At the time of writing this article, we are now roughly halfway through the calendar year for 2021.

2021 has been an interesting year, not only in regards to education but on a global scale and across all industries and sectors.

If you’re a student or educator, this is something you probably know firsthand. 2021 has been spiked with new developments in online education and e-Learning, many of which were well on their way to existence prior to Christmas 2019.

And with the onslaught of COVID-19, a devastating pandemic that is unlike anything the modern world has ever seen, everybody’s lives have changed dramatically. Those changes have spilled beyond the healthcare sector and affected every aspect of our lives, including the economy and of course, education.

The changes have happened rapidly – so quickly, in fact, that many people have struggled to keep up. All learning was forced online as everybody was required to self-isolate at home, so the traditional classroom model and its associated challenges and benefits more or less went out the window.

That’s not a totally bad thing, though. As we move further into 2021, there are several trends worth examining – many of which are for the better, and a majority of which have been pushed into existence by the inertia of recent events alone.


The Rise of e-Learning – at All Levels

Prior to COVID-19, many faculty members were unfamiliar with online teaching practices, even though online education has been growing rapidly in its popularity over the last few years. Even worse, many instructors worry that their jobs will be threatened by the new style of online teaching.

However, for many instructors, there was no choice in the matter. Moving courses online wasn’t a matter of preference, but of necessity.

Naturally, instructors who have more computer savvy will adapt to this challenge better than most. While the allure of a traditional classroom is something that will be greatly missed by lots of students – and will likely not go fully by the wayside once the pandemic passes – sitting in front of a computer screen is now the new standard of learning.

Online Learning


To rise to the challenge, universities have adapted quickly, going to great heights to embrace this style of education. Educators who already had experience with online teaching and instructional tools were incredibly proactive when it came to helping colleagues adapt and adjust their courses.

Naturally, everybody has concerns about how well students are meeting their intended learning objectives – but as more universities and instructors learn how to overcome the technical barriers that existed at first, certain teaching models (and teachers) are being changed for the better.

Here are some of the most prevalent trends in online education in 2020.


You Can Now Learn From World-Class Experts

Taking an online class in the past often meant that you were getting a “less-than” education. Online educators weren’t always as qualified as those teaching on-campus. After all, if you’re a world-class expert in your field, you’re probably already pretty busy. You don’t have time to teach students all around the world.

That is no longer the case.

In 2020 and beyond, expect to see more online classes taught by the same highly trained, highly credentialed instructors who also teach (or taught, prior to the pandemic) on campus. Now, world-class experts can broadcast their courses to an insane amount of students all via online education.


Learning is Optimized

In the past, online learning was practically scripted in how standardized it was. 2020 has shown us, in vivid color, that we need to optimize learning to suit every student. Each educator’s approach needs to be scaled to meet the needs of each individual student.

This is true in a traditional classroom, too, of course. Teachers are constantly striving to meet the highly individualized needs of each of their students. It’s often easier to do in a traditional face-to-face setting, though, where personal relationships are somewhat easier to form.

The recent 2020 trends in education have proven to us, though, that online education can be highly polarized and optimized – in some cases, even better than what occurs on-campus. There are countless online learning platforms out there that are highly responsive and optimized so that they adjust themselves as students move through the curriculum – and not the other way around.


Video-Based Learning

In online education’s first inception, training programs consisted primarily of “read this lecture, take a test, repeat.”

Today, online education looks a lot different. Much of that is due to the Internet’s increased capacity to handle more and greater volumes of information and files all at once.

Videos were once used cautiously. They took up a lot of bandwidth, weren’t accessible on all devices, and were incredibly expensive.

As our technology catches up with new programs and devices available to handle videos and related software (and those technologies become cheaper and more accessible for all students), those barriers are melting away.

Today, there are lots of applications of videos in learning. It’s enabled educational teams to incorporate interactive videos, live videos, and even 360-degree immersive videos in their curriculum. There are plenty of tools on the market like Panopto, Vyond, and Exaltive that can help you create advanced video solutions for any online classroom, too.


The Right Content is Offered in the Right Format

Text-based lessons work well for some students and concepts, but for others, video is much better. Live instruction may work well for some content, but for other kinds of content, it’s inefficient.

Students learn best when information is offered in a way that makes sense for that content. If you’re teaching a cooking class, your students will benefit most from live instruction – but that might not be the case for an English class.

Online education in 2020 looks a lot different than it did in 2010 – when most online education followed a standardized template. The right content is now offered in the right format, both for the individual learner and for the type of course material.


Artificial Intelligence

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that artificial intelligence is making quite a lot of noise in the online education scene. After all, artificial intelligence, or AI, is now being used in practically every industry – the education industry is no exception.

AI and Education


AI holds a lot of promise in 2020 and beyond.

In education, AI has the ability to solve many of the problems presented by online learning. The traditional system of teaching is that in which the teacher is the source of knowledge and the student is the recipient. However, this results in a lot of minutiae for both parties involved.

Advances in artificial intelligence have allowed instructors to forego repetitive, time-wasting tasks like monitoring student progress and grading assignments so that they can spend more time actually teaching. Services like Proctorio and automated assignment grading technologies have made this possible, both of which are steered and powered by artificial intelligence technologies.

AI-enabled learning management systems can also help instructors provide targeted, effective content that fits with each students’ preferred learning style. Teaching is no longer about delivering one-size-fits-all instruction.

Instead, AI-enabled learning management systems (frequently abbreviated to LMS) can send out surveys to help categorize students into various learning “buckets” like text-based, auditory-based, and visual-based, so they can learn in the ways that make the most sense for them. 

AI can even help when it comes to the language barriers faced by international students. New research in machine learning and text translation has driven the creation of deep-learning systems that automatically translate lectures delivered in English to the native tongue of the student.

Similarly, other technologies in text summarization and voice recognition, can transcribe entire lectures with accuracy and reduce large paragraphs of text into just the major bullet points that students need to know for success.

Other AI technologies like analytics, natural language processing, chatbots, and machine learning are rapidly coming onto the scene when it comes to online education. These technologies are working independently of each other and also intersecting to handle and resolve some of the biggest challenges in online learning.


You Can Challenge Yourself and Work at Your Own Pace

With online learning in 2020, you can truly work at your own pace. You don’t have to sit through material you already know but instead, you can engage in truly deep level learning. This is something that’s tough to accomplish in a classroom setting. One assignment might take one person four hours to finish, but it will take another just half an hour.

New online learning platforms in 2020 make it possible for you to move at your own pace, regardless of whether that’s in regards to memorizing facts, preparing for a test, or completing assignments. You can move forward in the way that makes the most sense for you.

You can also get caught up more quickly. When you’re learning new skills, it’s easy to fall off track, especially when a class moves too quickly for you.

Online education platforms of 2020 are constantly coming up with new ways that students can get back on track, with helpful tools like email support, moderated forums, and chat rooms. When you slip up, there are ways to help you get back on track without falling too far behind.


Personalized Attention is More Available Than Ever

Learning online no longer means having to learn alone. One of the quickest and most effective ways to learn a new skill is to work with an expert in the field you are trying to master. Online platforms make it possible for you to connect with peers and industry experts, with one-on-one mentorship and guidance available via video chats and other technologies.

In 2020, the popularity of online communication tools and communities have also grown. Chat tools like Slack offer real-time communication channels so you can surround yourself with like-minded individuals who are also attempting to learn the same material you are.


Opportunities for Lifelong Learning

In the past, getting a degree was seen as a “do x to get to y” kind of situation. You earned a degree solely to advance your professional standing, and once you got to a certain job title, you stopped taking classes.

Lifelong Learning


That’s no longer the case. Degrees and courses are no longer short-term pathways but are instead used to help you learn things that will help you make sense of the world around you. Online education is great for short, focused programs that are driven by specific career goals – but they are also becoming increasingly well-suited to lifelong learning opportunities, too.


Rich Learning Analytics

Educators and administrators alike are on a constant quest to access data, organize data, analyze data, and make sense of data – and to use that data to drive intelligent decisions.

Rich learning analytics can help.

This technology-based solution will help organizations capture more data about learning activities through programs like xAPI. Each minute, educators can now track learner activities and outcomes. Once the data is tracked and captured, it can be presented in multiple ways to gain numerous types of insights.

You’ll be able to aggregate information, like which questions your students are answering incorrectly and which learning modules students are spending the most time on, to help figure out whether they are grasping the material effectively. Teachers can also use rich learning analytics to measure performance and even to gauge student interest in various topics.


Low Entry Barriers

Anybody can take a class online – often, you don’t even need to pay for online courses, as there are plenty of organizations and eLearning platforms out there that offer free or reduced-cost tuition. You don’t even need to be a university to offer online courses.

There are minimal entry barriers for online learning, and as the recent events of 2020 have shown us, the few entry barriers that do exist need to be eliminated. As more courses are pushed online, there is also more competition among training partners and universities to create accessible, affordable training for all students.

Therefore, 2020 will likely continue to see a trend toward increased user-friendliness and low-cost classes as a result.



Microlearning is bite-sized learning, in whichever way you choose to deliver it. It’s here to stay in 2020.

This 2020 online education trend is driven in part by the shift in our society. We are now a population that is driven not minute-by-minute, but second-by-second. As television advertisers will tell you, our attention spans are growing increasingly shorter – and to capture someone’s attention, you only have a few seconds.

While industries like advertising and marketing have seen these shifts the most dramatically, they have transferred over to the education space, too. The trend for everything being short, concise, and at the exact moment it is needed is a trend that is becoming all too pervasive.

Both Gen Z and Millennials alike are the prime targets of online education (although online education is now sought after by almost every demographic in the world today) and they have a short attention span. That’s not a personal failing – they just don’t have the time to sit through long courses.

I’ve also shifted primarily to a gig economy. In a gig economy, there is a high turnover rate. Employees need to be trained quickly, often while they’re already on the job. There isn’t any time for long training sessions – the material needs to be delivered as quickly and efficiently as possible.

These trends in microlearning are driving serious changes in how we deliver learning. It needs to be delivered in short bursts and at the exact moment when the learners need it. Many online courses are now chunked into brief, succinct microlearning modules as a result.


Augmented and Virtual Reality

Both augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) were already hailed as one of the best ways to provide immersive learning experiences prior to 2020. However, 2020 is turning the tech world on its head and these two technologies are really rising to the top of the list of 2020 online education trends.

If you’re new to the terms, it’s simple to differentiate between the two. Virtual reality immerses a user in a totally virtual environment, while augmented reality enhances real-world objects by using digitally produced overlays.

To use virtual reality, you will need an additional physical unit, like an Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard. Augmented reality, on the other hand, can be used with smartphones or tablets – devices most students already have at home.

Regardless of the accessibility, both of these solutions are becoming increasingly more affordable – and so more educational institutions are using them to supplement a formal curriculum.


New Learning Experience Platforms

As a student, your experience in education is drastically different from what it was in the past. Old learning management systems are out of date and ineffective – no longer will you cour course catalogs for courses the way you used to. Education systems are no longer admin – or teacher-driven, but instead learner-driven.

Focusing on the learner’s needs, outcomes, and goals is more important than ever, and 2020 has brought with it a variety of new learning experience platforms. In fact, ed-tech firms are now working on programs that will revolutionize the way we look at education.

If you’re a fan of Netflix, you’ll like this trend – there are now interfaces that can provide you with recommendations for courses and learning content based on your past activity, preferences, goals, and profile. Just as Netflix makes suggestions on “what you should watch next,” you’ll receive recommendations on “what you should learn next,” too.

Training is now offered in multiple content formats, including articles, interactive videos, and microlearning segments. You’ll be able to follow the custom learning paths that lead to the most logical outcome for you, personally – not to a basic description in a course catalog of what you should be “expected” to learn.

You’ll also be able to participate in informal features like refreshers notes, reminders, and impromptu quizzes – great for the increasingly scatterbrained student with a million things on his to-do list. Online courses offer seamless experiences across numerous devices and peer-to-peer engagement experiences that mimic those of social media.

Online education is interactive like never before. This isn’t necessarily a new online education trend for 2020, but it’s one that will continue to be at the forefront of innovation as long as online education continues to exist.

Whether it’s through virtual reality, chatbots, microlearning, or interactive videos, everything will revolve around making learning more interactive – and therefore, increasing the ability of students to meet their individual learning goals.


Possibility for Non-Degree Credentials

Earning a degree online – or even just taking one class – is no longer just about getting a degree. Lots of students are enrolling in online classes to boost their skills and earn a credential in a non-degree area.

These specialized training courses are often able to dive into more specialized content that you’ll find highly valuable in your work. These are often free, offered through platforms like Coursera to help students build their skills and relevancies in a particular industry.


The Future of Online Education

If you took your first online class back in 2005, you may not have been thrilled with the experience – and as a result, you might be not-so-willing to do it again.

However, it’s important to realize that online education in 2020 looks a lot different than online education fifteen, ten, or five years ago. It has experienced a dramatic shift even in the last five months.

Online education is rapidly involved and the Internet is massively disrupting the entire education scene. That’s undeniably a good thing.

There are lots of barriers to traditional education that put certain students at a disadvantage. When you are trying to get an education in the traditional sense, the quality of your education is dependent on several limiting factors, including where you live, how much money you have, how smart and well-achieving your peers are, and how much time you have.

Online education shatters many of those barriers. You can get an online education as long as you have an Internet connection and a small amount of money (although there are plenty of free online courses out there, too). Online education is almost always cheaper than traditional education as it eliminates many of the expenses of brick-and-mortar set-ups.

Plus, online education works around your schedule and provides you with access to almost all of the same resources you might receive on campus. True, there’s probably nothing that can replicate the experience of watching a teacher lecture at the front of a classroom – but plenty of research has shown that this isn’t the way that most students learn best, anyway.

Needless to say, online education is here to stay – and it’s changing how people learn. Online education enables students to make a new start or advance their education regardless of where they live, where they work, or even how much they know.

Online education is the future – and as these top education trends of 2020 have shown us, it’s a very bright future indeed.

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Rebekah Pierce

Rebekah Pierce is a writer with a B.A. in English from St. Lawrence University and a Master’s in Special Education from SUNY Plattsburgh. She has worked both as a college admissions counselor as well as a high school English teacher and has also written extensively on topics related to educational technology and the college selection process.

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