about when and how learning can take place are still rooted in traditional frameworks. Schooling ends at 22 years old and making a major career change requires going back to school full-time for a master’s degree. Well for many adults, not working is not an option, and the tuition costs can be steep. That’s where online learning can play a significant role in closing the UK’s skills gap. Online learning is an effective way to provide people with flexible and affordable access to first-class university instruction in career relevant topics that will ultimately help learners find that first job, get out of a dead-end job or accelerate in their current career. Name any skill, regardless of whether it is a hard skill (e.g. python programming) or soft skill (e.g.communication), and you can learn that online today.


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EB: Is online learning the key to future-proofing the UK’s tech economic infrastructure?CBR-tech-express-1024x319

TW: Online learning is certainly a big part of the solution. But in order for this to have a major impact, UK employers and the government need to recognize that they also must adapt and find ways to support more on-going skill development in the workforce. Last year, we started working with employers and governments to help them find ways to scale high quality training in a way that is also affordable. We’re seeing huge demand for this internationally from companies including L’Oreal, Boston Consulting Group, KLM, and PayPal and governments including the United States, Singapore, and Pakistan. We expect to start doing more of this kind of work in the UK as well.


EB: What would be your advice to those wanting to move into a tech-specific career?

TW: Be curious. If you are just starting out, you probably don’t know exactly what it is you want to do – and that’s okay! Keep an open mind – not every tech job requires technical skills. Network – try and talk to as many people as you can. There are a lot of different positions within tech companies that are really interesting, some of which you many not even know about when you start your career. I didn’t even know the role of “product manager” existed when I met the VP of product management at Netflix, but because I was inquisitive and open-minded about everything, it didn’t take me long to realise that product management was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

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