The coronavirus pandemic has sparked global changes in the economy and in the lives of millions of people. Some sectors have been unable to function during lockdown, and so have been hit hard; others have seen demand skyrocket. Online education falls in the latter camp.  

According to web analytics service SimilarWeb, traffic to the top 100 most popular websites in the Education category increased by 53.5% in April 2020. These websites include resources intended for various purposes and user categories: 

  • Learning Management Systems (LMS) for creating and administering study programmes 
  • International and national websites for teacher-student interactions in primary, secondary and tertiary education
  • Course aggregators 
  • Services for hosting lectures and facilitating group work 
  • Resources for exam preparation and homework help
  • Online libraries, etc. 

COVID-19's Impact on Global Education Statistics by UNESCO

The factor that has influenced these figures the most is schools’ and universities’ move to remote learning: more than 1.5 billion students across the world are no longer able to attend educational institutions in person because of the lockdown. For instance, Yaklass.ru (Russia) and Edunet.net (South Korea), both educational platforms for students and teachers, have seen a more than fourfold increase in traffic in a single month (with 62 and 29.2 million visits respectively). But while the school system may have been forced to adapt to lockdown, the growth in the popularity of e-courses is purely the result of people’s desire to gain new knowledge and skills online. 

Top e-courses sites (Udemy, KhanAcademy, Coursera, EdX and Udacity) usage metrics during COVID pandemia

Traffic to the 5 largest online course platforms from February to April 2020.


Challenges Faced by Developers of Online Learning Products

From a technical point of view, skyrocketing demand for e-learning services can cause real difficulties for their users and owners — and  first among these is highload. An abrupt increase in traffic puts a strain on a website or app, and this can lead to a slow or incorrect work. The nature of e-learning makes improving a website or app’s performance more difficult than it might be. 

Educational resources generally contain a lot of “heavy” content: images, video, audio. Optimising storage and delivery of this content involves a whole series of tasks intended to lighten the load on the server and increase the speed of the site or app. Educational platforms often also allow the creation of user-generated content, such as homework, tests, essays, and other ways for students to receive feedback. It’s important that this information is saved quickly and accurately (and caching is often not an option for this type of data). 

As well as the nature of the content, developers need to take into account the accessibility of the system from various devices and with a slow Internet connection. Here, attention should be paid to metrics which show how fast a website or its element responds to user actions: page load time, TTFB (time to first byte), TTI (time to interactive), etc. Below is a table comparing the page load speeds of three major online course providers, compiled using the GTmetrix service. 

  http://udemi.com/ http://khanacademy.org/ http://coursera.org/
Unthrottled connection 3G Unthrottled connection 3G Unthrottled connection 3G
TTFB
Unthrottled connection
244ms
3G
2.4s
Unthrottled connection
326ms
3G
2.4s
Unthrottled connection
1.1s
3G
2.4s
DOM interactive
Unthrottled connection
0.5s
3G
2.8s
Unthrottled connection
0.9s
3G
2.7s
Unthrottled connection
1.9s
3G
4.9s
Onload
Unthrottled connection
2.5s
3G
12.9s 
Unthrottled connection
3.0s 
3G
18.1s 
Unthrottled connection
3.2s 
3G
15.6s 

More than 50% of visits to top education websites are made from mobile devices, but even market leaders’ speeds drop when visitors are using 3G mobile Internet. (Table gives indicative speeds achieved in London.) 


Aside from online education platforms’ stability and accessibility, another important element to consider is the establishment of standards for security in online education. There are various issues here: 

  • storing the personal data of users of study programmes in line with national and international legislation (GDPR, Data Protection Bill, etc.)
  • protecting against unlicensed access to and copying of educational materials, copyright protection for course creators
  • protecting children and teenagers from information which could be traumatising
  • providing different user groups (students, teachers, parents, school management and governing bodies) with different levels of access to information
  • protecting against fraud and malware

It’s not just educational platforms’ developers and administrators who determine the security of educational technology — the Internet literacy of the platforms’ users also plays a part. For instance, we have seen cases of so-called “Zoom-bombing”, where strangers have crashed virtual classes held on Zoom (the video conferencing service currently being used worldwide to hold online lectures) and showed inappropriate videos or images. Correctly adjusted video conferencing privacy settings should protect against this kind of antisocial behaviour. However, it’s not hard to imagine how difficult it must be for a teacher with limited Internet experience to take these details into account and maintain control of a whole complex of methods for communicating with students: video calls, file exchange, tests, electronic notification of results, and so on. 

These aspects of the evolution of e-learning services will maintain their relevance even once life gets back to normal. Despite the technical and organisational difficulties which the educational system has faced during its abrupt transition to remote learning, this enforced global experiment in online learning has proved the immense potential of, and demand for, this medium. The World Economic Forum believes that the pandemic is sparking a global revolution in education

Lockdown hasn’t just unlocked the potential of the Internet for people who would not previously have considered online education; it might also enable the conventional education system to offer more opportunities to those who would struggle to attend regular schools and universities. The demand for distance learning will now be greater than ever before, and that means that online education will attract ever more people of various ages, with various technical setups and physical capabilities. The job of developers is to make educational platforms convenient, accessible and safe for as many users as possible.