In a world awash with uncertainty, online learners have chosen to focus on what they can control: themselves. We know this for two reasons. First – there has been a huge influx of self-motivated learners from around the globe registering for courses on educational platforms like Udemy, Coursera, EdX, Domestika, ThaiMOOC and more. Second – there has been a shift in the most popular topics during this period. Pre-pandemic, the most popular subjects were all career-focused; now the top 10 reflects a spike in “soft skills and general interest” topics. Beyond the obvious surplus of time and limited home orbits around the world, the question is – why the shift? 

The halo effect of a broadened global audience

A shift in the focus of popular topics can’t be viewed in isolation. Massive open online courses have reached more people around the world for lots of different reasons. In China, MOOCs were an essential part of pandemic infrastructure; top universities turned to them to support their pivot to online learning during the pandemic. As such, online course providers like XuetangX and Chaoxing Erya started to provide free credit-eligible courses for universities as well as general free courses to the public. Inevitably their sign-ups sky-rocketed. 

The same is true of other providers around the world: ThaiMOOC received 200,000 new registrations and Coursera is rumoured to be going public later this year. The reasons for providing free courses were never clearer. Some were practical – aiding continued learning in the face of campus closures. Others were benevolent and PR-worthy – Coursera providing free access to its course catalogue. Some were simply timely – captive audiences looking for worthwhile ways to spend their time. 

But if we’re looking for reasons for the broadening of popular topics over the last year, then one is the halo effect of MOOCs’ shifting position in societies. They went from ‘nice-to-haves’ to essential infrastructure in some countries, useful substitutes in others and a constructive way to spend time gained in most. The global nature of the pandemic attracted learners from around the world for all of these reasons. As Class Central has highlighted, the top three cities by interest in popular topics were Bangkok, Lagos and Mumbai. The takeaway: the great number of learners, the greater the chance of a wider pool of interests.

Image course: Class Central

The attention economy 

Never say never (see: global pandemic sweeps world) but some things never change. Information, the speed at which it’s produced, disseminated and sometimes twisted is happening faster than ever. Despite that, there are still the same number of hours in a day and we still have the same limited capacity for attention. We’re all familiar with the tricks of digital real estate to get us to pay with a bit of this attention – clickbaity headlines, sensational images, promises of a brighter future. And the world of online learning is not immune. 

The most popular course during the pandemic was Yale’s ‘The Science of Wellbeing.’ And take a look at Udemy’s personal development section and you’ll find titles like ‘Life mastery: happiness, health and success’; ‘Neuroplasticity: how to rewire your brain’ or ‘Become a superlearner.’ It’s a yes from me. It’s possible that these titles appeal to eLearners because we’re in the habit of relying on sensationalism in mass and social media to win a portion of our limited attention. Especially during trying times such as these. 

However, it’s all too easy to lambast educational marketing tactics aimed at making online education more accessible. In the case of the current climate, it’s more likely that such titles resonate with a wider need for hope, positivity and an opportunity for agency where there generally feels like there is very little. The uptake in such courses would agree. 

Rising unemployment

Unemployment rates in the UK are at 4.8%, according to the Office for National Statistics and are expected to rise when furlough ends. In the US, it’s at 6.5% according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. Online learning platforms present an opportunity for unemployed people to re-skill and re-enter the workforce via program’s like Coursera’s Workforce Recovery Initiative. While this can’t be regarded as self-improvement, since the courses are geared towards teaching students the skills for their future jobs as opposed to general interest topics, there are soft skills associated with the process — interview techniques, time-management and confidence-building, for example. 

The Coursera Initiative is representative of another trend that is likely to emerge from the focus on self-improvement. That is — how companies, governments and communities can use their resources to facilitate a return to a fuller existence. That might start with teaching people about how to care for themselves and safeguard their futures with new skills, and end with people applying those skills to overcome issues collectively in future.