The Boom of Online Courses
The coronavirus is keeping Mexican dancer Alejandra Salas off the stage. She is healthy, but due to the quarantine, she has been unable to work on any professional project. However, the setback has also allowed her to focus on the skills she has been developing for almost all of her 26 years:
“What I can do right now is sharpen my tools for when the pandemic ends, and being a dancer, those tools are my body and my muscles,” she says. “That's why I’m taking dance classes every day from my living room.”
Salas says that as the doors closed across Mexico City, the art world was opening up online. There were free course offerings from famous academies and top dancers based in New York and Berlin. Suddenly, from her apartment, she found herself taking lessons from the storied Martha Graham Dance Company, and exploring new genres, from hip-hop to Bollywood.
“What I’m doing is preparing myself with all the opportunities that are out there during the quarantine. That’s what we can all do – so that when this is over, we come out like greyhounds in a race, prepared and darting towards new goals,” she says.
Daniela Álvarez, a young Mexican illustrator, says her workplace may not survive the forced closure. To get her mind off of that prospect, and for a break from the bleak headlines, she resolved to sign up for an online class. It was on the FutureLearn platform that she found “Criminology of Art,” which gave her the opportunity to learn more about the things she loves, as well as a new skill – how to protect artwork from smuggling.
“It adds structure to my day. I’m learning and exploring my interests, and perhaps in the future, I can apply everything I am studying,” Álvarez says.
Throughout the world, a generation that is just beginning its working life is confronted with an unprecedented economic context. Adam Tooze, a noted historian who studied the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, recently described the present day as “a period of radical uncertainty, an order of magnitude greater than anything we’re used to.”
For many in Latin America and the Caribbean, this conjuncture also deepens the economic and social effects of existing digital gaps. According to data from the Inter-American Development Bank's (IDB) Information Center for the Improvement of Learning, there was an average of one computer for every 14 secondary-school students in the region last year. Moreover, urban areas are far more likely to have internet connectivity, both for school and private use, than rural areas. Today, the students and adults without computers or internet access are also missing opportunities for skill-building in the time of the quarantine – let alone the option of perhaps working from home.
Efforts to help close the digital gap in the region began long before the coronavirus crisis. DigiLAC, created by the IDB in 2014, is a virtual platform that seeks to deepen broadband penetration in the region. Internet for Everyone, a company co-founded by IDB Invest, enables telecommunications operators to use existing infrastructure to expand coverage into rural areas. While much work remains, initiatives such as these have expanded the pool of individuals who can access online courses.
The range of opportunities across the internet, and the number of people hungry to take advantage of them, has expanded quickly during the pandemic. LinkedIn Learning, run by the eponymous professional networking site, boasts 17 million users. In one week of April alone, the platform launched 27 courses related to teleworking and key digital tools.
Leading online learning platform edX is home to more than 20 million students, and the number has grown during the current crisis. “We have seen an increase in users searching for the opportunity to learn something new, in subjects such as data science, business and computing, but also eager to learn a new language or skill,” its communications team said in an email.
César Núñez, a professor at the Technological University of Honduras, recently enrolled in Risk Management in Development Projects, an edX course offered by IDBx, the Bank’s collection of massive open online courses (MOOCs). He is also a father of two children who are currently home from school.
“The education centers were not prepared [for the pandemic] in terms of technology,” Núñez says, but “Online courses are something wonderful for people to achieve their goals, so that in these times of restrictions, they can retake [classes] and work on gaps in knowledge.”
“Online education is here to stay, and it will break paradigms,” the professor-turned-student predicts.
IDBx currently offers more than 135 free courses in four languages. It registered its millionth user in December 2018. This March, however, is the month with the most registrations since it began its collaboration with edX in 2014.
“There has been an explosion of users,” says Nicolás Jaramillo, who works on strategy and operations for IDBx. “There are people willing to take advantage of this time to develop their capacities, to be more productive, to be better – and leave this moment strengthened and ready to face new professional challenges. And for that, you don't need to go anywhere; here, you have it at home, and you have it for free.”